Recently, I was brought into a blog discussion as the local authority on the aesthetics and morality of torture porn. It was a bit of miscasting, really, as I'm not that much of a defender of it, but that's neither here nor there. The point of this was the question that kicked of this virtual hubbub was the news that, on its opening weekend, Saw IV snagged the top spot in the ranking of that weekend's ticket sales. The question was something like "What possesses some many people to see such a sick flick?"
I propose that a more appropriate question would be "What possessed so many people to see such a mediocre flick?"
In my review of Saw III I erroneously announced that I had seen the last film in the dwindling Saw franchise. I sincerely wish I had been correct.
The new latest edition to the Saw franchise is superior to the third flick, but that gets you awfully little. The traps take a set back from the Bond-villain grade devices that appeared in the third installment, with a single truly super-villain style device involving being perched on a block of melting ice while two other blocks of ice threaten to swing down and squish the victim's head.
What's actually weird about the Saw franchise is, against the grain of most horror franchises, the move has been towards increasing narrative complexity and a deepening of the backstory an relationships surrounding Jigsaw, the series now dead star who, through the miracle of nested flashbacks, gets plenty of screen-time. This is less promising than it sounds. When he was reviewing the first Saw flick, Roger Ebert mocked Jigsaw as another one of those bizarre and needlessly complex serial killers who invent overly fussy ways of offing folks main so the plots can drag on. Where's the motivation to do all this work? I have no idea if the men behind the saw franchise read that review, but they've basically reacted to in every subsequent flick by adding on yet another motive for Jigsaw to do what he does. In the first flick he did what he does 'cause he's dying and he's got a big ol' brain tumor that is probably scrambling his regular thoughts. Basically, he's not got long to live and he's batshit crazy so he concocts this bizarre religion around subjecting folks to life and death decisions. In the second flick, this nebulous religion got reified so that we get rules and disciples. The theory here being that adding more crazies to a delusion makes it a religion. In the third film we actually added a whole new reason for Jigsaw to be Jigsaw. See, before he got a tumor, he was in a car wreck that nearly killed him. At the moment, he had this epiphany. His traps are meant to recreate that transcendent moment for the suckers he traps. So, the brain tumor's out. That's just crap that came later. Car wreck, that's the new reason. Plus, in the third flick, what was a vague religion gets so codified that we can actually have an ideological split between Jigsaw and one of his disciples (astute readers just caught the feeble hook on which the plot of S4 hangs – there's more than one Junior Jigsaw). Finally, in S4, we get yet another reason for Jigsaw to be Jigsaw. In this flick we learn that Jigsaw's ex-wife was a social worker at a drug clinic. When she was preggers, one of the junkies she was trying to help robbed the place. She was injured and had a miscarriage. In the hospital, she is drowning in doubt. "I just wanted to help them," she says.
Jigsaw says something like, "You can't save people. They must save themselves."
So, here we have yet another motive – revenge – and a weird reworking of the pseudo-religion of the early Jiggy into something like a serial killer version of mainline libertarianism. In this flick he actually puts a cop through all varieties of hell to "prove" to the cop that he can't save everybody. One assumes that firemen are next, followed by ambulance drivers, then people from child services. Perhaps EPA guys after that. Since we're on the topic, the arc of the flicks has been to make him less crazy and transform him into a gory libertarian superhero. The alpha victims in the first flick were a doctor who was cheating on his wife because he'd lost the zest for life and a private eye who was a semi-creep. Jigsaw's treatment of them was entirely out of proportion. It was the work of crazy man. The victims in this installment include a violent junkie who injured a preggers woman, a serial rapist, a child abuser, a woman who we're told "will go to jail," and a lawyer who defends what we're supposed to feel is scum (Hollywood, for all the use they've gotten out of lawyers, seems feel that not everybody deserves the best legal defense available).
We've already spent too much time talking about it. With its Thousand and One Nights worthy flashback-in-a-flashback-in-a-flashback structure, its slick production values, and its incessant need to heap on needless complexities, no horror franchise has ever worked so very hard to achieve so little. In fact, in that way, the filmmakers resemble their star mass murderer. With his Rube Goldberg inventions meant to teach us that we shouldn't try to teach people stuff, Jigsaw is self-defeating. The filmmakers are in the same boat. They harder they work at this thing, the less it means.