Saw IV (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Horror films are like candy corn: familiar, bland, and sickening if consumed in large quantities. They're both ubiquitous at this time of year and there must be a large group of individuals who appreciate their dubious charms because they never go away. I like a good, scary horror film - something that raises the hackles and keeps me on the edge of my seat. It's been a while since I have seen one, however. (Maybe the last one was The Descent.) I have watched all four Saw movies but didn't review installment #2 or #3. I have selected to review this one to show how far this series has fallen since its promising debut.

One of the depressing things about sequels in general and horror sequels in particular is the tendency to fall into a pattern of repetition. An idea that starts out fresh quickly becomes stale through overuse. This is evident in Saw IV, easily the worst and most pointless episode of the gore-saturated quadrology. Not only does Saw IV repeat (with a few variations) what has come before, but it does so without the involvement of the main villain, Jigaw (Tobin Bell), who died at the end of Saw III. To its credit, the movie does not bring him back from the dead, but that leaves a notable vacuum of insanity. There's a bad guy of sorts, but it's not the same.

Saw IV functions as a drawn-out, tedious epilogue to a series that began with an energetic bang three years ago with Saw, then progressively lost momentum, coherence, and intelligence with each successive annual installment. Saw IV is nothing short of a money-grab. Despite a couple of loose ends (that are tied up unsatisfactorily here), Saw III finished the story. Although Darren Lynn Bousman, the director of Saw II and III, is back for IV, screenwriter Leigh Whannell has not returned.

It's hard to disagree that there was a strong streak of sadism in even the first Saw, but the ingeniousness of the situation and the novelty of the approach trumped its gorier and nastier aspects. The balance changed for the sequel, however, where the "intelligence" became an excuse for a growing sense of mean-spiritedness. By the time the series reached Saw IV, questions of "morality" and twisted "choice" have largely been supplanted by gratuitous torture. The macabre has been escalated to a grisly level where all that seems to matter any more is figuring out new ways to eviscerate and slaughter victims. Saw IV has more in common with Hostel II than its progenitor.

The film opens with a graphic autopsy of Jigsaw. Although the frequent resurrections of Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees have taught us to treat death with skepticism in horror movies, Jigsaw does not get up off the table. He stays dead, although that doesn't mean he's absent from the movie. He has made tapes to be played after his demise and there are flashbacks. The most notable aspect of Saw IV may be that we learn most of Jigsaw's unrevealed back story. If only it was more interesting…

Two surviving cops have returned from the previous Saws: Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) and Rigg (Lyriq Bent). They are joined by a couple of Feds: Agent Strahm (Scott Patterson) and Agent Perez (Athena Karkanis). These four believe that, even though Jigsaw and Amanda are no longer among the living, someone continues to carry out their work. In short order, Hoffman is kidnapped and learns (to his chagrin) the fate of Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg), and Rigg ends up going on one of Jigsaw's long, multi-part quests (like Angus Mcfadyen's Jeff in Saw III). The body count and number of flashbacks pile up until everything sort-of gets resolved. There is certainly a wide door left open for the possibility of a Saw V (although, if there is one, it won't happen next year).

Bousman's style is much the same here as it was in Saw II and III. The color is desaturated to an extremity where many of the scenes appear to be almost black-and-white. There are frequent jump cuts and occasional flash repeats of moments. It's all very showy but doesn't do much to enhance the overall experience. At least the action scenes aren't filmed using the shaky cam approach. When someone dies, it's not hard to figure out what has happened. Then again, for a film that revels in the inventiveness of its murders, an epileptic style would defeat the purpose. You need to see the gore in clear detail in order to get the full impact.

Saw IV will likely sate the appetite of long-term, hardcore fans of the franchise, but it offers nothing to anyone who does not fall into that category. The movie's dense plotting and frequent flashbacks demand familiarity with the previous installments to make any sort of sense, and even then there are some sizable gaps. Did I piece everything together? No. Do I care? Not really. There are no human beings in this movie - just blood bags waiting to be popped. It's a depressing experience to view something like Saw IV. It's not just the soullessness that's dispiriting, but the lack of invention. When a movie does little more than repeat what its predecessors accomplished with grotesque effectiveness, it's past time to tip this corpse into its grave and bury it.

Saw IV (United States, 2007)

Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2007-10-26
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1