The Story So Far...
The 'Saw' series exists. I decided to sit down and watch them all in a row and write about them for your reading pleasure. I chose to track certain elements of the series, namely the kills, the traps and the series' bizarre continuity. I found myself being slowly drawn into the series, despite it really not being particularly good. You know, you really should just go read the previous entry and get caught up. Then join me after the jump and we'll finish this sucker up.
'Saw IV' (2007, Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman)
Body Count: 8 -- Man with his eyes sewn shut gets hammered...literally. A partial scalping followed by a hasty journey through a window. Eye gouging and arms and legs ripped out of the sockets. A simple, old school impaling. A spear launcher turns a CSI gal into collateral damage. Face slicing, followed by a stumble into a box of razor wire. A certain Wahlberg gets Titanic'd by two blocks of ice. Jeff, having literally just survived the events of Part 3, gets gunned down.
The Traps: With 'Saw III' having set the bar pretty high for completely implausible, throw-up-in-your-mouth nastiness, 'Saw IV' tries to up the ante. Chains strapped around necks that slowly retract into a central machine! A rig that removes your limbs unless you blind yourself! The issue now is not that the traps are any less gory or horrifying, it's that they're getting dull and numbing. Without a decent story, the shock value can only take you so far. And while I'm here, a note to the character who attempts to rescue the lady from the scalping machine...CUT HER HAIR. CUT. HER. HAIR. PROBLEM SOLVED.
Obsessive Continuity: Jigsaw remains dead and the autopsy reveals a small tape coated in wax (from 'Saw III'), which relays a message that his work is far from finished. Officer Rigg from 'Saw II' returns to the series and discovers the body of Kerry, killed in 'Saw III.' Donnie Wahlberg is still missing, which upsets Rigg. No word from Dr. Gordon, but he gets mentioned again. The blonde woman in Jigsaw's dying vision is revealed to be his ex-wife, Jill. Jill is interrogated by Agents Strahm and Perez, who reveals Jigsaw's entire pre-'Saw' story, about how he was involved in a community outreach program (!) until a desperate junkie caused her to have a miscarriage (!!) and he abducted the junkie and made him his first victim (!!!). We see a younger Jigsaw organizing his workshop, building and designing traps, mixing the sound on the tapes he leaves his victims and even painting his puppet. Perez gets injured and sent to the hospital. Donnie Wahlberg is revealed to be alive, a prisoner since 'Saw II,' then he dies. Then Rigg dies. Somehow, Hoffman is revealed to be Jigsaw's secret-secret apprentice. Then Strahm walks in on Jeff killing Jigsaw and we realize that all of 'Saw IV' has been taking place during 'Saw III' and that the opening autopsy scene actually takes place after the events of 'Saw IV.' Yep.
Thoughts: 'Saw IV' opens with Jigsaw on the autopsy table. We watch as he is cut open and his organs removed. He is dead. Dead, dead, dead. Dead. And yet, somehow, Tobin Bell manages to have more screen time in this film than any of his living co-stars. It's this humorous irony that keeps 'Saw IV' from being completely forgettable, a dull retread of things everything we've seen in the past three films.
Open with a gruesome trap? Check. A dual story, following a victim in Jigsaw's game as well as the cops trying to put an end to things? Check. A montage ending that layers on multiple plot twists that really don't make much sense and leaves everything on a massive cliffhanger? Check.
There comes a point when just being shocking isn't quite enough. 'Saw IV' has its fair sure of skin-tearing, spine-breaking moments, but it's expected as this point. It's hard to get excited by something expected. It's also hard to get upset or worked up about something expected, so any edge that the 'Saw' series previously had is starting to dwindle at this point. The 'Saw' series has based its entire reputation on being the most gruesome thing you could see in a mainstream movie theater, but the exposure and regularity have dulled its impact, taken away that all-important shock value. It's old hat. We're numb. And four films into the marathon, my butt is numb and all I want is for this series to try something new with its premise, to shake things up in some way.
In fairness, that may have been the goal with 'Saw IV,' which inexplicably also acts as a prequel to the first film as well as a sequel, with much of its running time devoted to flashbacks. Call it 'Jigsaw Begins.' Jigsaw's backstory is melodramatic and ridiculous, a soap opera in every sense. It's a backstory filled with drama and pain and love and a miscarriage and a divorce and cancer and revenge. Once again, the total lack of self-awareness lends the film a bizarre B-movie innocence. It's just trying sooo hard. You have to cheer it on. Run, 'Saw,' run!
By its conclusion, 'Saw IV' has tied up multiple loose ends but opened a dozen more. It's cleaned out (i.e., killed off) many of the more useless recurring characters, but introduced a handful of new ones. It's also had a plot twist that feels like it was written because it would be completely unexpected...but it's completely unexpected because it doesn't make any sense whatsoever. This was a "shocking twist!" written without thinking of the consequences it would have on the rest of the films. In a series this obsessed with its continuity, the revelation that Agent Hoffman, an ancillary character since 'Saw II,' has been working with Jigsaw all along will force a retcon the likes of which cinema has never seen.
'Saw V' (2008, David Hackl)
Body Count: 6 -- Guy plays the lead in a Pit and the Pendulum re-enactment. A cable pulls a neck straight into a head-separating device. Morris from '24' gets blown up. A neck stabbing, followed by the body being used as a hasty electrical outlet. An arm gets split in half, blood loss happens. And after surviving more than several 'Saw' films, Strahm gets tightly compacted in a shrinking room.
The Traps: So you've got the retracting cable with the blades on the end, the giant swinging blade, buzz saw that collects your blood to open a door, a bomb...yawn. Not to be the guy who wants to see creatively horrible things happen to people, but when I watch a 'Saw' film, I want to see creatively horrible things happen to people. This is the entry where the traps finally take the backseat to the increasingly convoluted stories. None of the traps are memorable and none of them are particularly disgusting. Maybe it's the poor filmmaking and maybe it's the fact that I've just subjected myself to all of the 'Saw' films in a row and have permanent brain damage, but all I can muster here is a "Meh."
Obsessive Continuity: The film opens at the simultaneous conclusion of 'Saw III' and 'Saw IV.' Hoffman "rescues" Jeff's daughter, but fails to kill Strahm, who's on to his little game. Jigsaw's will is read and Jill is left a mysterious box. Every single cop who died during the course of the series gets a cameo photograph at a memorial service. Perez, suffering from injuries in 'Saw IV,' apparently expires off screen. A lot of flashbacks detailing how Jigsaw met and trained Hoffman. We see them setting up the traps of 'Saw' and 'Saw II,' as well as a secret meeting between Hoffman and Jigsaw during the events of 'Saw III' (and technically, 'Saw IV'). Silliness abound as Jigsaw waxes to rhetorical to Hoffman as they place a fat naked man in room full of barbed wire (as seen in the first 'Saw'). Hoffman frames Strahm as Jigsaw's assistant before watching him get crushed by a folding room.
Thoughts: 'Saw V' is stupid. Before you say "Of course it is, all of the rest of the films have been stupid," let me jump in and make this clear. The first four 'Saw' films are not stupid. They're dumb. They're silly and shallow and ridiculous, but they plod forward with an admirable determination. You want to pat them on the head and give them a Tootsie Roll Pop from the jar on your desk and tell them to go back to the playground and to not let the big mean kids pick on them anymore.
'Saw V' is stupid. It's filled with stupid characters who do stupid things and say stupid things. It's a stupid script that barely manages to tell its own stupid story without tripping over its stupid mythology. It's stupid direction by new director David Hackl is nearly incompetent, making extra use of the stupid Avid farts that have always made this series look stupidly direct-to-video.
Who is to blame for 'Saw V,' which has the dubious honor of being the worst film in the 'Saw' series? The easy answer is "Everyone." The actual answer is "Everyone who made 'Saw IV.'
Trapped in a cycle of extreme continuity, 'Saw V' spends its entire running time trying to explain the ending of 'Saw IV.' More than half of the film is devoted to flashbacks showing us how Jigsaw met and trained Hoffman. We flashback before the first 'Saw' and we flashback to the other films, seeing things from different angles. Rather than deepen what we've seen before, it only trivializes it, somehow making it sillier. A character being abducted by a man in a red robe and pig mask is a creepy image. Seeing the man getting into costume and having a conversation with his serial killer Jedi master before the abduction only invites questions. Why are they wearing robes? Wouldn't all black allow them to be stealthier? Why the pig masks? Isn't their motivation to "save" people? Why are they dressing like crazy cultists? Are they deliberately trying to scare the people they kidnap? Why? Wouldn't it just be easier to sneak up on them and avoid the pig mask get-up altogether? Did Hoffman and Amanda and Jigsaw all hang out in the workshop and discuss how they were going to build the next trap or go on road trips to find abandoned warehouses to turn into deadly obstacle courses or go through the Burger Kind drive-through at midnight to grab some late night eats after a long evening of planning 'Saw III' and 'Saw IV'?
The imagery of 'Saw' was creepy because it was weird and kept at arms length, the work of a single lunatic. Then it was the work of a single lunatic and one of his unhinged victims. Now, it's practically a network and the film feels the need to fill in every blank, to make sure that there are absolutely no unanswered questions as to how the Jigsaw organization operates. It's a stupid decision that's unfair to the forgivable dumbness of the first couple of films.
With so much effort being spent justifying the plot twist at the end of 'Saw IV,' the trademark traps flounder. The torture devices are lazy and the kills are unremarkable. In fact, the side story of a new group of characters being forced to endure a series of violent tests feels small and rushed, shoved in to fill in the gaps around the various flashbacks. It's a total mess, not delivering for the horror fans who came to see some creative blood and guts and surely only baffling the regular folks, who will surely have no idea what the hell is going on.
If there's one thing 'Saw V' does well, it's that it manages to wrap all of this junk up quite succinctly at the conclusion, setting a new status quo, firmly establishing a new villain and leaving little troublesome baggage. The entire film is a sidenote, a detour to clear up lingering questions before the series can go on. While it does allow for 'Saw VI' to be one of the better films in the series, it does so by sacrificing itself, by being one the worst horror films of its decade.
'Saw VI' (2009, Directed by Kevin Greutert)
Body Count: 12 -- A man performs weight-loss surgery on himself before getting a drill to the head. Torso crushing! A barbed wire lynching! Spear through head and a catwalk plummet. One shotgun blast, two shotgun blast, three shotgun blast, FOUR! Burning acid injection! Finally, Hoffman clears out all of the dead weight in the re-occurring cast with a cut throat, a creative use of a human shield and a burning alive.
The Traps: These are the most implausible, belief-busting machinations of the entire series, but they're also appropriately gruesome, bizarre and creative, layering semi-serious moral consequences into each trap, something that's been absent in the series for some time now. From the machine that crushes you every time you breathe, with the victim who holds his breath the longest getting released to the trek through a burning steam room with a head-impalement machine ready to go off to the carousel that places six victims in front of a loaded shotgun with an observer given the option to save two of them, the traps in 'Saw VI' aren't going to reaffirm your faith in humanity's kindness and goodwill, but they will elicit the appropriate "Yeeehaghaaauck!"
Obsessive Continuity: Picks up right where 'Saw V' ended, with Hoffman having bested Strahm. A flashback to a time before 'Saw III' but after 'Saw II' where Jigsaw, Amanda and Hoffman prep the events of 'Saw III' and 'Saw IV.' Jill visits them and Jigsaw gives her a key that will open the box she will be given in 'Saw V.' The box is revealed to contain plans for a new game, meaning that this series can continue even though it's main player has been dead for three films. It is revealed that Amanda coerced the junkie from 'Saw IV' to attempt to rob the clinic, resulting in Jill's miscarriage. Hoffman knew this and wrote Amanda the upsetting letter during 'Saw III.' Dr. Gordon gets mentioned but is still missing from the action at hand. Perez is actually alive, but she does nothing and then dies. Hoffman kills most of his supporting cast but then Jill tries to kill him, as specified in Jigsaw's will, but Hoffman manages to survive, setting up a sequel where two former side-characters get to take center stage to battle over the legacy of a long-dead serial killer. How far we have come.
Thoughts: Somehow, against all odds, 'Saw VI' is the best film in the series. It doesn't change the formula in the slightest or grow a brain or offer something deep and meaningful to think about, but it is the best directed, best written, best paced and maybe even the most violent film in the series. It maintains the series' mythology but never gets in over its head. It has out-of-the-blue plot twists, but none that require an entire sequel to explain. It's a 'Saw' movie, so it's still schlock, but it's not-terrible schlock. It's disposable and silly and trashy and pretty fun in spite of itself.
For the first time in six movies, both stories prove equally interesting, with neither of the feeling like an afterthought. On one track we're following Hoffman as he attempts to continue Jigsaw's work on his own, only to find that his victims aren't learning to appreciate life like he hoped they would (a nice, probably unintentional commentary on the series itself, actually) and that his fellow police officers are slowly closing in on his secret. The other story follows the insurance guy who denied Jigsaw the coverage that may have saved his life as he is abducted and forced to choose which of his employees will live and die in a series of violent set pieces. Surprisingly, there is some heavy handed social commentary at play, with Jigsaw forcing the evil medical insurance man to literalize his morally dubious work by putting lives in his hands. Between this and the opening scene featuring the horrible mutilation of two unethical bankers, it's obvious that 'Saw VI' is trying to make a political statement about the times we live in. It's not particularly complex or thoughtful, but it's kinda' adorable to watch the 'Saw' series try on some big boy pants.
With the irritating explanations of 'Saw V' out of the way, Costas Mandylor's Hoffman is allowed to grow as a villain and while he has nothing on Tobin Bell, he's no longer a total bore. Watching him take desperate action as his cover dissolves around him proves surprisingly suspenseful. He's not the nearly mystical figure that Bell's Jigsaw was, but rather a flawed guy who, without his master, is making his fair share of horrible mistakes.
Also watchable is Peter Outerbridge as the insurance agent put through Jigsaw's game. Although not more well-written or complex than previous 'Saw' protagonists, Outerbridge spins dog poop into moderately expensive silver, creating a sympathetic guy placed through the ultimate wringer. A sequence where six of his employees, strapped to a playground carousel, are rotated in front of a loaded shotgun and he can only save two of them is possibly the most riveting trap in the 'Saw' series. By this point in the series, someone being forced into a horrible death is no longer interesting. However, watching a man forced into a emotionally devastating dilemma is interesting. The tough decision making of the first film have long vanished into the background. It's nice to see them make a comeback here.
If 'Saw' films must exist (and as long as they're making money, they will), they should look to this one to see how to get the job done. Torture and blood and guts may be the series' bread and butter, but it's the moral grayness of its characters and the decisions they make that make the series worth watching.
And by "worth watching," I mean, "if you must." The marathon has managed to stick a pin in my standards, wait for them to deflate and then burn them in a pit filled with liquid pig carcass and dirty razor blades.
Conclusions and Such
I can't, in good conscience, recommend the 'Saw' films. I just can't. They're bottom of the barrel junk, often badly made, always badly written and only truly interesting in rare spurts. However, there's something oddly addictive about them. Like any good soap opera, I found myself compelled to keep watching, to anticipate the wonky, "gamechanging" plot twists, to enjoy watching the massive cast of characters grow and shrink as more people died and others showed up to take their places. They could make twenty 'Saw' films and I'd watch them all. I'm in too deep. I've gone too far. I'm with this to the end.
Bring on 'Saw 3D.' I hear Dr. Gordon makes his long-awaited return.
1. 'Saw VI'
2. 'Saw III'
4. 'Saw II'
5. 'Saw IV'
6. 'Saw V'
Total Body Count: 50 (Watch all of the incredibly brutal, incredibly NSFW deaths here!)
Best Trap: The shotgun carousel from 'Saw VI' is probably the most interesting, mainly because it's about a character making a tough choice as well as being bloody and unpleasant.
Obsessive Continuity Highlight: The way the series completely retcons itself and struggles to make sense of part IV's final plot twist is remarkable for how silly it is, even if it completely kills any narrative momentum 'Saw V' may have otherwise possessed.
Wackiest Plot Twist: The fact that 'Saw IV' takes place during 'Saw III' is wacky enough. The fact that it's a plot twist saved to the final moments of the film may very well make it The Wackiest Plot Twist Of All Time.
Series High Point: A tough decision, since the 'Saw' films kind of blend together after awhile, existing as one mass hunk of blood and guts and exposition with few stand-out moments. Still, part three's brain surgery sequence is kind of unforgettable,
Series Low Point: Also a tough decision, since a significant amount of the 'Saw' series sucks. Can I just say the entirety of 'Saw V'?
Total Length of Marathon: 9 hours, 53 minutes.
The 'A Nightmare on Elm Street' Series (Part One, Part Two)