The "never say die" torture porn franchise is back, and Judge Bill Gibron really enjoyed the frantic fourth go round.
If the Third Time's the Charm, the Fourth Time's the Harm!
It's interesting, in retrospect, to see where the Saw series has gone since James Wan and his fellow Aussie Leigh Whannel devised this punk rock homage to Alfred Hitchcock and the wonders of '80s horror. The original Saw gave audiences the ultimate twist, while II was nothing more than a puzzle box of gore. By the time III came around, the first facet of the legacy was given a nice bit of closure to end things proper. Characters died, final connections were made. So when Saw IV was announced (a more or less metaphysical certainty since each installment more than makes its budget back), the question for those anxious for more bloodshed was…where could the narrative possibly go from here? The main villain is dead, several of his cohorts on both sides of the law are also pushing up the daisies, and the last installment purposefully tied up as many loose threads as possible. So how does this latest sequel deal with seemingly impossible pitfalls? Why, it takes the ancillary and moves it front and center.
Facts of the Case
As Saw IV: Unrated Director's Cut opens, III has just ended. Jigsaw (Tobin Bell, Boogeyman 2) has died, and during his autopsy, a tape is found in his stomach. It indicates that the games are not over; in fact, they have only just started. We soon meet dedicated cops Rigg (Lyriq Bent, Skinwalkers) and Hoffman (Costas Mandylor, Payback). Investigating the murder of fellow officer Kerry, they recognize that Jigsaw and his accomplice Amanda must have had help with their crimes: he was too sick, and she was too petite and weak. Recognizing that there was yet another involved, and fixated with putting the disciples of the self-proclaimed "scientific terrorist" in jail, Riggs is soon embroiled in the madman's posthumous puzzle. Naturally, it involves a series of very deadly puzzles.
Meanwhile, FBI agents Strahm (Scott Patterson, Gilmore Girls) and Perez (Athena Karkanis) are called in to oversee the disintegrating case. They focus in on Jigsaw's ex-wife, a drug clinic director named Jill (Betsy Russell, Cheerleader Camp), who may or may not have information on the continuing crimes. At the very least, she can definitely shed some light on what made this one time celebrated civil engineer and outgoing philanthropist into an unhinged man obsessed with death.
Saw IV has the hardest job of any film in the seemingly endless franchise. It has to maintain the mythology of the past three movies, while providing a foundation from which the series can grow and prosper. It has to give fans what made the original efforts so memorable—i.e., more puzzles, more gore, and more Jigsaw—while avoiding the concept-killing ideal of "been there, done that." Oh, and there's the fact that our celebrated serial killer died in the last movie. Since the original triptych was a fairly well-contained narrative, beginning and ending in a way that wraps up the main storyline, it is up to longtime director Darren Lynn Bousman and writing newcomers Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan to reinvent the material. Surprisingly enough, they do. For all its intricacies and linkage, for all that creators Leigh Whannel and James Wan did to turn their original idea into a full blown phenomenon, Saw IV had to be more. It had to be faithful and yet capable of taking the concept into a new and—hopefully expansive—territory.
Thankfully, Bousman and the gang succeeded. If the original Saw was the kernel of a potential terror cosmos, Saw IV is now a series of satellites and lesser genre bodies bound together by some of the best bloodletting in modern macabre. Call this the "fill in the blank" portion of the cash grab, a movie made specifically to recognize and address the issues still hanging from the previous installments. While Wan and Whannell did a decent job before, new screenwriters Dunstan and Melton (fresh from the Project Greenlight sleeper Feast) decided to flesh out the ancillary characters and, while going the flashback and prequel route, give returning actor Tobin Bell some intriguing origin scenes. Yes, Saw IV shows us how John Kramer snapped, how he went from loving companion to sadistic swine, and the reasoning is pretty intense. The sequence draws on normal human wants while leading to a decided social death wish.
Other concepts are addressed as well. The iconic, if goofy, demon doll and tricycle are explained, as is the pig mask, the overriding ethos, and Jigsaw's mechanical and monetary abilities. Without giving everything away, it's clear that, at one time, our killer was a wealthy oddball, preoccupied with ethical order and Eastern values. He had great plans for his and his girlfriend's future. But once he suffered his devastating personal loss, he decided to junk his dreams and turn on a population he saw as not appreciating what life has to offer. Thanks to his affluence and his skill with machines, he easily turned to the dark side. All that's left to do is find his victims and play judge, jury, and, above all else, executioner. These moments of Jigsaw backstory are very important. They set up the situations that lead to a furthering of the overall spree.
A second storyline brings back SWAT team leader Rigg (a peripheral person whose appeared in the last two installments) as the latest catalyst in the main cat and mouse, and it's not the most successful conceit. Like most of the movie, hints are dropped as to why this policeman is placed inside these brutal, Rube Goldberg situations, but the connections are uncertain and indistinct this time around. In essence, apparent deviants and dope fiends are presented to the policeman in hopes that he will learn the "real" way of serving and protecting. Like the lesson reserved for Donnie Wahlberg's Eric Matthews in II, it's basically a test of patience and paying attention. Still, without these vile vignettes, we wouldn't have the saga's sensational splatter set pieces. It seems like, just when you thought the Saw gang had explored every possible way of mutilating the human body, the next installment comes along and amps up the atrocities.
There is incredibly disgusting stuff here. Jigsaw's autopsy is a gore drenched exercise in sickening surgery, while the first few games are very grisly. Of particular note are moments when John first begins his automated tortures (it involves a dope fiend, a trick chair, and a spring loaded face gate made up of butcher knives…funky!) and a couple connected by large rods penetrating both their bodies. Of course, things are more graphic this time around—if it's DVD, it's unrated director's cut time. Still, how the MPAA said "yea" to what was originally there is amazing in and of itself. It has to be noted that, unlike previous installments that he's helmed, the filmmaker goes a little goofy here. Every game sequence is handled with shaky camera jerks and oddball editing beats. While it definitely gives this movie a different style, it can hinder some of the suspense.
In fact, this new Saw seems much more interested in being a police procedural whodunit than a standard suspense or splatter effort. The plot definitely wants to add further finishing moves onto what Whannell did last time, and there are more clues and connections than in any part since the first. This will definitely drive some audiences bonkers. The last thing you want from a horror film is a mandatory need for prior knowledge of personnel and context. This is not a sequel that can be enjoyed by people who've never seen a Saw film, and the casual viewer will definitely feel a sense of who/what/where/when/why disconnect. In fact, it's pretty clear that this is a movie made exclusively for the fanatical and the dedicated. And let's not forget the mandatory twist at the end. It's the kind of reveal that takes a moment to sink in, one of those "hold on a minute" instances that ask you to remember what you witnessed before and how it plays into the overall storyline. It's not that the movie is complicated. Instead, it's playing a trick on you, and some people don't like being purposefully played with.
As is the pattern with these releases, Saw IV first arrives on DVD in a relatively extensive, but probably incomplete digital package. Fans can expect a two-disc special super-duper overly hyped edition come nearer the time of Saw V's October due date. As perhaps the darkest, literally, of the films in the franchise, the tech specs really have their work cut out for them. Luckily, Lionsgate is up to the challenge. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image is sensational—atmospheric, brooding, loaded with color and details. For those who saw the film in theaters, this transfer will be a revelation. Elements hidden thanks to bad projection and dimmed light bulbs are now present and accounted for. Similarly, the Saw films love to use sounds as a means of amplifying the dread. Here, the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX audio is excellent. The back speakers make their presence known over and over, while the immersive quality of the mix is dead on. Overall, the aural and visual facets offered are top notch.
The extras—as usual for a first Saw release—leave a little to be desired. There are two audio commentaries offered, and for once, director Bousman's is not the best. For some reason, he decides to jump directly into goofball mode, and his conversation with actor Lyriq Bent is broad and farcical. They tell us very little about the film (Bent is seeing it for the first time!?!?) and more time is spent mocking the rest of the cast than providing any insight. What we do learn is that Bousman purposefully used trick transitions in his editing between scenes, character actions from one segment seamlessly melding into another. Of course, the studio bosses nixed many of them, and he laments their loss. As for the second track, producers Dren Koules and Mark Burg, and Executive Producers Peter Block and John Constantine offer the kind of self-serving, "aren't we great" glad-handing that grows old very quickly. These are men who make their living wheeling and dealing, and instead of explaining in detail the trials and tribulations of keeping the Saw franchise active, they merely celebrate their superiority. Groan.
The rest of the added content is featurettes and minor bonuses. The deleted scene is pointless, adding little to the story. The music video by X Japan is standard metal sludge rock. Mini-docs on the making of the various traps and props feel left over from previous DVD releases (it's become the standard Saw discussion—how we came up with these demented puzzles, and how they work), while the trailers shill for other Lionsgate product. The best bonus here, however, is Bousman's production diary. Offering the kind of information we crave from the format (lots of hands on horror stories and highlights), it's the sole redeeming factor in what is rapidly becoming a borderline boring, by the numbers presentation. At least the packaging is clever. The plastic outer case offers Jigsaw's severed head on an autopsy scale. Behind it, in the see-through box, is a DVD with a huge red saw blade printed on it. It looks very smart.
As with every other installment of this series, there are some handy unanswered questions, issues left open and available for Saw V and Saw VI (both already greenlit, naturally). For example, someone gets puppet shrapnel in their face. They are not dead, though they are never addressed again. During the first game, we see someone who is never properly introduced or explained, and several ancillary individuals are left stuck in their situation, obviously positioned as possibilities for later plots. Still, those smitten with this particularly scary movie monopoly will have mixed feelings about Saw IV. It easily ranks around third of the four movies made (the first Saw and III besting it easily), and at this point in the legend, we clearly know how Jigsaw works, what he hoped for with Amanda, and how his apprentice ended up violating his own rules for her own selfish gains. The bigger issue is, where does it all go from here? It's the standard Saw series quandary. One thing's for sure—the original mythology is officially DOA. Long live the new blood breed.
Not guilty. Considering the franchise footholds it had to overcome, Saw IV manages to offer more of its patented gooey goodness.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Director Darren Lynn Bousman and Actor Lyriq Bent
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