Friday, October 26, 2007

"Saw IV" -- * * 1/2

I'll admit it: I like the "Saw" movies. The first one, while obviously made on a shoestring and crippled by subpar acting and direction, boasts a terribly clever screenplay and has more than enough sequences to make it worth any horror fan's while. The second is less focused on twists and more on a carefully constructed storyline with cringe-worthy moments a plenty (chiefly, the pit of hypodermic needles) and the elimination of the amateurish shaky-cam and quick-cuts that marred the first. The third film is a bit more twist-and-gore reliant, but probably the most entertaining of the trilogy while maintaining the wit and intelligence (yeah, I said it) of "Saw" I and II. On top of everything, even if it's in the crudest, most simplistic ways possible, these movies pose real moral questions and predicaments, as well as deliciously nasty twists. Even with all the shit I get for it, each time I catch one of them on cable, I'm reminded that no matter how much I may want to deny it to myself, I genuinely like these movies.

"Saw IV," like the entries preceding it, is fun, entertaining, gory, and cleverer than the average horror film, but it's also noticeably lacking a few things. For one, the real sense of unsettling menace that "Saw"s I, II and III had. As you may recall, Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) was killed at the end of "Saw III," and as much as the filmmakers try to include him here via flashbacks and tape recordings, we can't help being reminded at every turn that he's dead and any tension his presence incited has seeped out of the room. For another, the clearly thought-out plot turns and revelations have dulled a bit. There's the trademark twists to be sure, but they're not particularly surprising this time around, nor do they make much sense.

Which is not to say "Saw IV" is a complete letdown if you're a fan of the series. There's still fun (and cringes) to be had, and much of what has made the previous three films so popular has been retained here. The death traps are just as creative and grotesque, with as much clever reasoning behind them as maximum gore-potential-- my favorites were a husband and wife nailed to each other with sharp spikes, and two men (one with his eyes removed, the other with his tongue cut out) chained to one another forced to work together to get out of their situation. The enjoyably complicated storylines also continue here, with much narrative threading and haphazard jumping around in time.

Opening in a morgue with Jigsaw's (a.k.a.: John Kramer) grisly autopsy, this "Saw" entry mostly serves to provide further backstory and rationale for his serial killings/tortures-- as if the explanation we'd already been given wasn't enough-- and establish that there was a third person helping Jigsaw and Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith), who's continuing to carry on their legacy. The movie cuts back and forth between Jigsaw's pre-"Saw I" dealings, mostly involving his ex-wife's rehabilitation center, and his unknown collaborator's ongoing tortures. In the process, we learn that this sequel takes place only 6 months after "Saw II," with that film's Detective Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg) still alive and involved in yet another Rube Goldberg-esque trap.

These movies may be guilty pleasures, but at the end of the day, they're still pleasures to some extent. I had some fun with "Saw IV," and I think "Saw" fans will as well. Even so, it's difficult to deny that a substantial amount of air has been let out of the balloon. Feeling overstuffed at just 85 minutes, "Saw IV" represents (at least in my eyes) the first noticeable dip in quality in the series thus far, and might be a wise place to stop. But as long as these movies keep making bank, I think you and I (as well as Lionsgate's bean-counters) know how likely that is.


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