JIGSAW (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 31 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sequences of Grisly Bloody Violence and Torture, and for Language

Directed by: Michael Spierig & Peter Spierig

Written by: Pete Goldfinger & Josh Stolberg

Starring: Matt Passmore, Callum Keith Rennie, Cle Bennett, Hannah Emily Anderson, Laura Vandervoort, Paul Braunstein, Mandela Van Peebles & Brittany Allen

I recently reviewed the entire SAW series to prepare myself for this final review of 31 Days of Horror 2017. Though I loved the SAW franchise as a horror-obsessed teenager who would gobble up anything genre related, I have since come to recognize the series’ many problems that stick out like severed thumbs. The first three SAWs are legitimately good horror flicks. They can be ridiculous and contain bad acting, but they’re very fun, gory, and suspenseful. SAW IV-VII range from mediocre to downright terrible. Seven years after the supposed FINAL CHAPTER, we have the eighth SAW film: JIGSAW. You know what? It’s not half bad. I even kind of, sort of had fun watching this film, which is more than I can say for about half of the crappy flicks in this series.

Years have passed since Jigsaw Killer John Kramer’s (Tobin Bell) bloody demise, but a recent string of bodies are popping up and they appear to be Jigsaw victims. Detectives Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie) and Hunt (Cle Bennett) are searching for the identity of this new killer, while forensic pathologists Logan (Matt Passmore) and Eleanor (Hannah Emily Anderson) aid in examining the gory remains. Meanwhile, a new Jigsaw game is progressing with five people being placed through a series of deadly scenarios. Is there a new Jigsaw killer or has John Kramer somehow come back from the dead? Will anybody survive these new “games” and what will be left of them?

Maybe it’s the seven-year gap between SAW films or maybe it’s 2000’s nostalgia, but I enjoyed JIGSAW more than I initially expected. In some ways, JIGSAW sticks to the conventions of the series in painfully faithful fashion. In others, it deviates a bit to bring us something that feels more cinematic and makes old clichés fresh enough to entertain. Whether it’s the clear visuals, a new setting, better acting, or the legitimately freak traps, JIGSAW is the fourth-best entry in the overlong torture-porn franchise and an added bonus is that you don’t need to sit through any of the other SAWs in order to latch onto this film’s entertainment factor.

One big benefit that separates JIGSAW from lesser SAWs is that the audience has no idea who the new Jigsaw is. Even though we saw John Kramer’s throat get slit open (in SAW III) and we witnessed his autopsy (in SAW IV), there is a sneaking suspicion that the film might go totally bonkers and bring him back into play…with some convoluted explanation, of course. However, there’s an equal (or slightly better) chance that a copycat serial killer is on the loose and picking more hapless victims who “don’t appreciate their lives.” The list of potential suspects is rather large and the script does its best to keep viewers on their toes. Even though the ending is packed with loads of convoluted twists and turns (choosing to reuse certain plot points from earlier in the series), I walked out of the theater relatively satisfied.

Another leg up that JIGSAW has above IV-VII is that these victims are legitimately horrible people. Laura Vandervoort, Paul Braunstein, Mandela Van Peebles, and Brittany Allen all deliver better performances than a majority of past SAW victims. That isn’t exactly high praise, but it is worth something. Each character is a scumbag for one reason or another. While Jigsaw’s reasoning in IV-VII was as ridiculous as a cop caring too much about saving other people’s lives or a chain smoker deserving to have his lungs crushed, the motives behind these people being “tested” are pretty sound as flashbacks gradually reveal their life-wrecking sins. Characters’ scumbag nature makes their trap scenes very fun to watch as dismembered limbs fly and blood flows freely.

Speaking of which, most of JIGSAW’s traps go back to the idea of “simpler is scarier.” There were scenes that had me on the edge of my seat as characters tried to navigate through these “games” in one piece. That reaction hasn’t occurred in this series since SAW II. One scene involving razor-sharp cord is especially intense and another moment with a flooded grain silo elicited a vocal reaction from me. Other traps don’t show their true nastiness until they’ve concluded. However, there are two ridiculous devices. The silliest trap involves skin-slicing lasers, but that scene’s fun execution distracted from its sheer stupidity. Also, the setting of a booby-trapped farmhouse is a nice change of pace from yet another booby-trapped warehouse (or a booby-trapped abandoned zoo/asylum that resembles a booby-trapped warehouse).

JIGSAW’s script simmers with plot holes. I had fun watching this film in a theater; but afterwards, it’s pretty easy to tear the story apart by punching holes into its flawed logic. Unlike SAW I-III, JIGSAW relies on the killer basically being omnipotent (impossibly knowing certain things about characters’ pasts and correctly predicting the future). There’s also an unbelievably egregious reuse of a twist ending that was cool the first time around, but got progressively lame as IV, VI, and VII reused it. At least, JIGSAW’s ridiculously convenient plot developments are executed in a fun way and ends things on a relatively high note. Also, JIGSAW has a refreshing sense of humor about itself and the cinematography appears better than any of the previous films. Both of those things greatly aided this film’s fun factor.

JIGSAW is surprisingly entertaining and more than serviceable for longtime SAW fans and newcomers alike. Even if (like myself) you aren’t fond of half of the series, you might wind up enjoying this one on its own merits. The humor, crisp visuals, and attempts to put fresh spins on the SAW formula make JIGSAW a decent time. I’m not going to lie and say that I think this film is on the same level as the first three SAWs, but it remains quite fun nonetheless. If you like gore, guts, convoluted plot revelations, and twisted traps, you’re likely to find something of value in the surprisingly decent JIGSAW. I just hope that they don’t try to milk more sequels out of this franchise because this torture-porn throwback was fun, but its conclusion doesn’t exactly leave much room to work with in future installments.

Grade: B-

SAW: THE FINAL CHAPTER (2010)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sequences of Grisly Bloody Violence and Torture, and Language

Directed by: Kevin Greutert

Written by: Patrick Melton & Marcus Dunstan

Starring: Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Betsy Russell, Cary Elwes, Sean Patrick Flanery, Gina Holden, Laurence Anthony, Dean Armstrong, Naomi Snieckus & Rebecca Marshall

After the SAW series began to bring home diminishing returns, Lionsgate decided that it was time to end the once-profitable franchise. This resulted in two planned sequels becoming a seventh final entry in the franchise. Under the title of SAW 3D (later retitled to SAW: THE FINAL CHAPTER), the seventh SAW attempted to answer one big question from fans and tie everything up in a gory final outing. Is it successful at either of these things? Well, kind of, but not really. SAW: THE FINAL CHAPTER is far from the worst film in series (that distinction still belongs to SAW V), but it’s easily the blandest chapter of the bunch.

Picking up after the conclusion of the better-than-expected-but-still-not-good SAW VI, FINAL CHAPTER sees Jigsaw’s distressed ex-wife Jill (Betsy Russell) running from revenge-driven Jigsaw protégé Hoffman (Costas Mandylor). While Jill attempts to make a deal with the cops, it’s clear that Hoffman is trying to find any way to kill her. Meanwhile, supposed Jigsaw survivor-turned-motivational-speaker Bobby Dagen (Sean Patrick Flannery) finds himself confronting past lies and facing a series of twisted traps that put his survival instincts to the test. Blood, traps, and body parts also fly towards the camera…because this film was originally shown in 3D and it’s impossible not to be reminded of that gimmick.

While the later SAW sequels (4-7) definitely weren’t up to nearly the same level of quality as the first three films in the series, SAW: THE FINAL CHAPTER is almost enjoyable in a trashy sort of way. By this point, the series had become a mess of convoluted continuity, unrealistic gore, plot holes, and goofy scenarios. SAW fans were just kind of forced to sit back and watch the bloody mayhem ensue. However, I’d question whether anyone can take SAW VII seriously in any way, shape, or form. This script is dumb as a rock and it’s clear that the screenwriters were forced to rush things to a conclusion, while not being totally comfortable with the final outcome.

As far as the acting goes, Russell and Mandylor are just as crappy as ever. They also take up a lot of screen time here as we get flashbacks that delve a little deeper into Hoffman’s corrupt cop past and Jill frantically tries to save her own ass from a fate that seems sort of deserved (she did try to kill Hoffman). All the while, series’ newcomer Chad Donella comes off like the poor man’s Matthew McConaughey as internal affairs officer Matt Gibson. Donella might not have great acting chops, but he certainly got frequent chuckles out of me through his over-the-top reactions and goofy dialogue delivery.

Sean Patrick Flanery (of BOONDOCK SAINTS fame) scores the best storyline as a fraud who’s forced to confront his lies in grisly ways. The character of Bobby Dagen is an idiot and had to realize that the actual Jigsaw killer was going to come for him if he lied about being in a trap, so Flanery’s story arc is actually pretty fun and oddly satisfying to watch in a sick way. Of course, there’s the obligatory Tobin Bell flashback and his wardrobe choice seems like it was specifically chosen to get laughs (a backwards baseball cap and hoodie don’t exactly look like they belong on an elderly man). Gina Holden delivers the best acting in the film as Bobby’s misled wife, though she’s just regulated to being a damsel-in-distress.

As far as FINAL CHAPTER’s traps go, these death sequences are hit-or-miss. The seventh film’s best trap belongs to a gory scenario that sees Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington switching his vocal talents from singing to screaming as a neo-Nazi who realizes that we’re all the same color underneath our skin. As for the traps that Bobby encounters, they range from deadly obstacles to seemingly unwinnable games (like trying to avoid making vocal noises as someone pulls a fishhook out of your stomach) and one ludicrously laughable moment that’s meant to be taken as a straight-faced tragic revelation.

Sadly, FINAL CHAPTER’s effects leave much to be desired. This SAW was shown/filmed in 3D, which means that shit gets thrown at the camera every few minutes. These items range from jets of blood to body parts to a hacksaw during the biggest eye-roll worthy bit. The blood also looks like pink fruit punch for some reason. It’s clear that an effort was made to make FINAL CHAPTER the bloodiest SAW ever, with the highest body count of the series. However, the fake-looking blood and goofy effects distance the viewer from being disturbed or shocked. Instead, they transform a would-be gross-out gorefest into a silly viewing experience.

SAW: THE FINAL CHAPTER attempts to deliver fan service by bringing back Cary Elwes (six years after he starred in the original film) and packs the biggest body count. However, the film is mixed bag thanks to shoddy acting, hit-or-miss traps, ridiculous continuity that’s comical at this point, and finale that doesn’t feel very satisfying. I look at this SAW as the biggest B-movie of the franchise, but it’s not nearly as disappointing as SAW IV or as terrible as SAW V. If you’ve watched all of the other SAWs, then you’re bound to watch this one too. If you’ve only seen the first three movies (like I recommended), then you’re not missing anything at all by skipping this flick. Also, seeing as JIGSAW (the eighth SAW film) arrives in two months, I just have to call out the final line of this movie. Game over? My ass!

Grade: C

SAW VI (2009)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 32 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sequences of Grisly Bloody Violence and Torture, and Language

Directed by: Kevin Greutert

Written by: Patrick Melton & Marcus Dunstan

Starring: Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Mark Rolston, Betsy Russell, Shawnee Smith, Peter Outerbridge, Athena Karkanis, Samantha Lemole, Tanedra Howard & Devon Bostick

SAW V was the lowest point of the SAW franchise thus far, so there was really nowhere to go but up with a sixth entry. SAW VI is easily the best installment of the later SAW sequels (4 through 7). That’s not necessarily high praise, especially when you consider that this series only has three rock solid movies (thus far). However, SAW VI offers some silliness, alongside more twisted traps, gory games, and surprising social commentary about America’s heath care system. That last quality isn’t something you’d expect from a SAW movie, but it’s absurd enough to make this film worth watching.

Picking up a short while after SAW V’s conclusion, the sixth SAW sees Jigsaw accomplice Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) continuing his mental mentor’s work. The latest player in a new series of twisted games is insurance executive Will Easton (Peter Outerbridge). Easton denied John Kramer (Tobin Bell) health insurance and this helped transform him into Jigsaw. As Easton makes his way through a series of tests that force him into literal life-or-death decisions, Hoffman nervously finds the walls closing in as the FBI grows closer to uncovering his connection to Jigsaw’s killings.

I’ve already complained about Costas Mandylor and Betsy Russell enough in my previous two SAW reviews. Since I don’t want to simply repeat myself, I’ll say that their crappy performances don’t get any better for either of them in this sixth outing. However, it’s worth noting that SAW VI does get some mileage out of watching Mandylor’s Hoffman turn from emotionless murderer to worried killer as his lies begin to crumble around him. Mandylor actually lands one great scene in this film. You’ll know it when you see it. If only the same could be said about Russell, but we can’t expect any cinematic miracles out of the sixth SAW movie.

As the latest player in Jigsaw’s games, Peter Outerbridge’s Easton is a rather enjoyable protagonist. There’s something satisfying about watching a scummy health insurance executive suffering from having to make gory decisions that usually result in a disfigured corpse. This might feed into the not-so-subtle preachiness of SAW VI’s plot, but it’s very enjoyable in a rather goofy way. The traps are all centered around policies and thoughts that Easton has mentioned before, forcing him to eat his own words in horrifying manners. While some of these traps are still exaggerated to the point of being hard to swallow (did this film take place in an abandoned zoo?), these “games” do attempt to go back to the SAW series’ simpler, scarier death traps. A steam maze and a deadly carousel ride stick out as two big highlights.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, SAW VI does have a handful of really dumb and contrived scenes. While the final 10 minutes may serve as a middle finger to certain viewers and I imagine some folks will really dig a revelation that changes the reasoning behind SAW III‘s intense climax, but the conclusion of VI’s games and a last-minute surprise both feel like SAW VI is “cheating” (for lack of a better word). It’s also worth noting that Jigsaw’s standards for victims’ “taking life for granted” have been set so low that a smoker finds himself in a breath-based trap that also opens up a massive plot hole. The contentious relationship between Costas Mandylor’s Hoffman and Betsy Russell’s Jill is a bore to behold, but SAW VI matters where it counts: the traps and gory entertainment. Also, Tobin Bell returns (of course) for a few obligatory flashbacks that further hammer in this sequel’s not-so-subtle social commentary.

Though nobody would ever expect a sixth SAW to wind up at the top of the series’ totem pole and the sixth sequel of any horror franchise is usually a bad sign (except for the underrated FRIDAY THE 13TH Part VI: JASON LIVES!), SAW VI is a rather decent outing in this long-running horror series. The acting is remarkably better this time around (minus Mandylor and Russell). The traps are simpler and more believable (minus a couple of over-the-top bits), with the murder carousel and steam maze sticking out as the film’s biggest highlights. Even though SAW VI has its undeniable flaws and is far from perfect, this is the best of the later SAW sequels (4-7). If you’ve made it this far in the series, I imagine that you’ll get a kick out of the sixth SAW flick!

Grade: C+

SAW V (2008)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 32 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sequences of Grisly Bloody Violence and Torture, Language and brief Nudity

Directed by: David Hackl

Written by: Patrick Melton & Marcus Dunstan

Starring: Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Scott Patterson, Betsy Russell, Julie Benz, Meagan Good, Mark Rolston, Carlo Rota & Greg Bryk

SAW IV made a ton of cash in October 2007, so SAW V arrived in October 2008. However, this SAW was unlike the previous four entries, because Tobin Bell’s Jigsaw is very much dead by the time this fifth chapter begins (thanks to a half-baked twist from the fourth film that was really just a half-assed repeat of a major revelation from the far-superior SAW II). SAW V also sets itself apart from the rest of the movies in the SAW series by being boring and lame. The entire franchise was lacking in quality after SAW III concluded things with a bloody bombshell, but SAW V is hands-down the dullest point of the (so far) seven SAWs.

Picking up immediately after the events of SAW IV, FBI Agent Peter Strahm (Scott Patterson) finds himself escaping from one of Jigsaw’s twisted traps and then winds up hot on the trail of Jigsaw’s latest accomplice. Meanwhile, Detective Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) attempts to cover up his gore-soaked tracks and tries to shake the ever-vigilant Strahm off his back. While this bland cat-and-mouse game is occurring, five new victims find themselves in a new series of twisted games that were planned by Jigsaw before his death. We get traps, flashbacks, and convoluted continuity that muddies the waters of what made the first three SAWs so damn good in the first place.

SAW V’s best performance comes from Tobin Bell, who returns for a few brief flashbacks and delivers the only great scene of this fifth installment. One sequence sees Bell’s John Kramer and a captive Hoffman having a tense conversation, all whilst a hair-trigger shotgun trap is in play. This entire flashback is the only stand-out scene of SAW V. This five-minute clip is a brief shining moment in an otherwise tedious, boring, and uninspired sequel. Watching Strahm and Hoffman play cat-and-mouse with each other is like watching two cardboard cut-outs take up space for 90 minutes. It’s not exciting, riveting, or remotely fun to behold.

In my SAW IV review, I mentioned that Costas Mandylor is possibly the worst actor in the SAW franchise…which is almost impressive when you consider how many bad performances have occurred in the space of these seven films. Betsy Russell is still the terrible actress, but her role is thankfully brief in this fifth outing. Russell’s small on-screen tidbits consist of setting up vague clues for future installments and don’t relate to much of SAW V’s plot though. There’s the mysterious contents of a box, which would have probably been confiscated because her late-husband was a serial killer and his will seems to suggest that he wants his ex-wife to continue his “games.” There’s also a brief scene of her interacting with Mark Rolston’s head FBI agent (who’s clearly being set up for the eventual sixth film).

As far as SAW V’s victims go, there’s nobody really worth rooting for. There’s a bland blonde, Julie Benz in an Elvira wig, an annoying crackhead, a cocky reporter, and a smug housing developer. Their interactions are boring, their deaths are unremarkable, and they might be the dumbest group of Jigsaw victims to ever appear in the series (which is another remarkable achievement in stupidity). The viewer will likely figure out the big “twist” to these traps long before the players do. As a result, you don’t feel the least bit concerned when one of them bites it in a horrible way.

As for Jigsaw’s latest round of “games,” SAW V’s traps mostly revolve around the threat of timed nail bombs. The logic behind this decision is baffling because it means that this is a torture-porn flick with very little torture or gore. If nothing else, the SAW series had creative, ridiculous traps that usually filled the appetites of gorehounds. SAW V will disappoint even the most diehard SAW fan. The only two noteworthy traps are a bladed pendulum (clearly taken from a certain Edgar Allan Poe story) and a box that attempts to drown its victim in an unconventional way (which adorned the film’s poster and most of its marketing). The rest of these new “games” are just plain boring to sit through and the final trap is eye-rollingly stupid. Also, for a movie that sported the tagline “You won’t believe how it ends…,” nearly every audience member had likely guessed the predictable conclusion long before arrived.

SAW V’s flow is as follows: a lame trap, Strahm looking at a file, a flashback between Hoffman and Jigsaw, and Strahm speaking aloud to himself about the flashback that we just spent five minutes watching. This process repeats itself for near the entirety of the 92-minute running time. The result is the worst acted, most poorly written, and undeniably boring SAW yet. With a reboot on the way, I sincerely hope that SAW V remains the lowest point in the franchise. The only reason you should ever sit through SAW V is so you understand what the hell is even happening in the better-than-this-but-still-not-as-good-as-the-first-three SAW VI.

Grade: D

SAW IV (2007)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sequences of Grisly Bloody Violence and Torture throughout, and for Language

Directed by: Darren Lynn Bousman

Written by: Marcus Dunstan & Patrick Melton

Starring: Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Scott Patterson, Betsy Russell, Lyriq Bent, Athena Karkanis & Justin Louis

Even though SAW III could have been a fitting finale for one hell of a horror trilogy, a fourth film was greenlit before the third one even hit theaters. By the time SAW IV was released, Lionsgate had confirmed upcoming fifth and sixth installments were already in production. In other words, Lionsgate loved that SAW was banking at the box office and they planned on keeping their torture-porn money train rolling. Unfortunately, SAW IV is where the series began to dip into mediocrity and stupidity. SAW IV is the second-worst film in the franchise and seems entirely constructed of half-hearted attempts to replicate better moments from the previous three chapters.

John Kramer (a.k.a. the Jigsaw Killer, played by Tobin Bell) has died. After being sliced open during an autopsy, a wax-coated tape is discovered in John’s stomach. Grizzled cop Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) is called to the scene and plays the cassette only to find that Jigsaw’s twisted games aren’t over. Jigsaw apparently had another accomplice and SWAT team member Rigg (Lyriq Bent from the previous two SAW films) is playing a new sadistic game. Rigg cares too much about saving people (I guess that’s a flaw?) and a series of traps/games are meant to force him to “empathize” with Jigsaw. Meanwhile, new detectives Strahm (Scott Patterson) and Perez (Athena Karkanis) investigate Jigsaw’s shadowy recruit.

It’s hard not to sound bitter about SAW IV, but this film is a mess. Darren Lynn Bousman’s directorial chops slightly elevate the ridiculous material because his scene transitions are fun (aided by ingenious set designs) and there are a couple of decent scenes. It’s also worth noting that Lyriq Bent’s performance isn’t bad as he’s the first real heroic character to be put through Jigsaw’s tests, but this really raises eyebrows as Rigg’s problems aren’t really problems. Jigsaw had a method in picking his victims from their various sins that he saw as not appreciating life (e.g. drug use, suicide attempts, crimes, shady dealings, etc.) and Rigg doesn’t fit his M.O. at all. This is a huge plot hole that seems to exist purely to thrust Bent’s cop character into the spotlight.

As far as the series’ newcomers go, Scott Patterson and Athena Karkanis are two bland detectives on the Jigsaw case. Costas Mandylor may be the worst actor in the SAW series as Agent Hoffman and that’s saying a lot when you consider the low quality performances that populate a majority of this torture-porn franchise. Meanwhile, Betsy Russell is brought back as Jigsaw’s wife in both flashbacks and present day sequences. Russell also delivers a terrible performance. It’s too bad that Mandylor and Russell fill recurring roles throughout the last four films of this franchise, because their characters are boring and they can’t convincingly emote.

Even though his character is dead, Tobin Bell appears in flashbacks that deliver more details about how Kramer became Jigsaw. As if being diagnosed with cancer and surviving a suicide attempt weren’t sad enough (as glimpsed in the far superior SAW II), Kramer has also apparently been subjected to even more tragedy in his life that drove him to his “work.” A small subplot of how Kramer chose his first victim and invented his first device is kind of cool to watch, even though more insight into Jigsaw makes him less scary as a result.

SAW IV’s best trap hearkens back to the simpler, scarier bits of the series and involves a set of knives used in a disfiguring way. The rest of the traps are rather silly and out-ridiculous the already ridiculous (but cool) devices from SAW III. Apparently, straps attached to bed posts are strong enough to rip off limbs and one loud mechanical device was snuck into a mortuary without anyone noticing (playing a stitched-up spin on the first two parts of the phrase “See No Evil, Speak No Evil, Hear No Evil”).

Finally, SAW IV’s biggest slap in the face arrives in a twist ending that fails to leave much of an impact. Much like the rest of this lackluster sequel, SAW IV’s conclusion is a mediocre mish-mash of better scenes from better entries that came before this one. I don’t want to be specific because that would give away major spoilers for any viewer who dares to tread further into the series after the third film. I will just say that the conclusion of Rigg’s tests packs four eye-rollingly convoluted revelations in a row. There were further sequels to follow SAW IV and this isn’t even the worst film of the series. However, this is still a drastic step down from the quality of the first three SAWs. Just pretend that SAW is a trilogy and don’t venture into the IV-VII. Stop playing these games. It’s not worth it!

Grade: C-

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+

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

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