For some unknown reason, among both my critical peers and fellow horror movie aficionados, the Saw series of films is one of the most bemoaned of modern horror franchises. I’ve long been puzzled by this phenomena, and can come up with scant few answers for its existence. I suppose for the critics it’s the contrarian in them that enjoys savaging something that’s popular and successful. I myself have been accused of no less on a handful of occasions. For the horror fan, the symptoms are similar, but the causes, I suspect, run much deeper. Before the original Saw was released, there was a huge buzz among gorehounds surrounding the film, and many were laying in wait to claim it as their own. When Saw finally dropped, it was met with unprecedented mainstream success, and each sequel seemed to drive a bigger wedge between the films and the hardcore horror fan base. It’s gotten to the point where you can’t bring up the series in conversation without fanboys shit-talking you into a coma, then closing with a snicker to confirm their superiority. But never is a valid argument brought to bear, just the whining of a subculture that feels infiltrated and betrayed, which is a fucking riot. Most modern “horror buffs” are too young and willfully ignorant to realize that most of the classic slasher and exploitation films that they cherish were not only their own precious playthings but the nightmare fuel and date-night fodder of an entire generation. It’s a shame that the Saw films don’t get their due, because there’s a lot to admire in them.
The original was the debut film by two first time filmmakers, shot on an unbelievably low-budget of $1.2 million (most films spend roughly that on craft services), built around a tight, smart script. It didn’t skimp on the gore, and managed to get spectacular performances out of near-complete unknowns, while giving birth to, or at least popularizing (along with Eli Roth’s Hostel) the new genre of Torture Porn. Each successive film has delivered on the promise of the original, while maintaining a tradition of using practical special effects (a dying art in today’s Hollywood, with the likes of Romero, Rodriguez and Zombie going digital with their gore) and crafting a labyrinthine story arc that has only deepened as the series has gone on. There have been highs (the intertwined finale of Saw III and the healthcare crisis subtext of Saw VI being excellent examples) and lows (the second and fifth films do not engage one the way the rest of the series does), but Saw has emerged as one of the most consistently intriguing and entertaining horror franchises of all time. And perhaps consistency is one of the main reasons the Saw series is so under appreciated. Perhaps, by comparison, other horror film franchises’ blemishes begin to show. Is Jigsaw in the same league as Freddy or Jason in the horror pantheon? Only time will tell. But has the Saw series yielded one sequel as embarrassing or pitiful as either Freddy’s Dead or Jason Takes Manhattan? I think not.
Which brings us to Saw 3D, supposedly the last of the series (I won’t be holding my breath on that). At the conclusion of Saw VI, Jigsaw’s widow, Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell), who had apparently been complicit in all of her husband’s crimes throughout the series, betrayed Detective Matt Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), the last of Jigsaw’s disciples. Hoffman narrowly escaped his death via the “reverse bear trap” first seen in the original Saw, but was maimed in the process. As Saw 3D opens, we are first treated to a flashback to the timeline of the first film in which we learn the fate of Dr. Gordon (once again played by Cary Elwes), then the obligatory opening “trap” sequence before we pick up where Saw VI left off. Jill has made her escape, and turns herself over to the police, revealing Hoffman’s identity as Jigsaw’s accomplice in exchange for immunity and protection. As Hoffman plans his revenge on Jill, he is also running a new “game”, this time involving Bobby Dagen (played by Boondock Saints co-star Sean Patrick Flanery), supposedly a survivor of one of Jigsaw’s previous traps, who has used his experience to reinvent himself as a self-help guru, with his associates and loved ones also having been drawn into Jigsaw’s deadly series of tests, all building to a (predictably) bloody finale.
Now there are really only two things veteran fans of the series want to know: does Saw 3D deliver when it comes to the traps and the twists? I can answer quite confidently “yes” on both counts. The traps are some of the sickest yet, as was expected after the filmmakers revealed during production that they had saved torture sequences deemed too violent and shocking for the previous films for Saw 3D. “The garage trap”, one of the most depraved yet, gave me no small amount of joy in its simultaneous and grisly dispatch of four neo-Nazis, as I do love watching Nazis die (Seriously, love it. Like, “Inglourious Basterds was porn to me,” love it.). Later, when the notorious “reverse bear trap” was brought in to play yet again, I had the feeling of “been there, done that” until I realized we have never seen this trap carry out its intended purpose. The closest we ever got was Hoffman’s turn in the device at the end of Saw VI, and all that netted him was a torn cheek. Well, ready your gore-boner, because this time around we finally see what this baby can do, and it may stand as the most singularly explicit and gory trap in the history of the series. I shit you not. While I wouldn’t call the remaining traps in the film routine by any stretch, none come close to touching the two mentioned above
As for the final plot twist, which is a device that has served to conclude each and every Saw film, it does indeed shake up the status quo of the series (as all the great plot reveals have done throughout), but it may come off as a bit predictable to longtime fans of the franchise. We’ve come to expect that, when an old character is reintroduced or a much greater emphasis is put on a longtime minor character, they will tie into the plot in a way previously unimagined. Saw 3D doesn’t deviate from that principle. But make no mistake; the information revealed in the final minutes of Saw 3D will change the way you look at all previous entries in a huge way.
The acting is solid as always, with mainstays Mandylor, Russell and of course Tobin Bell slipping right back into the complex roles they have established in the previous entries. Cary Elwes, not seen since the original Saw, also returns with a more bitter and menacing variation on his character, Dr. Gordon. The only cast member who disappoints somewhat is Sean Patrick Flanery. He gives by no means a bad performance, just a slightly dull one. There’s cameos from returning minor characters, but they’re not given much screen time to be properly fleshed out. And the victims? Well, they’re pretty much only there to die as horrifically as possible, so their acting skills are irrelevant.
Saw 3D is directed by Kevin Greutert, who debuted with Saw VI and has edited every Saw film up until this entry. Greutert maintains the grimy, filter-heavy style of the previous films, while being the first of the Saw directors to tackle filming in 3D (it was actually shot in 3D, unlike many of the films released in the format today, which gain their third dimension during digital post-production). The aesthetic continuity of the series often leaves one in awe, especially considering its passed
through the hands of four different directors. Filming in 3D does lead to this being the most different looking of the films in terms of the unique camera work the format demands, but not so dissimilar that it seems out of place. And I might add that the 3D elements are, for the most part, tasteful and unobtrusive. There’s the odd object flying at the audience every now and again, but more often than not the technique is used to convey depth and to further viewer immersion. In addition to the competent direction by Greutert, we are presented with the same level of production design and special effects we have come to expect from a Saw film. That these films keep coming up with more imaginative and elaborate props and consistently believable gore than films with three times their budget continues to astound. And to top it off, we have series mainstay Charlie Clouser’s score, without which this film would be hopelessly incomplete. Even now, seven movies deep, when “Hello Zepp” began to play at the film’s climax, I got goose bumps like you wouldn’t fucking believe. It’s an iconic arrangement that is as effective today as it was in 2004.
Saw 3D is a fitting conclusion to one of the most successful and iconic horror franchises of the last decade. It brings to the table all the elements that made the series a success while enriching the narrative in a way that changes the way you will look at all that came before it. A smart script, great performances and, above all, clever and inventive gore all come together one last time to create a final chapter worthy of Jigsaw’s legacy. All that being said, it’s not a film that’ll win over any new converts, and if you didn’t like the last six movies, there’s a decent chance you’re not gonna like this one. And that’s ok. Everyone’s welcome to their own opinion. But if you do choose to turn your nose up at Saw 3D, please do so out of personal taste. Don’t bash it because you discovered Takeshi Miike just last week and now fancy yourself an expert on extreme cinema. You’ll just look like a douche bag.
– Adam Rosina