Written by: Patrick Melton & Marcus Dunstan (screenplay and story), and Thomas Fenton (story)
Directed by: Darren Lynn Bousman
Starring: Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Lyriq Bent, and Bestsy Russell
Reviewed by: Brett G.
"You think it's over just because I am dead. It's not over. The games have just begun."
When I was leaving the theater after seeing Saw III, a friend of mine remarked that there's no way there would be a part 4, simply because part III seemed to shut the door on the series for good. After seeing the large crowd in attendance, however, I knew the series was about to enter that realm of horror where a series continues on, no matter how contrived or convoluted they become. Sure, we've seen this from horror series before, as, no matter what happened at the end of their films, we always knew that Freddy, Jason, or Michael would be back as long as there was an audience for the next sequel. The problem facing the Saw series, however, was that both protagonists, John Kramer and his apprentice, Amanda Young were left dead as doornails at the end of the third film, and a supernatural resurrection seemed out of the question. Thus, the hot topic question the Saw fanbase leading up to the release of the fourth film was a simple one: just where in the hell can the series go from here?
If there were any lingering doubts about Jigsaw's death at the end of the third film, part IV lays them to rest immediately, as we're treated to a pretty gruesome autopsy where Jigsaw's body is torn apart by a medical examiner who discovers a wax-coated tape in Jigsaw's stomach. Detective Hoffman (a very minor character who made his debut in the third film) arrives on the scene and plays back the tape, which informs him that Jigsaw's work is still very much alive, even if the man himself is dead. The film then sets its main story into motion, as Detective Rigg (first introduced in Saw II) takes center stage and becomes the subject of Jigsaw's latest game, which feels a bit like Jeff's game from the previous film. Here, Rigg is introduced to a series of characters hand-picked by Jigsaw; however, unlike Jeff, Rigg must learn to let these people help themselves if he is to reach his final destination: the warehouse where his friend, Eric Matthews, is being held captive. All the while, a couple of FBI agents, Strahm and Perez, are attempting to solve a new mystery: the identity of another Jigsaw accomplice, a search that allows the film to delve into John Kramer's life before he became Jigsaw.
Like all of the Saw films, the plot of the fourth entry hinges on the suspense and the feeling that the film is building towards a shocking twist or revelation. In the case of part 4, it seems like this feeling is amplified a bit, simply because the story seems so wide open with both Jigsaw and Amanda dead. The presence of another Jigsaw accomplice both reveals how the series can move forward with its main character dead and keeps viewers guessing throughout the fourth film. In many ways, part IV feels like a throw-back to the original film, as viewers are once again wondering who can be behind the events in the film. Unfortunately, unlike the first film, the ultimate answer to this question isn't entirely satisfying, but this might only be due to the fact that the film feels incomplete. Unlike the previous three, this one isn't nearly as self-contained and leaves us with a cliffhanger ending. Thus, the film feels more like an extended setup for the fifth film more than anything as a result of one of the twists at the end of the film. Indeed, this Saw IV really ends up feeling more like Saw 3.5.
So, in terms of the overall series, Saw IV is a bit of a let down in that it doesn't do much to advance the story. Judged on its own, the film is entertaining enough, but I think this is the first entry in the series that feels like it's lacking something. While both the second and third films had their issues, they were both strong entries; I can't put my finger on it, but Saw IV is just lacking a certain spark, and it's like we're just walking through the motions at this point. As I mentioned before, Rigg's game feels very similar to Jeff's in that his story is essentially strung together by a series of traps and victims. The eventual message behind Rigg's story, however, doesn't seem to be as strong as the ones in the previous films, especially considering that it's almost the exact antithesis to what we saw in Saw III. In that film, Jigsaw wanted Jeff to help everyone, while here, Rigg is supposed to let people save themselves, and it's an odd contradiction.
Another aspect that's reversed here is the fact that the flashback sequences involving John's pre-Jigsaw life are very interesting. In the third film, most of the flashbacks seemed gratuitous and unnecessary, but here, they serve to flesh out the character of Jigsaw even further. The film delves further into his relationship with Jill, the woman who was briefly introduced in Saw III, and the events that lead John to take up his work. As it turns out, John being diagnosed with cancer wasn't the only motivation for John, as Saw IV adds a further motivation in a Freddy's Dead-like manner. At this point, it's no secret that Tobin Bell is the star of the series and has consistently been its best actor, so anything involving him is great. Indeed, these flashback sequences seem to be the only part of the film that feels like it has something interesting to say, as the rest of the plot involving Rigg, Hoffman, Strahm, and Perez just feels like a worn path that we've been down before in this series. The varying stories and plot structures of the first three films are a strength of those three films, as it felt like each was bringing something new to the table; Saw IV, on the other hand, is the first one that feels like more of the same.
And this isn't always a terrible thing. After all, one can argue that many horror series have done the same thing. Also, while the story itself feels a bit trite, it is handled competently by Bousman, as the performances are solid, and the film is well paced. Bousman's signature hyper-kinetic direction hasn't changed much, and he employs a lot of interesting transition effects. In other words, it's also more of the same, but, to be fair, this is the series's signature at this point, and I doubt it'll change much when newcomer David Hackl takes over the directing reigns for Saw V. I would also like to note that Charlie Clouser's score is well done here, as it has been throughout the series, as the series's trademark theme song has already become instantly identifiable in the horror genre.
Of course, one of the main draws of these films are the traps and the gore, so how does part IV stack up in this respect? Very, very well. While the film as a whole seems to be lacking some imagination, that doesn't necessarily extend to the traps, which are as inventive and unique as ever. Bodies are torn apart, impaled, scalped, and there's even a crushed head thrown in for good measure. Though I don't think it's as cringe inducing as some of the sequences in Saw III, the fourth film is a nice little gorefest. Some Saw fans might balk at the amount of "violence for the sake of violence" found here, but I think Bousman knows what many audiences want to see when they watch a Saw film, and he delivers it big-time.
Ultimately, I think it's fairly easy to say that Saw IV is the least fulfilling Saw film so far; however, it's not a bad film by any means, and I don't think it's necessarily a death knell that indicates that the series is going to tank in quality from here on out. It mostly suffers from the fact that it feels like the first part of an unfinished story, and it doesn't really do anything new along the way. Still, it's certainly worth a look. Unlike the previous films, Saw IV only has one DVD release so far, which features an unrated cut of the film and a host of extra features. Included are two commentaries, 2 featurettes about the props and traps in the film, a deleted scene, and "Darren's Video Diaries," a half hour behind-the-scenes look at the making of the film. As of now, there is no Special Edition of the film, but the unrated version is also available on Blu-ray for the high-def crowd. Like the previous three films, the high-def transfer for part IV accurately reflects the film's gritty, grimy, and stylized look. However, for the first time, a film in the series receives a lossless audio track in the form of a DTS-Master Audio track that will truly give your system a workout, as it seems like there's sound coming from all corners of the sound stage at all time. It's a very aggressive and enveloping track that truly shows the often-overlooked audio benefits of a high-def upgrade. However, despite the excellent package on both Blu-ray and standard DVD, I don't think anyone besides hardcore Saw fans will feel to need to own the film. Still, anyone who has even halfway kept up with this series needs to check it out. Rent it!
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