This one is for the increasingly few of you who have steadfastly stuck with the Saw franchise through thick-and-thin in the aughts. The opening weekend numbers for Saw VIare the weakest since the first film, mostly thanks to some stiff competition from breakout hit Paranormal Activity. But box-office returns aren't everything. So: what'd you think?

I wrote this little piece before the release of Saw Vlast year, in the mode of a frustrated fan hoping for a revitalized franchise. It didn't happen; Saw V was boring and incomprehensible, and I was ready to skip the sixth film altogether. Then it got some decent reviews, and I thought what the hell. I'm glad I did. Saw VI, which sees editor Kevin Greutert take over directing duties, is easily the best Saw movie since the third. That may not be the most enthusiastic bit of praise I've ever issued, but miracle of miracles: the fifth sequel to a half-decent horror flick is legitimately pretty good. Here's how I think Saw got some of its bite back:
  • Thriller momentum. For the first time in three years, a Saw movie is exciting, in an old-fashioned what-happens-next sort of way. There are creative traps a-plenty -- some of the most ingenious ones in the series, for those who are into that sort of thing -- but the film doesn't depend on them: it has a semblance of a protagonist, and a story that moves forward, and draws you in, and makes the 90 minutes feel like less. Which is related to my next point, namely:

  • Focus. A couple of main characters. One main villain. One morally ambiguous good guy to be put through Jigsaw's wringer. A linear plot that doesn't try to tie in with previous installments in any sort of clever temporal way. Some twists, of course, but not such an obsession with trickery that we get whiplash and the movie becomes completely incoherent. Sometimes a little simplicity goes a long way.
  • Technical Aptitude. Unlike the last two installments, this one looks good and goes down smooth. The series' trademark rapid-fire editing and ADD camerawork is marginally coherent. And the typical grimy, abandoned-warehouse interiors are suitably insinuating instead of just dull and bland.
  • Surprisingly strident advocacy for the public option. Okay, so the notion of Saw suddenly going topical is a little silly. But Saw VI is astonishingly committed to its kill-the-health-insurers theme -- enough that I suspect that the filmmakers were honestly trying to influence the public discourse on the issue. What surprised me even more is the way the movie turned the political overtones into reasonably effective drama. (Spoilers for the rest of the paragraph.) The genuine attempt at redemption by the shifty, coverage-denying insurance executive is compelling stuff. And I was not prepared for the carousel scene (the film's rightful centerpiece), with the exec's lackey insisting that his former boss look him in the face as he kills him -- unlike when he issued death sentences to his sick customers. Maybe I'm being ridiculous, but I thought that moment packed a real punch, as did the macabre twist a few moments later.
Don't get me wrong, Saw VI is no great shakes. The main problem, aside from the general absurdity, is that it doesn't feel like the series is headed toward any logical endpoint -- which of course it isn't, as the folks at Twisted Pictures hope to release a yearly Saw film every year into the next millenium. But Saw VI is the best we can hope for from this franchise, I think: dark, gruesome, morally tricky fun.