For most of the aughts, the Saw functioned as a retro sort of horror franchise: low budget, frequent, and Roman numeral-happy, like the Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street series before it. Yet, while Freddy and Jason were subjected to all kinds of ret-conning nonsense, the Saws proceeded more or less as one long (some might say interminable) continuity-heavy story, a kind of grotesque horror soap opera.
The franchise began as a puzzler about a killer nicknamed Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), who didn’t actually slash at people himself but instead placed them in gruesome traps that forced them to mutilate themselves to survive. It has since become a vast narrative of Jigsaw, his history and his legacy (he died at the end of Saw III but continues to appear in flashbacks).
With the reportedly final installment, Saw 3D, which opened 29 October, the franchise may have reached a breaking point. This is not to say that the previous five sequels have set any horror standards, or even met the modest promise of the first Saw movie. But some of them, including last year’s insurance-company-bashing Saw VI, have a grimy energy, a commitment to exploitation filmmaking not found in the finale.
The demise of the series can be traced to the filmmakers’ unsuccessful attempts to replace Jigsaw. A victim in the first film, Amanda (Shawnee Smith) carried on Jigsaw’s vengeance killing through II and III, until she was murdered herself. After Jigsaw’s death, his work was entrusted to the corrupt and crude Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), who continues to set traps and elude and/or kill the fellow cops on his tail. Unfortunately, Jigsaw’s mentees tend to go off-message and turn into regular old serial killers, possibly because his intern program lacks proper screening. Hoffman here uses Jigsaw’s blueprints to create traps far more likely to result in horrible death, and less likely to create an army of born-again Jigsaw acolytes.
The filmmakers obviously find Jigsaw more sympathetic than Hoffman, but Saw 3D, even more than its predecessors, appears to relish Hoffman’s brutality and highlights particular vendettas against women. An opening sequence, weirdly unrelated to the rest of the movie, has two young men forced to choose between killing each other and letting their mutual girlfriend perish, and the scene goes out of its way to paint the woman as a manipulative harpy. Later, another woman literally dies because she can’t shut up. Jigsaw usually set his sights higher than petty, lady-hating squabbles.
When the film avoids this curdled sourness, it does occasionally happen upon either suspense or camp. There’s a simple, clever trap that involves Bobby (Sean Patrick Flanery), a celebrity author who claims to have survived Jigsaw’s wrath, coaxing his blindfolded, noosed friend across a series of jagged planks, and in a nod to the gloriously ridiculous Saw master plot, first-movie survivor Cary Elwes is back for another slice of ham.
But Saw 3D holds back on ludicrous plot twists and even the 3D effects, which are, oddly, almost tasteful. One kick of the Saw series has been its efforts to encourage audience members to imagine themselves in the dire circumstances onscreen, wondering if they would have the strength to, say, cut off their own feet to save their families. Rather than using 3D to heighten this discomfort, Saw 3D is pretty much just a regular late-period Saw sequel that happens to be shot with 3D cameras. It doesn’t look bad, but it fails to place the audience any more emphatically into the victims’ places.
In fact, Saw 3D falls short of many of the series’ meager traditions. In earlier films, the difference between Jigsaw’s deranged moralism and Hoffman’s straight-up murdering emerged as yet another way for viewers to contemplate a moral dilemma. But Saw 3D doesn’t have time for such considerations. It’s too busy rehashing the structure of the last few sequels, cutting between Bobby’s struggles with a series of semi-unwinnable traps and a new batch of cops’ pursuits of Hoffman. The police officers always seem stuck in their own D-grade, straight-to-cable movie, which is the only explanation for their inability to locate a sweaty, slow-moving, not particularly bright fellow cop who at this point kills adversaries indiscriminately and hangs out almost exclusively in dark, abandoned warehouses.
The authorities’ stupidity never seemed quite so blatant when Jigsaw was in charge of mayhem. Bell—who appears only briefly this time—plays him with a stone-faced zen righteousness and sneaky intelligence, and even in flashbacks, he remains the franchise’s most valuable player. Mandylor has far less charisma; when Hoffman avoids punishment, it’s less frightening than irritating. He reduces a sleazy, gimmicky series to plain old sleazy, a slasher movie retro the point of boredom. By the time Saw 3D reaches its hysterical climax, he’s just another hulking, unstoppable killing machine.