The Saw films and I are not buddies, to put it mildly. Though there is hiding within the first one a very good psychological "chamber horror" film, it is not itself a very good film, and the sequels have all in their way proven to be one diminishing return after another. And morally vicious! I can still not name a film that has left me with such a sour, cynical taste in my mouth as Saw III.

Even so, the promise that the awkwardly-titled Saw 3D would be the final entry in the franchise (or probably not, but a fella can hope), coupled with my general theory that everything is more pleasantly cheesy with 3-D, had me in a fairly mellow mood, going into it. I was expecting, certainly not to enjoy myself, but to have a satisfying time watching crazy violent shit and not really worrying about it. This mood lasted until the film's second scene, before the title had even come up.

It is a scene that, in keeping with the "second wave" of the franchise, the films written by Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan following the original "trilogy", presents a splash of violence that ends up having nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the plot: a woman and two men (Anna Lee Greene, Jon Cor, and Sebastian Pigott) are tied to a machine in a glass box in the middle of the downtown shopping district of what I have come think of as "Saw City"; one of them has to die, and the two men are in control of the death machine, and naturally trying to kill one another and save the woman, who has been cheating on them both, and it is implied, asking them to break the law for her. So far, so typical: what makes this scene peculiarly awful is the film's apparent assumption that, since the woman, Dina, was cheating, and since, I mean WTF, it's not like a guy is going to be able to say no to a sexy lady like that, it's kind of like she's the "right" one to die. Which, of course, she does. It's the most overtly misogynistic touch in a series that hasn't been as high on misogyny as a lot of horror cinema, and it gets things started off on just exactly the right tone to promise 90 minutes of arbitrary, objectionable cruelty. Thankfully, this is not what ends up happening.

(Also, the bit where it's in a glass box and there's a huge crowd watching: it's strongly suggested that the voyeurs are in some way culpable, even though the cops are called, and that they're awful people for treating the sight of people dying as entertainment. Which is a profoundly off-kilter, even self-loathing message for a Saw movie to espouse, though I at least have always had the sense that these films actively despise their fanbase).

Instead, Saw 3D is mostly stupid and has a crudely whipped-together plot that is in no meaningful way different from the series norm; some grand finale. Here's what we've got: evil cop Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), the heir to the late puzzle-obsessed moral philosopher and serial killer John "Jigsaw" Kramer" (as always, Tobin Bell), is on the trail of Kramer's ex-wife Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell), who has gone to the police to offer Hoffman up in exchange for immunity. The internal affairs detective on the case is Matt Gibson (Chad Donella), Hoffman's former partner, who tries to piece together enough evidence to find and stop the wicked bastard. This takes care of the requisite "cop looking for the killer" half of the plot. Meanwhile - fulfilling the "victim put through a tour of his sins by going through a desolate warehouse in which each room is a different chamber of Rube Goldbergian evil" half - Hoffman has captured author Bobby Dagen (Sean Patrick Flanery), who has risen to celebrity as the other of a book called S.U.R.V.I.V.E. (what this is an acronym for, if indeed it is an acronym, is never specified), in which he tells the inspiring story of how surviving a Jigsaw trap gave him a new appreciation for life. Except, he was never a Jigsaw victim, until now.

So far, so formulaic; maybe even the most formulaic of all the Saw pictures, though I'm happier not dwelling on that question. Even within a formula, though, there is wiggle room, and Saw 3D is a very slapdash affair, barely able to cling together itself (fortunately, not enough happens for it to have a lot of room for plotholes), and lazily stitched into the existing narrative in the irritating way that has been the hallmark of the franchise ever since Saw II: toss in a twist ending that is some combination of predictable and inane and then replay some scenes from the others with the new twisty information adding to our knowledge of what went on. Meanwhile, dangling characters and plot threads from the other films are left mostly unexplored, in way that frustrates me and I don't even like the fucking things.

Part of the problem, no doubt, is that Melton and Dunstan are not good writers and have never been; part is that director Kevin Greutert palpably doesn't give a shit about the project, which he was forced to do after the producers exercised a clause in his contract to yank him away from making Paranormal Activity 2. Not a single one of the films in the series has been a model of controlled, tight direction; but none of them have worn the director's fatigue and contempt so openly. For a 3-D gore movie, neither the 3-D nor the gore are staged with any particular enthusiasm; as far as the gore effects go, in fact, this is by far the most unconvincing, tossed-off Saw film, which is of course not Greutert's fault, although I find myself supposing that he could have done a lot more to hide the effects' shortcomings than just point his camera at the blood and stare fixedly but without interest. Add in the very uncharacteristic lighting scheme - shot by Brian Gedge, this is the first Saw without cinematographer David A. Armstrong), and it's just dead-eyed and unhappy and bland.

Nor does Greutert do anything with his cast: though Mandylor has finally, in his fifth turn at the character, done something that resembles "acting" in the part of Hoffman, he is the only performer of any note who does reasonable work; while Donella, the nominal hero (my sense is that only Mandylor and Flanery have more screentime), gives not just the worst performance in a Saw movie ever, but one of the most strained, amateur-hour performances I can remember seeing in a film of any reasonably hight budget. One scene in particular - marked by several repeated, ghastly unfocused repetitions of the word "crazy", finds Donella charting new lows in the art of alarmingly ham-fisted acting (the fact that the scene ends with another actor reciting her line as if she just woke up from a most disorienting nap just adds a level of comic zest to the whole thing). Worse yet, the film wastes its two best assets: Bell, whose gravitas has always been one of the few genuinely good things in the movies, and Cary Elwes, reprising his Saw I character with some neurotic filigree, both appear in hardly any scenes, showing up just long enough to make it clear how terrible everyone else is.

But hey - it certainly does wrap things up. In a most perfunctory if conclusive way, without any sort of grandeur to it, that would leave me howling for blood if I were a Saw fan. As it stands, the flatness of the thing just sort of left me with a shrug of dismissal: Saw 3D is awfully boring, but it didn't do much after the first 10 minutes to piss me off, and that's a kind of achievement. Still, even I must admit to a certain disappointment that such a notorious brand name should shuffle off - theoretically - on such a limp, lazy exercise in the routine and predictable.

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)