I suppose that it's fair to say that if you have so far been a fan of the Saw series, you will most likely enjoy Saw IV, at least in part. You are also a sick and deviant monkey-fucker.

Why did I pick monkeys? I cannot say. But I expect that people who would deliberately and willfully fuck monkeys are probably nasty and sleazy, and people who get legitimately excited about new entries in the Saw franchise, at very least, have a higher likelihood than the population at large of being nasty and sleazy.

With that said, the weird thing about Saw IV is that I suspect the fanboys will be comparatively harsher on it than people who are compelled to see it without desiring to, i.e. critics and overly enthusiastic bloggers who for some damn reason decided that it might be fun to be an expert on torture films. Because I think that if you genuinely like the Saw films, you would think - rightly - that this is the most perfunctory and confusing and needlessly over-plotty of all of them, whereas if you find the films to be things that are endured rather than watched, you would be forced in fairness to admit that this is somewhat better-constructed and significantly less morally outrageous than at the very least Saw III.

Let me propose that when one has reached the point of comparing the relative morality of the Saw films, he is at last beyond help and is only to be pitied from afar.

As this latest film opens, however, it looks to all appearances to be firing on cylinders barely conceived of so far in the series. The corpse of John Kramer AKA "Jigsaw" (played in flashback by the apparently irreplaceable Tobin Bell) is wheeled into a police morgue, where he is given an autopsy that is filmed in exceptionally specific detail, in a scene that pushes miles beyond what I would have supposed was even on the radar for an R-rated film: his skull is sawed off and his brain removed, his chest cut open and his ribs- okay, so you know what, I'm not actually going to go any further with this. Let's just say that my notoriously strong stomach was flipping cartwheels like nobody's business, in a way that even the unrated cut of Saw III only gestured towards, and literally the only thing I can think of is that it's "okay" when this all happens to a dead body because goddamn is it hard to watch. I have pretty much seen all of the most violent films the world has to offer outside of the infamous Italian gutmunchers, and this is beyond anything I know.

Then it pretty much stops. When I decided like a batshit crazy person last March to watch what was then the Saw trilogy, I observed to my surprise that the films, at least the first two, were not really all that gory. Blood was shed, of course, but not in any hugely over-the-top way. Saw IV, after that excruciating first scene, pretty much follows suit: there are a few nastily torn-apart bodies here and there, but not much in the way of particularly outré gore effects. Instead, there is unrelenting nastiness and grimness and nihilism that is all the more needlessly disturbing because it is not very bloody.

It's easy to lump all torture porn into one big pile where it's all just sick and depraved, but that's intellectually dishonest: there's a whole lot separating the different approaches to the movement. I am not in any way prepared to call Hostel a good or nice or even particularly watchable film, but it and its sequel have a certain zestiness to them that springs out of Eli Roth's unabashed love for everything that has ever been in any horror film ever. There's a sense of twisted childlike "look what I can do!" to the proceedings, and while that doesn't speak well of Roth's mentality (dude worships Cannibal Holocaust, for fuck's sake), the films have a high energy level that is in a very particular way - notice that I do mean a very particular way - "fun." The Saw films, I am convinced, are not "fun" in any sense that has any real-world meaning. In Saw IV, we see that in the grisly opening, which grabs the viewer and shoves his (or her, I should say, but I don't like to) face right in the steaming pile of exploitation and violence. Saw IV basically hates the viewer for liking violence and torture, and to accommodate that fact, everything is ugly and underlit and grimy and grainy. None of which is particularly different from the proceeding three, I guess.

Still, the film doesn't insist like the last one did on making us identify with the torturers, and this is both good and sort of problematic. Problematic because as a story, there's nobody we really connect to in the film. It really is just straight-up voyeurism this time, and this series has always avoided that to this degree.

In fact, the word for this story is "crap." Straight up crap. I don't particularly want to engage with the story, but it's about SWAT Commander Rigg (Lyriq Bent) racing against a clock to save Det. Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) and Det. Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg), the latter missing since the events of Saw II. Along the way, he is forced to make the judgments that Jigsaw would have made if he were still alive to make judgments, and it is hinted throughout that this is a sort of training ground to make him the new Jigsaw. Meanwhile, FBI Agents Strahm (Scott Patterson) and Perez (Athena Karkanis) try to figure out what's going on in general, and this leads to flashbacks showing Jigsaw's origin story.

It's at once the most arc-based plot and the most aimless in the whole series (an origin story? Really?), and the final twist is pure, unabashed insult, present only to leave enough totally confusing holes to make Saw V a virtual necessity just to figure out the plot of this film, not to mention Saw III, which actually ends up feeling less resolved than it did a year ago. Horror films are generally cash-grabs, but this is a specifically trashy way to go about setting up a sequel. I can't imagine a true fan feeling anything but cheated by this.

But I am not a true fan, and I am grateful that the over-reliance on plot means less of the films' patented immoral moralising. And I am also grateful that director Darren Lynn Bousman has toned back so considerably on the music video visual trickery, leaving only a really odd but not inherently awful motif of transitioning between scenes that I can't really describe properly (it involves placing the actors from one scene in the new scene so there's a sort of shot-reverse shot into the new set, that's always confusing but inventive and technically well-done). I am grateful that the tin ear of Leigh Whannell was not allowed anywhere near the dialogue.

Mostly, I am grateful that it's a full year before I have to deal with another one.

And now, I continue a tradition by lightening the mood with a kitten:

Happy Halloween to all, and to all a good night.

Reviews in this series
Saw (Wan, 2004)
Saw II (Bousman, 2005)
Saw III (Bousman, 2006)
Saw IV (Bousman, 2007)
Saw V (Hackl, 2008)
Saw VI (Greutert, 2009)
Saw 3D (Greutert, 2010)
Jigsaw (Spierig Brothers, 2017)
Spiral: From the Book of Saw (Bousman, 2021)