Saw IV (2007) *
This will not be news to the sizable faction of my readers who also read a lot of comic books, but in comic writing, there’s a technique known as retconning. The term is a contraction of “retroactive continuity,” and it’s a tool that comic writers use to escape from the strictures imposed by decades’ worth of open-ended sequential storytelling. Let’s say the new writer for The Preposterous Porridge-Man has a story he really wants to tell involving Stacy Gwen, a character who used to be the rival of Porridge-Man’s love interest back in Silver Age days, and Plaid the Impaler, the villain in a story arc the writer fondly remembers from when he was a kid in the 80’s. The trouble is, Stacy Gwen was killed by the Haggis Hag in Porridge-Man Adventures #186, while Plaid the Impaler became a good guy (changing his name to Righteous Dude while he was at it) after he and the Awesomizer teamed up to fight Bastardo in Crisis of Diminishing Returns #9. So does our writer simply shrug his shoulders and accept that his pet project has been foreclosed to him by the works of his predecessors? Fuck no. He just retcons the obstacles to his story out of existence. That wasn’t Stacy Gwen the Haggis Hag killed, but rather a robot duplicate which the villain created in the hope that by destroying it, she could break Porridge-Man’s spirit and defeat him; the real Stacy Gwen has had amnesia all this time, and has been cared for in secret by the lama of a Tibetan monastery. And Plaid the Impaler? He has a twin brother whom nobody ever mentioned before, and that twin takes up the mantle of evil when he catches his wife cheating on him with a sideshow pinhead. Now everything’s in place for the next six issues of The Preposterous Porridge-Man, in which our author regales us with a tale that will change the Desperation Comics Universe FOREVER!— or at least until his successor on the book has his own bright idea, and retcons the retcon. What does this have to do with Saw IV, you ask? Simply that Saw IV— which, significantly, was written by a completely different team than its predecessors— apparently exists for no other reason than to retcon away the elements of the preceding three films that might stand in the way of still further sequels.
With most horror franchises, killing off the villain is no great impediment to continuing the series. Some fool can always be found to pull the stake out of Count Dracula’s heart, or to pass Dr. Frankenstein’s notebooks along to the next descendant in line, or to unclog that portal to Hell in the cellar just one more time. And when shrugging off injuries that ought to kill anything is a regular part of the baddie’s routine, the writers of the next installment needn’t exert even that minimal creative effort. John Kramer isn’t Jason Voorhees, though, so when Saw III ended with both a circular saw in the Jigsaw Killer’s throat and a bullet or two through Jigsaw Junior Amanda Young’s vitals, I kind of had to wonder how the people behind this franchise proposed to handle the next three movies— especially since bringing Kramer back to life, even assuming that it could be done, would have completely invalidated the entire point of the series. The good news is, Kramer will be appearing this time around only via the usual assortment of flashbacks (in which he will, as always, be played by Tobin Bell), and in the autopsy scene that opens the film. Amanda Young, meanwhile, will scarcely be appearing at all. Instead, what we have here is the hunt for a previously unmentioned second Jigsaw accomplice, and quite possibly an attempt to recruit yet a third.
After the aforementioned autopsy— which climaxes with the discovery of another taped message from the killer, hidden away inside his own stomach despite being significantly wider than the human esophagus— we cut to a couple of guys trapped in a mausoleum, one with his eyes sewn shut, one with his mouth sewn shut, and both chained to each other’s necks via the intermediary of an automated winch that will snap the men’s spines if they can’t figure out a way to get the keys from each other’s collars. The new writers (Patrick Melton, Marcus Dunstan, and Thomas H. Fenton) make their presence felt here by dispensing with the expected setup that would give us some indication of who the captives were, or how their predicament relates to the way they’ve been fucking up their lives. Indeed, so purely gratuitous and ritualistic is this segment that we aren’t even shown the cops touring the crime scene afterward.
Instead, the police— represented this time by Lieutenant Rigg (still Lyriq Bent) and another detective named Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor, from Dinocroc and Fist of the North Star), who was an extremely minor figure in Saw III— have finally located the body of Detective Allison Kerry, whom Amanda killed off about a third of the way through the last movie. I assume that we’re supposed to take it as an indication that this Jigsaw business is now attracting attention on the highest levels when Hoffman and Rigg find themselves intruded upon by a pair of FBI agents called Strahm (Scott Patterson) and Perez (Survival of the Dead’s Athena Karkanis). In fact, however, the arrival of Strahm and Perez merely tells us that Melton, Dunstan, and Fenton don’t understand the FBI’s actual function, because murder does not become a federal matter unless and until it crosses state lines. Regardless, it is Strahm who first raises the issue of the second accomplice, pointing out the implausibility of Amanda Young first overpowering the substantially stronger and heavier Kerry, and then manhandling her into the contraption that took her life.
Initially, the preferred suspect is Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell, of Avenging Angel and Cheerleader Camp), John Kramer’s ex-wife… about whom we’ve never heard one word spoken until just now, although we’re assured that she spent “a hundred hours” under interrogation in connection with Kramer’s crimes. She was her husband’s partner in some of the philanthropic projects that he pursued before his turn to serial murder. The first Jigsaw victim was the man who caused her miscarriage while robbing the drug rehab clinic she runs. (And yes, it pains me to confirm that the new writers have seen fit to revise Kramer’s back story to make the death of his unborn son the real root of his madness, and to blur the distinction between his philosophically motivated crimes and simple vigilantism by blaming the miscarriage on a junkie mugger.) Her lawyer, Art Blank (Justin Louis, from Dawn of the Dead and Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II), made a career out of defending sex offenders, and recently went missing. (In fact, he was the guy with his mouth sewn shut in the mausoleum, but that won’t come out until he’s reintroduced under circumstances that render the tomb scene wholly redundant.) Tuck remains Strahm’s preferred suspect, too, even as evidence mounts up to point in other directions. Hoffman, for his part, favors Rigg, of all people. First of all, once cops began falling to the Jigsaw Killer, they strangely tended to be cops who had worked closely with Rigg on the case, while Rigg himself has emerged unscathed from several potentially close calls. Secondly, Rigg’s continuing obsession with the unknown fate of Detective Eric Matthews strikes Hoffman as a likely ruse to throw his fellow police off the scent, since Matthews’s continued survival six months after his disappearance in company with Kramer would not at all fit the Jigsaw Killer’s pattern. Rigg’s fingerprints also turn up on an ostensible clue found with Kerry’s body, which is enough to drum up some support for Hoffman’s theory among his colleagues. It doesn’t take much observational acuity, though, to notice that the object bearing Rigg’s prints had absolutely no reason to be where it was unless it had been planted as part of a frame-up attempt.
In point of fact, Rigg is the mysterious third Jigsaw Killer’s primary target. The killer ambushes Rigg in his apartment, knocks him out, and then suckers him into participating in the most poorly thought-out Jigsaw game yet by offering him a chance to save Detective Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg again), who is indeed alive against all odds and plot logic— and to save Hoffman, too, surprisingly enough. The object of this game is evidently to bring Rigg around to the killer’s way of thinking (although just what that’s supposed to be is more than a little muddy, and bears scant apparent resemblance to the concerns of either the real Jigsaw Killer or the previous fake one), and to test at the same time Rigg’s “worthiness” to participate in the project (for reasons that, again, are more than a little muddy). At various points throughout the city are people whom the killer has set up for Jigsaw games of their own, and each test site also holds a clue that will help Rigg find Matthews. However, in order to reach those clues, it will theoretically be necessary for Rigg to launch the other captives’ games, which obviously will make him look more and more culpable in the eyes of his fellow cops. Of course, the only reason this works is that Rigg never once thinks to look an area over for the clue before entangling himself with each victim, but presumably we’re not supposed to notice that. In any case, while Rigg looks for Matthews, Strahm and Perez look for Rigg, Tuck, and Blank alike, but the only thing anybody really finds is their own intellectual failings.
Actually, I suppose they find one other thing, too— they also find the filmmakers’ creative failings. That second accomplice everybody’s after? It’s Hoffman, a guy we never learn the first fucking thing about, and who therefore shows absolutely no discernable reason for wanting in on Kramer’s caper. Impressively, the manner in which Hoffman’s criminality is revealed combines the effrontery of all three previous endings, while bringing in a whole new form of effrontery all its own. As in Saw, the real killer was locked in the playing area all along, posing as a subsidiary victim. As in Saw II, we’re asked to swallow a collaboration between Kramer and another major character despite being offered nothing whatsoever by way of justification for the partnership. And as in Saw III, we’re told that things we saw in the previous films didn’t happen the way we saw them (or the way they were strongly implied) at all, and that a person who was either barely visible or indeed not even present was actually the central figure. In fact, Saw IV flashes back to a couple of the same scenes as Saw III, with the result that actions first carried out by Kramer and then reattributed to Amanda are now re-reattributed to Hoffman! Oh— and that bit way at the end of Saw III about Jeff and Lynn’s daughter being locked in the factory, too? Left totally unresolved, even though Saw IV reprises that very scene so as to inject Hoffman into it. But the biggest botch-job of all comes when we learn that the autopsy prologue is chronologically the last scene in the film, and that the action of Saw IV is, to a great extent, concurrent with that of Saw III. This is bad filmmaking first because it deliberately introduces confusion, solely in order to trip up the audience so as— once again— to provide for a surprise ending that has no organic reason for being. But more importantly, by attaching an explicit six-month timeframe to the gap between the end of Saw II and the start of Saw III’s main action, it makes both this movie and its predecessor completely dependent on the blithering incompetence of the police investigating the case. Seriously, you guys are telling me that in six months, these idiots couldn’t track down a bedridden cancer patient when they knew his name, his home address, his personal history, and all of the aforementioned information for his closest conspirator too?! Even though that conspirator has been raiding the local hospitals for drugs, surgical instruments, and high-end medical electronics all this time?! Are you fucking kidding me?!?! Yeah, okay, Hoffman had surely been doing whatever was in his power to sabotage the investigation, but it’s not like he was the only cop on the case, even before we factor in the inappropriate but nevertheless plainly presented involvement of the FBI. Team Jigsaw might have managed to hide out for a couple of weeks with all those strikes against them, but six months? Bullshit. Bull fucking shit.
What really amazes me, though, is that there’s something even more fundamentally wrong with Saw IV than its status as a “passing of the murder’s torch” story even dumber than Friday the 13th, Part V: A New Beginning would have been if Paramount had stuck to their guns and made Tommy the killer from that point on. As I said, there’s a lot of untangling to do here once you realize when the story is really taking place, but the Saw franchise’s methodology serves as a powerful disincentive to bother with that untangling. Why go to all the trouble of figuring out exactly who did what to whom when and why if you already know that the creators of this series will just retcon all the pieces into a new and contradictory arrangement when another sequel comes along next October? Why play the filmmakers’ guessing games when they’ve already established that not only are they willing to hold back all the information necessary to solve the riddle, but that they’ll flat out change the answer in the event that you accidentally get it right in spite of their efforts at deception? Were I less of a compulsive completist, this would almost certainly be the last of these films that I covered. At this point, the Saw series can officially suck my ass.