There are many things to appreciate about the "Saw" series. For me, at the top of the list has always been the little videos that greet all of the killer's victims when they awaken to find themselves trapped in one of his bizarre, sadistic contraptions.
A grainy video appears featuring a creepy puppet with white skin and red spirals on his face. The puppet - known as Billy - then turns to the victim and says in this deep, intimidating, creepy voice, "Hello [insert victim's name here.] I want to play a game." Billy then lists the victim's sins - the rationale for their "testing" - and says "Life or death. Make your choice." It's then up to the victim to do what it takes - usually killing someone else in the room or mutilating themselves in some fashion - to escape their painful fate.
I just love the deep voice and its calm, authoritative, intimidating tone. I've found it quite effective myself. Every now and then at work I'll dial one of my co-workers and intone "Hello Brittany. I want to play a game." To which she'll reply "Well I don't!" And hang up.
The previews for "Saw IV," relied primarily on the voice. Contrary to the idiot logic of all too many trailers, secrets were kept and the best parts were not revealed. Instead we got that voice saying "You think it is over... But the games have just begun!"
Unfortunately the games are over. With this fourth installment it's safe to say that critically - though certainly not commercially - the series is dead.
How do we know it's dead? Well, symbolically and literally, Jigsaw is dead. The film begins with his autopsy where the coroners discover an audio tape in his stomach. A flashback then reveals that in the last moments of his life, when he knew he was going to die, he swallowed it so that he could continue his "games" from beyond the grave. From that point on the plot devolves into an incoherent mess of a movie.
The basic plot follows the "game" of Lieutenant Rigg. Jigsaw basically sends him on a kind of scavenger hunt of death traps where he encounters numerous victims in various traps. Jigsaw is testing Rigg's inability to overcome his "obsession" with saving those in danger.
There are other stories running concurrently throughout the film. There are other cops and investigators piecing together this latest game, mistakenly thinking that Rigg might be the new apprentice who has been helping Jigsaw and Amanda Young. And then we also get further back story about the events that led Jon Kramer the engineer to become Jigsaw the serial killer.
That's a pretty basic summary but in reality the film is incredibly complex. There are many characters, most of whom are not particularly well defined or memorable. The problem is that appreciating and understanding the film in the way that the filmmakers intend requires you to know who's who and what's going on. And they make that a particularly difficult task by being poor storytellers. Even for a fan of the "Saw" series it's difficult to properly process everything going on.
In addition to the distinct puppet voice and creative death traps the films are noted for their twist endings that reveal to the audience that they've watched the film with one idea about what's going on when, in fact, there's something else entirely different at play. The execution of these twists have gotten progressively sloppier as the series progressed. The first two films were small enough in scale that the deceptions could make sense and be more readily understood and enjoyed. The twist of "Saw III" was a little shaky, though still somewhat graspable. With "Saw IV" I left scratching my head. "Who's this guy?! Why is he doing this? What's happening here? This doesn't make any sense!"
It was not until I actually did a bit of research into "Saw IV" that I found an explanation for what happened in it. The directors and screenwriters were just so close to their work that it seems as though they never stepped back to see how someone not intimately involved in the film and its mythos could fail to grasp the film.
And so it's there - at the doorsteps of the film's director and screenwriters - that I lay blame for the film's failure. The "Saw" concept and characters work. The deathtraps are fun. Jigsaw stands aside Freddy Krueger, Michael Myers, Chucky, and Jason Voorhees in the pantheon of classic horror icons. But this story is just too complex. It's a steep climb without enough handholds. If the filmmakers had done a better job developing characters and explaining who people were then it might have worked. But just look at the screenwriting credits. The script was penned by two guys named Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan whose only previous film work was writing a horror film titled "Feast" that was produced through the third season of the filmmaking reality show Project Greenlight. Contrast that with the previous two "Saw" films which both included the involvement of series creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell. With "Saw IV" they only acted as executive producers.
So from the standards of film criticism and movie judgment it pretty clearly fails as cinema. Story, characters, plot, acting? Forget it. However, from the standards of a pure base entertainment and horror? It's still a "Saw" movie. The deathtraps remain fun and Jigsaw remains the most badass of modern horror villains.
So just lower the expectations and appreciate "Saw IV" for what it's got - which will probably be enough for most horror fans. Theoretically the series could be resurrected, though my hopes aren't particularly high. According to horror website bloodydisgusting.com plans are already under way for "Saw V" and "Saw VI" with Melton and Dunstan to write and David Hackl (production designer on "Saw II," "Saw III," and "Saw IV" and second-unit director on "Saw III" and "Saw IV) to direct. Maybe the writers will learn from their errors. Maybe the new director will really be something else. My hopes aren't high.