I defended the Saw franchise long past the point where most self-respecting cinephiles and even genre geeks abandoned it. It was only after the moronic, baffling Saw IV that I got off the bandwagon. But as someone who thinks the franchise has (had?) something to offer beyond the admittedly questionable thrills of what smug know-nothings call "torture porn," I'm anticipating this month's annual installment with an ever-so-slight glimmer of hope. The first three films took a gimmicky serial killer concept and expanded it to something big and increasingly baroque, piling on twist after twist that, to me, consistently seemed bold rather than (merely) ludicrous. They were gruesome, yes, but they were also moody and visually exciting; Darren Lynn Bousman, in particular, seemed to take painstaking care in the second and third films to construct a cruel, self-contained universe around the crazy-ass story.
So here, briefly, are three things Saw V -- which sees the franchise's production designer David Hackl take over directing duties from Bousman -- could do to avoid the pitfalls of its immediate predecessor and restore my faith in the series. strong>1. Think it through. No one sane would contend that any of the Saw films have been paragons of plausibility. But the first three made sense in the context of the universe they set up. Of course it's impossible for anyone to plan with Jigsaw's precision, but if you accept his near-omniscience as part of the film's premise, everything else more or less works. Saw IV, on the other hand, is simply impossible -- I don't envy the screenwriters having to deal with the death of the franchise centerpiece at the end of the third film, but the temporal tricks they tried to pull in response just made the movie an incoherent mess. Crazy and out-there is fine -- that's the series' bread and butter -- but you have to think it through, make it work. The standard isn't high, but Saw IV didn't meet it.
2. Respect the style. The franchise isn't just about cracking bones and impalings with sharp metal instruments. It has a distinct, recognizable style, mostly perfected by Bousman in films 2 and 3: it's cold and harsh, but it's also earnest and totally unironic, like some of John Carpenter's films if Carpenter were more fond of flashy edits and camera tricks. The visual fireworks are sometimes overelaborate, but as with the overelaborate stories, that's part of the charm. That slick, extended series of flashbacks at the end of Saw III may not have been strictly necessary, but it was damn cool, even powerful. Sadly, Saw IV exhibited a tendency to retreat to bland, lazy doom-and-gloom in lieu of its predecessors' ambition. I hope David Hackl puts in the effort.
3. Take Jigsaw seriously. The third film was the only one to attempt to do something interesting with the notion that Jigsaw is in the business of presenting his victims with moral dilemmas: he's constantly trying -- even hoping -- to find people who are up to his standards, but they always fail him. It's goofy, since he's a brutal murderer, but that too is part of the charm. Explore this. What kind of person would actually pass one of his tests? What happens if you do?
Thoughts? Is there hope?