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The Saw Series

Saw (October 22/05)

As far as recent horror flicks go, Saw surely remains one of the best efforts of the genre to emerge over the past few years (then again, its competition has been dreck like House of Wax and The Skeleton Key). Director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell start with an astoundingly simple premise - two men wake up chained to a wall in a decrepit bathroom, where a dead body lies rotting in the middle - and pack in enough twists and turns (and thoroughly impressive moments of cruelty) to keep even the most jaded horror buff engaged. Much of the film transpires in flashback, as the aforementioned men - Lawrence (Cary Elwes) and Adam (Whannell) - attempt to figure a way out of their situation by recalling recent events in their own lives. We learn that a pair of detectives (played by Danny Glover and Ken Leung) have been working a case involving increasingly baffling deaths, and that the media has nicknamed the killer "Jigsaw." We also meet Lawrence's wife (Monica Potter) and daughter (Makenzie Vega), both of whom Jigsaw is threatening to murder if Lawrence doesn't kill Adam by a pre-determined time. Whannell's disjointed screenplay occasionally threatens to become overwhelmingly baffling - particularly once the flashbacks within flashbacks start to kick in - but it's clear almost immediately that Saw's been designed to keep viewers guessing right up until the conclusion. The film's look effectively mirrors the obfuscatory vibe, as Wan places the emphasis on off-kilter, thoroughly menacing visuals. Along with cinematographer David Armstrong and editor Kevin Greutert, Wan imbues Saw with a palpable sense of grittiness (the result is a film that comes off as a bizarre cross between Fincher's Se7en and a Nine Inch Nails video). The eclectic cast does a nice job of bringing these disparate characters to life, and though Elwes has received a lot of criticism for his work here, the actor delivers a surprisingly effective performance that feels believable and appropriate (especially when you consider the increasing volatility of Lawrence's situation). Of course, one can't talk about Saw without mentioning Jigsaw - a sinister, creepy figure who certainly has what it takes to join the ranks of Freddy Krueger and Pinhead as an iconic screen villain (this is despite the fact that we don't learn his identity or motives until the movie's over). And then there's the shocking yet deeply satisfying resolution, which - coupled with Charlie Clouser's note-perfect score - chillingly wraps up the various loose ends (and, not surprisingly, leaves the door open for a sequel). Saw is that rare horror flick that actually improves upon repeat viewings, and it seems fairly obvious that the film will continue to endure in the years to come (and here's hoping that the upcoming followup keeps the momentum going).

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Saw II (October 24/05)

Less than a year after the original hit theaters comes Saw II, a decent sequel that's saved by a spectacular denouement. Prior to that point, though, Saw II feels awfully conventional - something that certainly couldn't be said of its predecessor - and it's hard not to wish that screenwriters Leigh Whannell (who wrote the first one) and Darren Lynn Bousman (who also directs) had infused the movie with the same sort of trickiness and ingenuity that was hard-wired into the original. Instead, the film concerns itself with a pair of concurrent storylines - eschewing the disjointed structure of Saw in favor of a far more traditional and linear vibe. Jigsaw's latest sadistic game finds a group of disparate characters trapped inside a dilapidated old house, where poisonous gas is being pumped into the circulation. They have less than two hours to find a way out before they begin dropping like flies, a task that's exacerbated by the surfeit of traps and puzzles hidden throughout the house. Meanwhile, grizzled detective Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg) finds himself face-to-face with Jigsaw after the killer specifically mentions him at a crime scene. Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) claims that if Matthews sits and talks with him for a few hours, his son (one of the hapless inhabitants of the deadly abode) will escape from the ordeal unscathed. Saw II evidently started out as an original screenplay by Bousman, which certainly explains why the film occasionally comes off like a standard horror flick. To be fair, this really only applies to the sequences set within Jigsaw's cavernous, booby-trap laden dwelling. That the characters are essentially walking cliches - the prisoners include such stereotypes as the slutty girl, the tough guy, the panicky doomsayer, the scared kid, etc - probably doesn't help matters, nor does a thoroughly inexplicable third-act development which finds the survivors chased around by one of their own. Having said that, there's no denying that the sequences revolving around Matthew's interrogation of Jigsaw are extremely fascinating - primarily thanks to a pair of fantastic performances from Wahlberg and Bell. Bell, in particular, deftly steals every single scene he's in, effectively transforming Jigsaw into one of the most deliciously sinister screen villains this side of Hannibal Lecter. And then there's the film's conclusion, which is simply astounding and comes awfully close to matching the original in terms of sheer shock value. In spite of the film's few flaws, Saw II remains a worthy sequel - if only for Bell's wonderfully entertaining performance and the jaw-dropping finale.

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Saw III (October 26/06)

Though there's little doubt that these films will keep getting made until they stop making money, Saw III reportedly marks the last hurrah for the original filmmakers - including series creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell (with the latter penning the expectedly intricate screenplay). It comes as no surprise, then, that Saw III generally has the feel of a final installment - although, of course, the door is nevertheless left open for yet another sequel. This time around, Jigsaw/John (Tobin Bell) - whose condition has worsened significantly since the events of Saw II - has instructed loyal protege Amanda (Shawnee Smith) to kidnap and subsequently force a well-regarded doctor (Bahar Soomekh) to alleviate some of his more outwardly crippling symptoms. And as was the case with Saw II, there's an almost completely separate subplot involving a man (played by Angus Macfadyen) who is forced to work his way through a series of increasingly sinister traps. Predictably, it's the stuff with Jigsaw that proves to be the most intriguing aspect of Saw III; though he's confined to a bed for the majority of the film's running time, Bell manages to deliver a thoroughly compelling performance that's as electrifying as one might've hoped. Jigsaw's complex relationship with Amanda is further explored here, and there's little doubt that both Bell and Smith deserve a substantial amount of credit for the film's success. Director Darren Lynn Bousman has infused Saw III with precisely the same sort of dark, Fincheresque sensibility that has essentially come to define the series' visual look, a feeling that's been augmented with the distinctly gritty vibe (the film is much, much more brutal than either of its predecessors). Whannell's script features several references to both Saw and Saw II, and occasionally paints certain events from those two films in an entirely new light (that infamous bathroom set makes a welcome appearance, albeit briefly). There's little doubt that Saw III will have a far greater effect on viewers who are already well acquainted with the series, as the filmmakers have included a whole host of little tidbits and shout-outs that will mean absolutely nothing to neophytes (that being said, the central storyline does seem accessible enough to hold the interest of newbies). And if ever there was a movie that warranted a "not for the squeamish" advisory, this is certainly it.

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Saw IV (October 26/07)

Saw IV marks the first installment within the ongoing series that's almost devoid of similarities to the stellar original, as the movie generally places the emphasis on entirely uninteresting characters and surprisingly tedious sequences of gore. Were it not for the saving grace of Tobin Bell's mere presence, there's little doubt that Saw IV would come off about as well as a typical straight-to-video horror sequel. The movie opens with John Kramer's (Tobin Bell) autopsy, where - not surprisingly - it's revealed that Jigsaw's games are going to continue in spite of his creator's death. After a tape is pulled out of Kramer's stomach, the story primarily follows two FBI agents (Scott Patterson's Strahm and Athena Karkanis' Perez) as they attempt to track down (and stop) the increasingly elusive Jigsaw. There's also a fairly dull subplot revolving around a SWAT commander (Lyriq Bent's Rigg) who is forced to play Jigsaw's game, and - as expected - virtually all of the film's characters wind up colliding in the twist-laden finale. It's clear almost immediately that Saw IV's biggest faux pas lies in its emphasis on characters that are simply not interesting, with the bulk of the film's overlong running time focused on the aforementioned (and underdeveloped) FBI agents. That the pair are essentially portrayed as walking cop clichés certainly doesn't help matters, nor does the almost uniform inclusion of underwhelming supporting performances. Even Jigsaw's expectedly elaborate traps manage to disappoint this time around, as it proves impossible to look past the overwhelming air of familiarity that's been hard-wired into the majority of such sequences (call it the been-there-done-that factor). That being said, there's simply no denying the effectiveness of Bell's few scenes - some of which offer up a fascinating look into Kramer's background (where we learn, among other things, the identity of Jigsaw's first victim). Bell's sinister yet thoroughly compelling performance proves to be the one bright spot within Saw IV, and it seems unlikely that the series will be able to survive his absence in future installments. And while detractors of these movies will undoubtedly find little here to embrace, the film - though saddled with a seriously rushed vibe - should sustain the interest of the series' hard-core devotees.

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Saw V (October 27/08)

Hot on the heels of its entertaining but thoroughly underwhelming predecessor, Saw V confirms that the Saw series is - having reached a plateau of mediocrity - essentially running on fumes at this point. There's exceedingly little here that's been designed to capture (and sustain) the interest of newcomers, yet it's just as clear that hardcore fans of Jigsaw's exploits will probably find something here worth embracing. As expected, Saw V picks up immediately following the events of Saw IV - as Agent Strahm (Scott Patterson) finds himself caught within the confines of one of Jigsaw's notoriously cruel traps. The film subsequently follows Strahm's attempts at discovering the identity of Jigsaw's deadly protégé (Costas Mandylor's Hoffman), while also revolving around the efforts of five strangers (including Julie Benz's Brit and Carlo Rota's Charles) at surviving a maze of increasingly challenging (and downright mean-spirited) puzzles. Though it boasts an atmosphere that's admittedly kind of tedious and almost egregiously familiar, Saw V generally proves effective at satisfying the demands of the series' more ardent followers - as, in addition to its myriad of appreciatively over-the-top kills, the movie possesses a number of fun callbacks to events and sequences from its four predecessors (ie the origins of the original's razor-wire trap). And, as expected, Tobin Bell's all-too-brief appearance as the long-since-dead John Kramer remains a highlight - with the actor's compelling (and exceedingly sinister) work consistently elevating the proceedings out of its low budget, undeniably slipshod doldrums. Filmmaker David Hackl's competent yet entirely underwhelming visual choices only confirms the idea that these movies basically direct themselves, while Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan's screenplay has been suffused with a number of unintentionally campy chunks of dialogue (ie Jigsaw, admonishing his apprentice, exclaims: "killing is distasteful to me!") The end result is a passable genre effort that's unapologetically been geared solely towards gorehounds, with the law of diminishing returns clearly in full effect virtually from start to finish.

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Saw VI (October 23/09)

A clear improvement over its two most recent predecessors, Saw VI has undoubtedly been designed to appeal primarily to the series' most ardent fans - as the ongoing mythology has grown so dense and convoluted that newcomers to Jigsaw's universe will find very little here worth embracing. It's obvious virtually from the get-go, however, that the problems that plagued the fourth and fifth entries have mostly been done away with, and there's little doubt that Saw VI effectively (and undeniably) breathes new life into the steadily declining franchise. The movie picks up immediately following the events of part five, as Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) continues his attempts at perpetuating Jigsaw's legacy - which, this time around, primarily involves subjecting a heartless health insurance executive (Peter Outerbridge's William) to several predictably brutal traps and contraptions. Director Kevin Greutert - working from Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton's screenplay - does a nice job of sustaining the series' grimy sense of style without completely veering into unpleasantness, and although the flashback stuff with Tobin Bell's John Kramer remains a highlight, it's worth noting that the movie's other elements generally fare just as well (which was certainly not the case in the fifth installment). Dunstan and Melton's expected reliance on the tried-and-true Saw formula - the serialized storyline is accompanied by a stand-alone, trap-heavy subplot - is consequently not as problematic as it has been in the last couple of entries, with the absence of Scott Patterson's Agent Strahm undoubtedly playing a significant role in Saw VI's relative success (ie stripped of Strahm's increasingly tedious investigation into the Jigsaw murders, the film is finally able to move the overall plot forward - albeit minutely). The inclusion of a few less-than-compelling interludes - ie William must decide the fate of six coworkers strapped to a carousel-like device - can't quite dampen what is otherwise an impressive comeback for the Saw series, and it's ultimately clear that there's still a while to go before these movies begin to entirely wear out their welcome.

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Saw 3D (October 29/10)

The Saw series comes to a (supposed) close with this typically low-rent entry, in which an internal affairs detective (Chad Donella's Gibson) attempts to stop Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) from carrying out John Kramer's (Tobin Bell) sadistic endgame. Though it picks up immediately following the events of its predecessor, Saw 3D comes off as a lesser sequel that ultimately does benefit substantially from the inclusion of several impressively gruesome traps and the welcome return of Cary Elwes' Dr. Gordon. The franchise's penchant for introducing bland new characters is just as problematic as ever, however, as, in addition to Gibson's ongoing efforts, the film spends a good chunk of time revolving around the exploits of one of Jigsaw's surviving victims (Sean Patrick Flanery's Bobby Dagen) - with the emphasis on Gibson and Dagen's exploits compounded by the lack of screen time for Bell. (The actor, whose work in these movies has always been a highlight, is relegated to one short flashback scene and a small role in the movie's conclusion.) The for-fans-only atmosphere is perpetuated by a midsection that feels as though it could have been pulled out of any of the previous films, although, to be fair, filmmaker Kevin Greutert, working from a script by Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton, does a nice job of infusing several of the traps with a surprisingly suspenseful vibe (ie Bobby attempts to save a friend from being hanged). It's not until Saw 3D reaches its (predictably) twist-heavy finale that the film becomes more than just another run-of-the-mill horror sequel, as the revelations contained within are sure to leave the franchise's followers thoroughly satisfied (and, of course, clamoring for more) - which effectively cements the movie's place as a worthy continuation of a storyline that certainly seems to have a fair amount of juice left in it (ie without delving into spoiler territory, the viewer can't help but hope for a further glimpse into a surviving character's future exploits).

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Jigsaw (November 12/17)

Arriving seven years after the previous installment, 2010's Saw 3D, Jigsaw stands as a more-of-the-same followup that seems to have emerged directly from a template for the series - with the movie bafflingly ignoring the new, promising direction offered by the previous picture's conclusion and instead delivering an almost total franchise reboot. The narrative follows several strangers as they awaken within an old farmhouse that's been rigged with a series of deadly traps, with the movie also detailing the exploits of a grizzled detective (Callum Keith Rennie's Halloran) and his ongoing efforts at tracking down the victims (and the perpetrator). It's clear immediately that filmmakers Michael and Peter Spierig aren't interested in exploring new territory either stylistically or thematically, as Jigsaw, virtually from the word go, feels like a lazy and rushed-to-screens followup that's almost entirely devoid of memorable, stand-out moments. (There is one kill towards the end of the film involving lasers that stands as a notable exception.) It's a testament, then, to the series' inherently compelling atmosphere that Jigsaw never quite becomes the disaster one might've feared, with the movie, in spite of its one-dimensional characters and by-the-numbers traps, benefiting substantially from its sporadic emphasis on better-than-expected elements (including a very welcome return appearance by one of the franchise's most familiar faces). The surprisingly strong final stretch, buoyed by a fairly unexpected twist, ensures that the whole thing ends on a somewhat positive note, and it's impossible not to wish that, should there be another installment, the producers take things in a more overtly innovative direction (or, at the very least, revert to the promise of Saw 3D's finale).

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© David Nusair