Saturday, November 6, 2010

"Saw" series started out sharp but is getting a little rusty

Saw (2004) 
100 min., rated R. 
Grade: B -

Overthought but grippingly nasty, "Saw" holds us in a viselike grip like a decent B horror-thriller should. At least for those who can stand the tautness on their heart and the leaving nothing to the sickest imagination. 

In a terrificially unsettling mise-en-scene, a doctor (Cary Elwes) and a photographer (co-writer Leigh Whannell) wake up shackled on opposite sides of a really decrepit bathroom. Their captor has left them with a saw and instructions on a tape recorder that order the doc to kill his fellow prisoner in eight hours, with his family's lives on the line if he fails the task. It turns out that the nihilistic sicko has been devising hideously intricate scenarios for his victims to test their morality. The sadistic twist here on this serial killer fodder is that the captor, known as Jigsaw, actually isn't doing the killing but says he's teaching his “victims” a lesson. A morality tale cut to the bone? 

As visceral and effectively claustrophobic as Saw is, this "Se7en"-ish Grand Guignol is also messy, unpleasant, and pornographically blood-drenched to no end. Overdirected by wet-behind-the-ears director James Wan, the chopped-up, Nine Inch Nails music-video visual style calls attention to itself. (No wonder, considering the heavy-metal band's producer Charlie Clouser was involved with the music score.) Wan surely doesn't play it safe in showing the grisly (if twistedly ingenious) strategems of torture that'll get you squirming. One disturbing, unbearably tense sequence involves the sole survivor of Jigsaw's game (Shawnee Smith) with a fast, snuff-video camera circling around her head, stuck in a bear-trap-like device. Also, there's a genuinely creepy moment when Elwes' young daughter is spooked by a man in her bedroom. 

Then after flashback upon flashback, even sometimes upon flashback, some narrative corners are sliced and diced (Danny Glover as an obsessed detective easily stumbles upon Jigsaw's lair) and the whole jigsaw-puzzle plot spirals out of control. We get the rug pulled out from under us out of mind-blowing sneakiness, but a stupid, arbitrary twist may be too cleverly contrived even for its own grand design. 

By that time, when limbs start to get sawed off, a ghost-faced Elwes screams and sobs in desperate hysteria; then again isn't hammy overacting part of the genre's appeal? Still, "Saw" will tickle the fancy of most horror geeks, if they can stomach it. 

Saw II (2005) 
93 min., rated R.
Grade: B -

In "Saw II," the pre-credit death-trap du jour opens with a tense, visceral bang—a man stuck in a venus flytrap contraption that will smash his skull if he does not remove his own eyeball with a scalpel to get a surgically placed key. Tick tick tick, time is a-wastin'. Then a gruff homicide detective (Donnie Wahlberg) manages to track down the Jigsaw Killer (Tobin Bell), now a cancer patient, who's back to his nasty machinations: he's trapped eight strangers, including the cop's troubled teen son, inside an old house full of a toxic nerve gas and Rube Goldberg death traps. The victims' only hope is to play by the psychotic's lethal games that force them to extremities of human sacrifice in exchange for hidden antidotes. 

This unpleasant but intense rebound to "Saw" is still plenty far-fetched once it reveals the surprising tricks up its sleeve. But to its favor, "Saw II" is more linear, has a lean and meaner pace and focus, and actually makes a lick of sense with fewer holes. Now revealed as Jigsaw, Bell gets a lot of screen time, admirably underplaying to creepy effect with his memorably parched voice. 

Tyro director Darren Lynn Bousman has a tighter screenplay to work with (co-written by Bousman and the original's Leigh Whannell) and delivers more stomach-churning stylings of death. Those who are scared of needles won't be able to stand the “needle pit” trap. But not only are the characters damaged goods and none of them worth caring about, since when has torture became an alternative for entertainment? Why carp, but "Saw II" is more clever and revolting than scary. 

Saw III (2006) 
107 min., rated R.
Grade: C +

The Jigsaw killer, real name John Kramer (Tobin Bell), is now bedridden with a brain tumor but has his loyal apprentice Amanda (Shawnee Smith), a former victim, carrying out another game in which she kidnaps a doctor (Bahar Soomekh), forcing to keep her “life coach” alive. Meanwhile, a man in mourning (Angus Macfadyen) is presented a series of challenges involving people connected to his son's death, and must choose between seeking revenge or saving them. Can we just say, doesn't Jigsaw have anything better to do with his time, or how can he afford all these warehouses, or have the superintelligence to build all these devices? 

Written by the original's Leigh Whannell and directed by Darren Lynn Bousman ("Saw II"), this grisly third installment is as good a "Saw" sequel as the filmmakers could've done, self-contained and for the dedicated mostly. A helter-skelter order of flashbacks overcrowd the dense plotting a bit, the skittish camera refuses to stand still, and the editor still seems to take a hacksaw to the film. But Jigsaw's cackling clown puppet makes a welcome return, and there's still some squirm-inducing gore and suspense during the torture inventions, including a cranium operation with a power drill on Jigsaw himself that'll have you looking away. 

"Saw III" is smartly crafted up to a point, until yet another twist capper not only spells it all out but even sets up a 'Saw IV,' when this might've been a cutting stopping point for a trilogy. 

Saw IV (2007) 
95 min., rated R.
Grade: C -

You thought it was over? Nope. The "Saw" has grown long in the tooth, this being the fourth installment in a franchise now primarily made to bring in the green. But Jigsaw is now officially dead, and we're made sure of that from his autopsy, which is presented in gratuitously gruesome detail. 

Unfortunately for us, thanks to a wax-coated tape found inside his stomach, Jigsaw's torturama games are only just beginning, again. Workaholic Officer Rigg (Lyriq Bent) from Saw II and III is forced to go on a chase with each destination leading to guilty people whose survival happens to be in his hands. There are a lot of meanwhiles here, spinning the film's wheels and grinding and crunching them as well, but one involves Jigsaw's widow Jill (Betsy Russell) being called in for questioning for the suspicion of her hubby's devious games. We're supposed to now sympathize with John Kramer/Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) as we get to see how this tortured soul became such a sick mutha with a God complex. Bring on the backstory! 

Take away the gory spills and cringe-inducing, occasionally inventive torture kills, and there's nothing left, except a mess of too much cluttered "plot" that exhausts story credibility, chronology, and logic (screenwriters Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan taking over for Leigh Whannell). Even after all the tricky new reveals, you'll just grow tired of playing Jigsaw's interminable game. And acting is typically sub-par in this type of schlock, but even the overacting is amateurish during both the torture and talking scenes, and there's more seizure-inducing editing and swooshing sound effects more at home in a masochistic music video. 

Whereas the first three "Saw" movies make a decently effective trilogy, "Saw IV" is more of a pointless rush job. The franchise better quit while it's ahead.

Saw V (2008) 
92 min., rated R.
Grade: D +

Another year and another Halloween season means another "Saw" movie (cue the “I wanna play a game” tagline). Surprise, surprise, it's time for the fifth and hopefully last chapter in the inscrutably popular mutilate-yourself-to-live franchise. 

Picking up where "Saw IV" left off but chronologically taking place beforehand, the now-deceased Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) hands over his morality-torture business to Detective Hoffman (pensive Costas Mandylor). While Hoffman is pursued by Agent Strahm (Scott Patterson), five dicey, nameless strangers, somehow connected, are forced to escape through a series of booby-trapped rooms but have to stop being selfish and work together. 

Rather than just focusing on this auto-pilot storyline, we're bombarded by flashbacks that establish Hoffman's relationship with the late mastermind. David Hackl, the production designer of the last three "Saws," directs this one with the usual dingy greens and more choppy, tornado editing, and the script (by "Saw IV's" Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan) assumes you care and have been keeping close attention to all the plot convolutions, which by now are running on fumes and, let's be frank, running out of inventive methods to eviscerate people. 

The opening “pit-and-the-pendulum” kill ratchets up the tension, not without some squeamish gore, of course. But the rest is a dull and been-there-done-that cash-grab, with terrible dialogue and a weaker story, despite being profitable for fans that get their jollies off on elaborate traps and graphic mutilation. 

If the folks behind these reprehensible torture-pornos even think about grinding out one more installment, this critic will gladly take over for Jigsaw, but hey, if you liked the first four . . . 

Saw VI (2009) 
90 min., rated R. 
Grade: C

The progressively rusty "Saw" series should've been dead and buried three entries ago, especially after the worthless "IV" and "V." But it's Halloween six years later, so you know what that means. At this point, if you've seen "Saw" thru "Saw V," then you have a jones for torture and “deserving” people screaming their heads off and you'll probably go see "Saw VI." 

Feeling more like homework, the convoluted corkscrew of what you could generously call a story is hard to keep track of. So say you are in "the know," Agent Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), protege of now-dead Jigsaw/John Kramer, killed Agent Strahm at the end of the last movie and framed him for the crimes. The hacking begins right off the bat, as a fierce black woman (Tanedra Howard, winner of TV's Scream Queens) and a hefty man must race to see who can dismember a weightier limb than the other to stay alive—and not have their head gear drill holes into their skull. The Jigsaw puppeteer, John Kramer (Tobin Bell), died a few installments ago but from pre-taped instructions, his torture play carries on. He's a busier bee dead than alive and is now out to punish a crooked health-insurance CEO (Peter Outerbridge) that deny people health care. Michael Moore just might be Jigsaw's biggest fan. 'Sicko: Saw Edition' anybody? 

Kevin Greutert, editor on all of the previous movies, makes his directorial debut with "Saw VI," keeping the dreary aesthetics the same, but the writers of the last two (Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan) try something new and topical, and it's for the better. Still gruesomely gory as ever, this endurance-test torturama has enough projectile blood and guts for the fans' sick “fun.” It's a good thing you don't give a saw about many of these suffering people because they die a hundred deaths. Everyone screams loud like a brutal Week 1 training workout on The Biggest Loser, but the release of them dying is less effective. 

Admittedly, there is tension in a boiler-room obstacle course, as well as in a diabolic merry-go-round of the CEO's six lying minions (only two can get off). No doubt, somebody will crank out a seventh "Saw," but fresh ideas and ways to kill people are becoming mighty bare since all of the series' entries keep making appearances in flashback. 

"Saw VI" is a more intriguing installment, with plot threads coming together as usual (we get to see the contents of Jigsaw's box to wife Jill), but lay Jigsaw to rest, please. 

Saw 3D: The Final Chapter (2010) 
90 min., rated R.
Grade: C

When a franchise of horror films based on filling a quota of pain, human blood (and limbs), and box-office fandom is on its 7th lap and now plugs the expensive and rather underused 3-D gimmick, the fuel tank is officially running on empty and it's game over for us. Seven years, seven Halloweens, seven movies, so as the “tradition” goes, here we are on "Saw VII," only now titled "Saw 3D: The Final Chapter." 

To get us back in the mood for pain, two dudes and an unfaithful mutual girlfriend of theirs wake up, bound with electrical buzz saws in front of them, in a glass enclosure beside a busy outdoor mall on display for onlookers. A love-triangle twist that says love is more than skin-deep (or saws out your intestines apparently), it's a giddy, unapologetic appetizer that has nothing to do with the proceedings. 

Last time we checked, psychotic protege Detective Hoffman (constipated-looking Costas Mandylor) lost to Jigsaw's wife Jill (Betsy Russell) in a trap, but the filmmakers ("Saw VI" director Kevin Greutert and the fourth, fifth, and sixth movie's writers) want to make more money and the fans crave more, so Hoffman apparently still has all this free time to carry on Jigsaw's God complex torture games. When Jill tells a young detective (Chad Donella) what she knows, Hoffman goes after her. One of the focuses is on a sleazy self-help guru (an aging-fast Sean Patrick Flanery), who has built a career on lying that he was a survivor of a Jigsaw trap, so he's the new pawn that has to rescue his trophy wife, publicist, lawyer, and best friend. 

There's no story left, but of all the movies, this one probably has the most torture-device games, all of them queasy and wince-inducing as ever. That said, a few of these eye sores will really make you tense and cringe: A tattooed man is glued to the front seat of a car, with his racist friends attached under, behind, and in front of the car, and a woman is straight-jacketed to a chair with a key in her stomach that can only be retrieved by an attached string and if she screams too loud for a sound monitor, she'll be impaled. 

One of the kills that uses 3-D to its advantage actually turns out to be, what do ya know, only a dream. Previous movie survivors make token appearances at a group therapy session, including Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) from the first "Saw," on hand to close out the series. 

Gone is most of the clotted backstory and some of the clinical self-seriousness, "Saw 3D" is strictly for completists only (you know who you are) who get their kicks out of this stuff. And as much of a sicko-exploitative joke these movies are, there's finally a pretty satisfying timeframe-cheating twist for this alleged final chapter, until 'Saw VIII: A New Beginning' or 'Saw 8! The Rock Opera' of course. 

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