Saw 3D

The Saw franchise commands a certain kind of respect from within the Hollywood studio system. Not because of quality of the films – good lord no – or even their quantity (this is the seventh installment). It’s their frequency that’s turned heads in the brass tacks side of the moviemaking biz: seven Saw films in seven years, a freshie released every year since 2004.

No wonder the characters feel under developed and the storylines crude and threadbare. But would a few more months or a couple more years in the script developing stage make a difference? Maybe. Probably not.

Saw 3D – or Saw VII without the glasses – arrives with the proclamation that this is “the final chapter.” But, loaded with an outstandingly ludicrous last minute twist that sheds new, characteristically dark light on all the preceding installments, it certainly doesn’t feel like one, and the American horror genre is not exactly unaccustomed to bringing both characters and entire franchises back from the dead.

In the Elm Street neighbourhood Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare was released in 1991, only three years before Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (’94), then Freddy vs. Jason (2003) and then in 2010 the first of more than one remake.

So the Saw franchise will be back, no doubt ‘bout it, it’s just a matter of when. While I won’t be shedding any sleep in a world without Jigsaw and his rat in the maze victims I confess to being somewhat fond of the idea of the franchise continuing its one-a-year pattern for as long as possible, under the vain pretext of proving some sort of deranged point.

There are inter-textual touches that make Saw 3D more interesting than its predecessors on a conceptual level, with the exception of the trailblazing and innovative original from Melbournians James Wan and Leigh Whannel who shocked and thrilled audiences in 2004. We fleetingly encounter characters from previous films at a support group for victims of Jigsaw, the franchises villain who targets victims deemed immoral for his own particular reasons (like the killers in Se7en and Phone Booth) and constructs elaborate machines in which they must partake in all manners of body mutilation in order to escape a gnarly death.

One of the support group’s attendees, Bobby (Sean Patrick Flanery) is there with a camera team. They’re filming footage for a DVD documentary. Bobby has a publicity mob; he’s got a book and does the talk show rounds discussing the horrendous experience he had at the hands of cranky ol’ Jigsaw.

But Bobby was never struck by Jigsaw’s calculated rage. He’s a charlatan flogging a phoney story in the pursuit of fame, notoriety and money. So guess who wakes up in a dingy darkly lit room and has 60 minutes to explore the rest of the building lest the love of his life (plus his entourage) go the way of the dodo – if each and every one of those now fabled flightless birds were sadistically tortured and murdered?

The Saw series presents carnival-esque horror, largely driven by an unsettling association between fear and human invention. That motivation for good or ill separates the film from the rest of the pack of serial killer slice’n’dice horror pics. A key challenge for Saw filmmakers is to design gimmicky death machines that – unlike those in the Bond movies – actually work.

The audience understands – or they damn well should after six years – that if their ticket is ripped and they sashay into a Saw screening they will see saws chowing through bodies, sharp instruments poking into eyes, reverse bear traps that collapse faces. I wonder what Buster Keaton, whose career was based on human interaction with objects, would make of these movies.

Saw 3D delivers haunted house amusement park fodder, mostly crass thrills and crude scares, but there is some skill in the manner with which director Kevin Greutert captures the material. It is a genuinely creepy experience, something that would infuse a toddler’s mind with nightmares for decades.

A tooth plucking scene in which the protag is ordered to extract a couple of his back teeth to progress to the next room had me flinching, recalling in almost cinematic flashes horrible dreams I experienced as a youth in which my pearly whites – now more than a shade brown – fell out of my mouth and left my gums bloody and mangled. That’s the sort of fear the Saw series latches onto: if your body if your temple, these movies imagine what it would be like to smash every brick of it and defecate on the rubble.

However, unlike other gratuitous jet black features — Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005) comes to mind — the Saw films have momentum. The characters generally need to move quickly from one trap to the next and the one after that, so the pace is rarely slow. It’s the unimaginative overlapping storylines that bore.

The big twist in Saw 3D is unpredictable partly because it defies any semblance of logic, and, worse, because a very similar trick has been pulled in a previous instalment.

On a more nitpicking note the blood looks way too fake; when will filmmakers learn that blood is dark, dammit?

The 3D is about average and the performances desperately high voltage. No matter how convincing the actors are at screaming their lungs out, you don’t get any kudos for performing in a film like this. Not even if you get to star in the next one, and the one after that, and the one after that.

Saw 3D’s Australian theatrical release date: November 4, 2010.