If anyone ever complains that horror movies are numbing the minds of our adolescent population, point them in the direction of the Saw series. You need a post-graduate degree in order to keep straight the array of victims, motives, traps and killers, not to mention a timeline that bends over upon itself at any given moment. As such, attempting to watch Saw IV without seeing the first three installments is like trying to enroll in a doctoral program with a Boy Scout merit badge.
The film picks up where Saw III left off: with the original Saw killer Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) and his Saw II protégé Amanda (Shawnee Smith) dead. But have no fear; there's a new killer waiting in the wings. We learn this in the opening moments when, during an all-too-realistic autopsy scene, the coroner discovers that Jigsaw has swallowed one of his trademark microcassette tapes (Jigsaw apparently having never joined the digital revolution). Playing the tape, Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) hears the killer's cold declaration that "The games have just begun."
Thus begins a series of Saw's now-familiar "games": twisted traps that Jigsaw, Amanda, and the mystery third killer have set to basically torture victims into appreciating life. The main target of the game this time around is Lieutenant Rigg (Lyriq Bent), who's already exceeded the life expectancy for a black horror movie character by surviving the second and third films.
With practically everyone else from the other movies dead, Rigg's hell-bent on being the hero of part four. It's this heroic streak, however, that Team Jigsaw has seized upon as his fatal flaw. They draw him into the game by kidnapping Hoffman and Detective Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg) and announcing to Rigg that they'll be killed in exactly 90 minutes -- conveniently, just about the running time of the movie.
The plot moves at a dizzying pace as Rigg runs through the games within the game and is trailed by a squad of stock FBI characters delivering rapid-fire dialogue in matter-of-fact Dragnet-speak, each scene serving no purpose other than to reveal another clue that leads Rigg to his inevitable failure at the "game."
The End Product
Due to this utilitarian approach, the movie lacks the emotional punch of the first three films, which involved the lead characters fighting for family members' lives in addition to their own. The characters in Saw IV come a distant second to the games, with the dead Jigsaw ironically benefiting from the most character development (via flashbacks).
Even the games themselves have become increasingly toothless the fourth time around, lacking the ingenuity and shock value of the early films. And without those aspects working for them, you begin to realize how much the games rely on an increasingly improbable series of actions and reactions. I mean, the likelihood of these plans working as perfectly as they do throughout the series is the equivalent of knocking over a 10,000-domino maze on the first try. For the love of Jenga, it can't be done!
That said, you have to tip your hat to the team of screenwriters who manage the intricacies of the time-space continuum in this convoluted plot. Like the two previous sequels to the classic original, Saw IV is more impressive in concept than in final product. The mere fact that the writers can craft so many viable stories within this limited universe engenders a level of admiration, especially in this era of endless unimaginative horror remakes.
- Acting: B- (Not much heavy lifting required.)
- Direction: C (Too much camera trickery and seizure-inducing flashes of light.)
- Script: C (Nice twist ending, but you have to overlook jumps in logic and plot points that die on the vine.)
- Gore / Effects: B+ (Gloriously grisly, especially the stomach-turning autopsy.)
- Overall: C+ (A treat for fans of the series, but unlikely to win any new converts.)
Saw IV is directed by Darren Lynn Bousman and is rated R for sequences of grisly, bloody violence and torture and language.