SAW III (2006)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 53 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Grisly Violence and Gore, Sequences of Terror and Torture, Nudity and Language

Directed by: Darren Lynn Bousman

Written by: Leigh Whannell

Starring: Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith, Angus Macfadyen, Bahar Soomekh, Donnie Wahlberg, Dina Meyer, Leigh Whannell, Mpho Koaho, Barry Flatman, Lyriq Bent, Debra McCabe, Betsy Russell & Costas Mandylor

Another Halloween arrived in 2006 and so did another SAW movie. This third entry in the financially successful torture-porn franchise would have served as a solid finale to a gory trilogy. While that didn’t wind up being the case, SAW III is the last truly good entry in the series. III is the longest installment in the SAW series and delivers more sadistic traps, whilst further developing its two central antagonists and dishing out another twisted plot. SAW III is on par with the first SAW, while not reaching the tense heights of SAW II.

Shortly after the events of SAW II, the police are investigating a new series of seemingly inescapable traps from the Jigsaw killer. Things are more complex than they initially appear because former-survivor-turned-murderous-apprentice Amanda (Shawnee Smith) is aiding the ever-closer-to-death John Kramer (Tobin Bell). The pair of Jigsaw killers enact another twisted game which sees grieving father Jeff (Angus Macfadyen) confronting faces behind a tragic accident that claimed the life of his eight-year-old son. Meanwhile, surgeon Lynn (Bahar Soomekh) is fitted with a shotgun collar that’s tied to John’s heart monitor and struggles to keep him alive to ensure her own survival.

SAW III is back to the first film’s level in terms of shaky acting and dumb character decisions. Both of these qualities are epitomized in the character of Jeff. Part of me wants to love Angus Macfadyen’s performance and the other part of me wants to slap this protagonist upside the head. On one hand, Macfadyen is playing a severely depressed and grieving father who’s destroying his own life over the loss of his son and (as a result) is wrecking his family. It’s a sad character to watch and Macfadyen has his moments as Jeff. On the other hand, Jeff makes a lot of idiotic bone-headed decisions that hurt both himself and people around him. There are only so many times that you can drop a key in a tense scenario before I start yelling “Oh, come on!” at the screen. Also, it’s kind of important to look behind you when you’re holding a wire that’s connected to a loaded shotgun, but that’s neither here, nor there.

Bahar Soomekh fares better as Lynn, though her emotional state ranges from severely panicked to unbelievably calm. The various other victims are one-note stereotypes, even though brief attempts are made to flesh them out. The movie clearly wants us to feel bad for these people, but the viewer might tend to side with Jeff in a couple of moments. Tobin Bell and Shawnee Smith make up for the lack of acting talent around them because their on-screen killer chemistry is palpable. Their teacher-protégé relationship plays a big part in the proceedings and leads to emotions that come right out of nowhere. I never thought that I’d feel something for the Jigsaw Killer or his lackey, but Whannell managed to pull strange sympathy towards them.

Both of SAW III’s storylines jump back and forth from each other, much like the parallel plot structures of the previous two films. However, the lengthy running time is also loaded with flashbacks galore. These various blasts from the past establish character development in both heroes and villains, while also providing context for many twists that unfold. Though a few revelations are easy to call in advance (screenwriter Leigh Whannell admitted that he didn’t try too hard to keep these secrets hidden), the fiendish finale stacks twist upon twist.

Most of the conclusion’s twists lead to devastating consequences which changed the direction of the series forever and serve as my justification for why SAW should have been left as a trilogy. Other plot points strain credibility as things just happened to work out in a certain person’s favor and a couple of coincidences are a tad too ridiculous. I’m mainly speaking about the final two minutes which end on a cliffhanger that’s never quite resolved in a satisfying manner (in both SAW IV and SAW V). This last-minute twist also slightly undoes the emotional journey that the main character spent the last two hours enduring.

SAW III’s traps are cool and totally impractical. The first two films maintained a sense of believability in Jigsaw’s deadly devices appearing like they could be constructed with scrap metal (reverse bear trap) or consisting of simple horrifying scenarios (a pit of syringes). SAW III’s traps are ridiculous. They’re undeniably cool, but still ridiculous. One scene involves decaying corpses of a certain animal (which stands out as Tobin Bell’s favorite trap of the series) and is sure to make viewers heave a little queasily. The best trap is undeniably a reverse-crucifix, which originally began as a device that folded its victim into a box until Whannell changed it. There’s also a gnarly scene of improvised surgery scene that delivers a shocking amount of realistic gore.

SAW III should have capped off the series as a gore-soaked trilogy. This third outing provides a surprising amount of emotion towards its antagonists, while attempting to flesh out its protagonists to varying degrees of success. Some of the twists are brilliant, while others seem too convenient and treat Jigsaw like an omnipotent god-like serial killer. The traps are a lot of fun, even though this is the point where Jigsaw’s games became pretty damn silly…even though they’re cool to see in motion. If you liked SAW and SAW II, there’s no reason why you wouldn’t dig SAW III. This is the last good film of the series for me, whilst the rest of the SAW sequels devolved into shameless cash-ins and convoluted continuity.

Grade: B

SAW II (2005)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Grisly Violence and Gore, Terror, Language and Drug Content

Directed by: Darren Lynn Bousman

Written by: Darren Lynn Bousman & Leigh Whannell

Starring: Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith, Donnie Wahlberg, Erik Knudsen, Franky G, Glenn Plummer, Emmanuelle Vaugier, Beverley Mitchell, Timothy Burd, Dina Meyer & Lyriq Bent

A mere year after the success of indie horror hit SAW, a sequel was rushed to theaters just in time for Halloween 2005. Unlike most slapdash sequels though, SAW II doesn’t show any signs of being a quick cash-in and is one of those rare instances where a second installment improves upon its predecessor. The plot is more focused this time around, the traps are oozing with creativity and menace, and the ending somehow manages to pull the rug out from underneath the viewer in many surprising ways. SAW II is not only better than SAW, but also ranks as the best film in the longer-than-it-needed-to-be SAW franchise.

Set after the blood-splattered events of the first film, this sequel follows Detective Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg) as he stumbles across the booby-trap-filled lair of the Jigsaw Killer. Once face-to-face with demented murderer John Kramer (Tobin Bell), Matthews comes to the horrifying realization that his son Daniel (Erik Knudsen) is currently trapped in one of Jigsaw’s sick games and he’s also now stuck in a game of his own. Elsewhere, Daniel and seven strangers awake in a fortified crackhouse that’s being pumped with nerve gas and eight antidotes are hidden in various death traps. However, the survival instinct of this new band of victims may be just as deadly as Jigsaw’s games.

One immediate improvement over the first SAW comes in SAW II’s performances. While the first film struggled with Leigh Whannell being an amateur actor and Cary Elwes coming off as laughably over-the-top during would-be emotional scenes, SAW II remedies its performances with much more believable actors and stronger dialogue. Some scenes do become a tad ham-fisted, mainly in Franky G’s performance as intimidating drug dealer Xavier. However, even Franky G’s acting is convincing for a most of the film. Erik Knudsen also does well as the youngest person stuck in the “Nerve Gas House” and Shawnee Smith makes a welcomed return to the series as former-Jigsaw-survivor-turned-player-once-again Amanda.

In the Jigsaw’s Lair storyline, we get a battle of wits and wills between Donnie Wahlberg’s detective and Tobin Bell’s serial killer. Their constant banter is especially fun as Bell milks bits of dark humor for all they’re worth and enjoys toying with Wahlberg’s already dire mental state. Their exchanges are just as entertaining and suspenseful as the gory carnage occurring in the Nerve Gas House, so that’s really saying something. Both characters return for later installments in the series and it’s easy to see why. Their performances breathe life into material that may have wound up overly clichéd in other hands.

SAW II’s dual structure does a remarkable job of balancing the two different storylines. The 95-minute running time flies by and never once comes close to overstaying its welcome. Much like the first film’s nightmare-inducing conclusion, SAW II’s ending is packed full of surprises and startling revelations. This film builds one twist on top of another and it all checks out completely, with any possible plot holes being easily filled in by quick flashbacks revealing the clues that were stored early on.

The film’s overall look is atmospheric and gritty. The crackhouse setting makes the viewer feel dirty from just looking at it and the design of Jigsaw’s lair looks like someone cranked their love for John Doe’s apartment in SE7EN up to the extreme. The editing is a bit too chaotic during intense moments, especially one scene near the end that would have been more effective if the camera wasn’t spinning around an act of self-mutilation like a flashy music video. Therein, lies my only big complaint with this sequel.

Last but certainly not least, SAW II’s traps are fiendishly creative and believable. There’s nothing that’s nearly as over-the-top as later films in the series and these simple devices are the most effective. Something like a gun-attached to a door or a spike-filled rendition of a Venus Fly Trap are sure to freak viewers out and delight gore-loving horror fans. One scene that made me wince as a teenager and still makes me wince as an adult is a twisted spin on the phrase “finding a needle in a haystack” that sees a character crawling through a pit of used syringes to find a key. The entire sequence is pure nightmare fuel and may be the single most terrifying creation in the SAW universe (which is really saying something).

With diabolical twists and fiendish traps galore, SAW II is hands-down the best film in the SAW franchise. This sequel improves upon everything that was irksome about its 2004 predecessor. The acting is better and the script is constructed in a way that keeps its hooks sunken into the viewer. There’s actual suspense and the chilling conclusion is bound to keep you thinking about it long after the credits have rolled. Before the series publicly devolved into the torture-porn punchline that it is today (with progressively ridiculous continuity and an eighth film arriving this Halloween), the first three SAW films hold up as a damn fine horror trilogy and SAW II is the biggest highlight of the entire series.

Grade: B+

THE BYE BYE MAN (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 37 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Terror, Horror Violence, Bloody Images, Sexual Content, Thematic Elements, partial Nudity, some Language and Teen Drinking

Directed by: Stacy Title

Written by: Jonathan Penner

(based on the short story THE BRIDGE TO BODY ISLAND by Robert Damon Schneck)

Starring: Douglas Smith, Lucien Laviscount, Cressida Bonas, Doug Jones, Carrie-Anne Moss, Faye Dunaway, Michael Trucco & Cleo King

I remember seeing a trailer for THE BYE BYE MAN over a year ago (in front of HARDCORE HENRY). At that time, it was slated for a June 2016 release date (a good sign) and had an R rating (another good sign). However, neither of these things panned out because THE BYE BYE MAN wound up getting released in January (a dumping ground for studios) and had been edited down to a more teenage-friendly PG-13. I say this with no exaggeration whatsoever, THE BYE BYE MAN just may be one of the worst horror movies to ever receive a nationwide theatrical release. In just about every way, this film is godawful and dull as dirt.

Elliot (Douglas Smith), his girlfriend Sasha (Cressida Bonas) and his best friend John (Lucien Laviscount) have just moved into a fixer-upper home. Things seem to be going well enough, until a housewarming party results in Elliot discovering something written in a creepy antique nightstand. There’s lots of rambling and the name “The Bye Bye Man.” After uttering the Bye Bye Man’s name during a séance, Elliot and his friends soon find themselves beset by hallucinations and the feeling that the mysterious Bye Bye Man is coming to do…something. It’s not clear. In fact, a lot of this movie is vague and incoherent. This results in attempts at scares and disturbing material, but mostly boredom and unintentional laughter.

To BYE BYE MAN’s credit, it opens with a literal bang as we get a prologue of a guy going on a shooting spree in the 1960’s. The guy is played by Leigh Whannell (who clearly needed quick cash) and this opening sequence seemed to kick the film off to a reasonable start. It’s too bad that this short prologue is the only semi-redeemable quality in this film. Sure, Doug Jones plays the titular Bye Bye Man (under make-up that looked like a less-burned version of unmasked Deadpool), but he’s barely in the film. Popping up for a few obligatory jump scares and menacing hand motions during the film’s goofy finale.

The supporting cast also has Carrie-Anne Moss slumming it as a concerned detective (popping in for three brief scenes) and Faye Dunaway (for some unknown reason) delivering a laughably bad exposition dump. The film’s supporting performances (though completely forgettable and wasted) are all worth mentioning over the three main characters and their psychic friend (Jenna Kanell). These four cursed victims are just plain bland. I didn’t care if any of they lived or died. Actually, their demises would have ended this movie faster, so I guess that I was rooting for them to die from the moment their dumbasses stepped on screen.

BYE BYE MAN doesn’t fare much better on its technical levels because this film looks cheaply constructed. This includes: awful sound design (indicating cheap jump scares), bad CGI (showcasing the Bye Bye Man’s reflection in a broken window), and lots of mind-boggling mythology behind the character that simply doesn’t make sense. Why does the Bye Bye Man seem to ride into town on a dark train that’s never delved into? Why does he have a skinless dog that appears to devour the deceased victims? What are the Bye Bye Man’s powers? It seems like characters simply hallucinate and get sick…much like they just took some bad drugs. Drugs seem far scarier than the Bye Bye Man and that shouldn’t be the case at all in this film!

I won’t deny that there weren’t occasional moments of unintentional guffaws to be had in this failure of a horror film. The funniest of which has the Bye Bye Man imitating Ninja Cat from YouTube in a “spooky” library. I was cackling, when I should have been creeped out. There’s also a moment in which a character is engulfed in cheesy-looking CGI flames and it was meant to be disturbing, but wound up being hilarious. A train scene (already spoiled in the trailer) also had me laughing and so did a bit where the Bye Bye Man appears on a character’s cell phone…for some inexplicable reason. The icing on this lop-sided cake is the “Bye Bye Man” is not a scary name and will likely incite far more giggles than gasps when it’s spoken aloud.

When THE BYE BYE MAN isn’t so bad that it’s funny, the film turns into a boring endurance test. There are many moments that drag on and on, with no real end in sight…other than the Bye Bye Man inevitably coming to do something vague. The film attempts to build muddled lore behind its titular character and was clearly setting itself up as a potential new horror franchise. I highly doubt that will happen. If it does, the BYE BYE sequels will likely go direct-to-video. Anyway, I’m rambling now. This film has driven me to the point of random madness (much like its characters encounter). Avoid this terrifyingly inept would-be excuse for a horror film and watch something else, anything else.

Grade: F

SAW (2004)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 43 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Grisly Violence and Language

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Directed by: James Wan

Written by: Leigh Whannell

Starring: Cary Elwes, Leigh Whannell, Tobin Bell, Danny Glover, Monica Potter, Michael Emerson, Ken Leung, Makenzie Vega & Shawnee Smith

The 2000s were an interesting time for horror cinema. Though many people are quick to say that the decade didn’t pump out many original horror flicks, it seemed like audiences got a solid amount of surprisingly great remakes (along with plenty of crappy cash-ins), cool indie fare and plenty of foreign scares. 2004’s SAW falls into that second category. After premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, SAW grossed 55 times its one-million budget at the U.S. box office and spawned the biggest horror franchise of the 2000’s. Whether or not that’s a positive thing is subjective, but I personally loved the entire series as a teenager and they’ve held up as guilty pleasures for me as an adult. Having now revisited SAW for the first time in years, I noticed that its faults definitely stick out now and yet, it still stands as a disturbingly creepy horror-thriller.

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Photographer Adam (Leigh Whannell) and Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) wake up in an abandoned bathroom. Leaving isn’t an option because both men are chained to pipes on opposite sides of the room. A corpse, a tape recorder, and a gun lie in the middle of the bathroom. After some crafty maneuvering, the men soon discover that they are the latest victims in the sick “games” of a serial killer known as Jigsaw. To win their game, one man must retrieve the gun in the middle of the room and shoot/kill the other. Don’t worry though, because Jigsaw has left them a gift: hacksaws. These aren’t strong enough to cut through chains and are strong enough to cut through bone. You get where this is heading. With a ticking clock, the men must try to figure out of a way to escape…or face their grisly dilemma head-on.

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SAW’s premise is wicked and simple, arguably too simple. If this were only 103 minutes of two men sitting a room with this insane scenario, then the viewer would probably die of boredom or find themselves depressed beyond belief. Director James Wan and screenwriter/actor Leigh Whannell wisely throw in flashbacks to subvert the viewer’s attention to backstories behind both men and their captor. The script also has a subplot involving a rugged cop who’s on the trail of Jigsaw and hostage shenanigans at Dr. Gordon’s apartment (his wife and daughter are being held as “prizes” to be won or lost). The way in which SAW slowly puts together its twisted puzzle of a story is kind of amazing. The flashbacks slowly fill the viewer in on who the two men are and give little clues that ratchet up the tension to high levels.

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The Jigsaw Killer’s gruesome traps (which became more and more over-the-top with each passing installment) are realistic(ish) and leveled in this first film. The games are deadly scenarios with horrifying hazards (e.g. razor wire, broken glass, flammable goo, etc.) and the only big device used is a jaw-ripping reverse bear-trap that has become a symbol of this torture-porn franchise ever since this film’s release. The scenes with Jigsaw’s games are brief, but leave a shudder-inducing impact. A scene that has always made me squeamish involves a razor wire maze and a man stripped down to his undies. That’s truly terrifying beyond words and the verbal description of the crime scene makes the me cringe more than any gory visual could (though rest assured, there are definitely moments of gore).

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Two big problems muddy SAW’s many positive qualities. The film frequently relies on frenetic editing, which makes intense moments seem more like a heavy metal music video than a horror movie. The gritty atmosphere and visuals keep things appropriately creepy, but the editing occasionally detracts from the film as a whole. The second issue is far more egregious. Most of the acting in SAW is terrible, like embarrassingly bad and unconvincing during many moments. Not every actor is terrible, because Danny Glover is well-cast and a few of the supporting characters have their moments. However, Cary Elwes should be ashamed of his unconvincing American accent, unbelievable mood swings, and hammy line delivery. He’s horrible in damn near every scene he’s in. Meanwhile, it’s fairly obvious that Leigh Whannell was new to acting in 2003 because he’s just as annoying as Elwes. Whannell has the excuse of being a newbie though, which makes Cary Elwes seem even more awful by comparison.

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SAW has problems that cannot be ignored (frenetic editing and bad acting), but the plot, suspense and genuinely terrifying conclusion still holds up over a decade later (feeling old yet?). This is a rare case where great writing and terrifying ideas outshine crappy performances and amateur filmmaking. Though it’s not the stellar gory scarefest that I remember adoring as a teenager, I will still attest that 2004’s SAW is a good horror film. It’s a creepy indie effort with lots of disturbing scenarios, smart writing, a nightmare-inducing ending (I still get chills when I see it), and noticeable flaws.

Grade: B

DEAD SILENCE (2007)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 29 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Horror Violence and Images

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Directed by: James Wan

Written by: Leigh Whannell

Starring: Ryan Kwanten, Amber Valletta, Donnie Wahlberg, Bob Gunton, Judith Roberts, Michael Fairman & Laura Regan

Hot off the heels of SAW, James Wan seemed to the next big thing in the horror genre. However, that didn’t quite take hold until 2011’s INSIDIOUS graced the big screen. Before that frightening box office hit arrived, Wan worked on three movies consecutively and DEAD SILENCE was the second of these films. Far different from Wan’s torture-porn roots of SAW, 2007’s DEAD SILENCE relied on a supernatural story and fog-laden atmosphere to deliver its scares. While the film wasn’t exactly well received upon release (garnering bad reviews from critics, mixed response from horror fans, and barely making its budget back globally), I always found the film to be fun in a ridiculous “turn your brain off and enjoy it for what it is” sort of way.

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One dark and stormy night, a mysterious package arrives on the doorstep of Jamie Ashen’s apartment. Inside lies a creepy ventriloquist dummy. Like an idiot, Jamie decides to get some take-out and leave his wife alone with the puppet to keep her company. When he returns, she lies dead with her jaw split open and her tongue missing. Jamie is prime suspect number one for his wife’s murder, but thinks that something supernatural might be afoot. So, the young widower returns to his hometown of Ravens Fair to get to bottom of an old ghost story that may have something to do with his wife’s gory demise. However, doing so will also put himself and others in the path of 100 murderous dummies and a pissed off undead ventriloquist.

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The best phrase that I can throw onto DEAD SILENCE is that it has atmosphere out the wazoo. The fog-laden, dank visuals give you the impression that you’re watching an old-timey ghost story from Universal’s glory days of horror. I cannot recall a single moment in this film where I saw the sun shining, but that’s a huge benefit when nearly every frame looks like a macabre painting brought to life. The acting on the other hand is much more of a mixed bag. Ryan Kwanten does an alright job in moving the story forward as Jamie, but his character seemed really bland. All we know about Jamie is that he’s upset over his wife’s murder and he also despises his crippled father. Those are the only two traits given. Kwanten is definitely better than 90% of the rest of the cast though as he’s not acting in a ridiculous over-the-top manner for most of the film. Donnie Wahlberg plays an appropriately annoying cop and mainly serves as comic relief. Some of his jokes hit, while others fall flat. Judith Roberts is enjoyable as the ghostly ventriloquist Mary Shaw. Aided by a disturbing make-up job, Roberts manages to be freaky in spite of only having a handful of lines.

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The plot of DEAD SILENCE is its biggest problem though. Plot holes and silly moments make their way into the script and distract from potential scares at hand. For example, the ghost’s main motivation of “she won’t stop until the screaming does” doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. There’s a bigger mystery at hand too, but a final plot twist reaches eye-rolling levels of absurdity. While the fog-laden atmosphere, elaborate sets, and creepy moments are impressive, the film really drops the ball in terms of its CGI. However, the scares are mostly centered around a less-is-more approach. Instead the ridiculous computer effects are reserved for the final act which, although fun, is as dumb as a rock.

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DEAD SILENCE gets by on the appeal of being an old-fashioned ghost story that just wants to scare you. There’s solid atmosphere throughout and quite a few scares are legitimately well executed. This horror flick falters in terms of story, characters, and bad-looking effects. This is one of those films where you have to turn off your brain to fully enjoy it. There are absurd plot holes, a ridiculous last-minute twist (probably Wan banking on his SAW reputation) and boring characters. There are also eerie sensibilities, well executed moments and a couple of solid scares. Taken as a whole, DEAD SILENCE is only okay. If you can ignore its shortcomings, then you’re likely to have fun with this creepy combination of a ghost story and an evil doll B-movie.

Grade: B-

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