Monday, October 29, 2012

Horror Fest Special: The Saw Series (Second Cycle)

(editor's note: for the "First Cycle" of Saw films, click here.)

 Did I say "later this week"? My mistake, gang. The Cap'n has been on a bit of a travel schedule as of late, and it's made keeping pieces up to speed a little more difficult. I won't bore you with the details, and instead will dive right into the post-John Kramer as Jigsaw entries into the Saw films.

 It would seem that with the on-screen demise of Kramer (Tobin Bell), not to mention his assistant Amanda (Shawnee Smith), that we would have reached a logical conclusion to the series. However, as Lionsgate realized they had an emerging franchise on their hands ("If it's Halloween, it's Saw") the decision was made to continue the films without the direct involvement of creators Leigh Whannel and James Wan (who moved from screenwriters to Executive Producers and in the interim created Dead Silence and Death Sentence). Saw IV introduced the writing pair of Patrick Melton and Marcus Duston (Feast), who concocted a grand, overarching meta-narrative, for better or for worse.

 When I say "for better or for worse,"  it's worth noting that their intentions were probably good. Whannel did introduce Kramer's wife, Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell, who I always associate with Cheerleader Camp) and it seemed like Jigsaw's work would extend beyond his death, but the lingering question seemed to be "how?" Or maybe "why?" Remember, the concept behind Jigsaw was that Kramer was giving people who took advantage of their own lives the opportunity to face true horror and reassess what life meant to them, as John Kramer had when diagnosed with cancer.

 So why would someone in a different situation feel the compulsion to finish Kramer's work (especially, as it turned out, when it was more about settling grudges than actually teaching strangers lessons). Enter Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), a forensic investigator in Saw III who is promoted to lieutenant for the remainder of the series. Hoffman is both what works and what's wrong with the Dunstan / Melton run of the Saw films (the second and for the time being final cycle), although we don't actually know why until Saw V.

 Unless you watched them in the wrong order, like the Cap'n did. In which case, you would have already seen Saw VII and knew that Hoffman took over as Jigsaw when Kramer died, and worked with (and against) Jill Tuck to "complete" the legacy of the original Jigsaw Killer. He also spiraled out of control and killed most of the police he worked with, including Agent Peter Strahm (Scott Patterson), who was tracking Hoffman as a suspect, Strahm's partner Agent Lindsey Perez (Athena Karkanis), who survived an attack in Saw IV to return in Saw VI, and Erickson (Mark Rolston), the liaison between the agents and the unnamed city's Police Department. Oh, he also kills a bunch of other people, and like Amanda, doesn't seem deeply concerned with whether they played by Jigsaw's rules or not.

 Oh, SPOILER for that whole last paragraph. Right, I forgot, Saw IV. Well, there's Kramer's autopsy, where Hoffman and Strahm find a tape in the stomach and play it, and Jigsaw of course promises that the games are only beginning, etc. His target in Saw IV is SWAT team Lt. Daniel Rigg (Lyriq Bent, who appeared in Saw II and III), and Jigsaw merely wants Rigg to play by the rules in order to free Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg), as well as the recently captured Hoffman.

 Now, knowing what I knew going in, I honestly didn't see how you could NOT know Hoffman was the new Jigsaw. In fact, there's a shot where he's sitting at a desk and the camera pans up to show us the Jigsaw "pig" mask. In the context of the film, I suppose that's to suggest he's about to be captured, but to me it looked like he was just transparent about his real intentions. But anyway, once we get past the hysterical overacting and the histrionic dialogue, I guess knowing one of the twists wasn't so bad.

 And since every Saw since the second one has relied on two twists, it's worth noting that the second one, a play on Saw II's "chronology" expectations, is pretty dumb if you're still watching the series out of order (as I was). Saw IV takes place during the same time span as Saw III, so the end of the film essentially picks up with Strahm finding the aftermath of Kramer and Amanda's death, being locked in the room by an unseen Hoffman, and the flashforward back to Hoffman listening to Kramer's tape. So how does the beginning of Saw III, where Matthews escapes, factor into this? Well, that's not really important, you see.

 In the interest of some credit where it's due, I guess not knowing that Hoffman was the new Jigsaw might have improved the experience for Saw fans, but the "it's happening at the SAME TIME" is a pretty lame gimmick. Even a year later, audiences might not remember every character being thrown at them, so with all of the new people coming in I guess it'd be possible to lose track of who's who by the end of the film, where two simultaneous traps are being run and neither party has the slightest idea the other one is there until the very end. It's high concept, I guess, but doesn't stick the landing at all.

 Which brings us to Saw V, where the bad part of the Dunstan / Melton "meta-narrative" begins to rear its ugly head. So we need to explain how Jigsaw had not one, but two (well, actually four, but we'll get to that) assistants and whether they knew each other or not, or whether I'd really care by the end of it all.

 There are two sides of this argument, although I'm inclined to lean more heavily on one than on the other. The first is that, as the Saw films continued, rational human beings who somehow continued watching the series for which the term "torture porn" was coined would begin to wonder how John Kramer could design all of the traps for his victims, capture his victims, and then carry out the "game." After all, he can barely move in Saw II, and these are rather elaborate traps. In fact, it's strongly implied that Kramer was directly involved in all of the traps in all seven films, which is absurd if you think about it.

 The solution, of course, was to invent assistants. First we had Amanda, which was a nice twist because hey, Amanda survived his game and looked up to him. But Amanda would also have some difficulty with the sheer number of traps and people involved in the "games," not to mention being the ringer in Saw II, so Dunstan and Melton took a minor character from Saw III (Hoffman) and elevated him to assistant / new Jigsaw.

 That answers the one side of the argument (kind of), but the other side is "who cares?" Not to be demeaning to its fanbase, but I never once heard any die-hard Saw fan complain that it "didn't make sense" that someone dying of cancer could pull off a workload that would impress six movie crews (hmmm...). As long as the gore kept coming and the traps kept a-killing, they were on board with no concern for logical inconsistencies.

 But since we had to go with the first choice, I can understand why Saw fans hate the fifth movie. Saw V and VI go to absurd lengths to insert Hoffman into the first three films, largely by creating "flashbacks" where Kramer is relying on Hoffman's assistance to capture his prey and set up the "games" (in particular the barbed wire trap from the first film and the centerpiece "game" from Saw II). Why? Because Hoffman decided to copy Jigsaw to settle a score, and Kramer found out, so instead of killing him, he recruits him. Amanda doesn't like Hoffman, and vice versa, but they form an uneasy alliance in order to help the dying man enact his revenge lessons on the guilty.

 Meanwhile, Saw V introduces us to a handful of characters we don't care about and Saw VI the insurance company that refused to cover Kramer's experimental therapy. For good measure, I'll go ahead and throw in Saw VII, which uses a fake Jigsaw "survivor" who Kramer takes umbrage with and accordingly designs an unwinnable game. So, you know, he'll learn a lesson about lying by losing everybody and also tear out his pectoral muscles. Oh, SPOILER.

 From this point forward the films alternate between traps we don't care about with characters we hate, scenes of Hoffman trying not to get caught, and Jill Tuck's mysterious correspondence with an unseen other apprentice, along with more flashbacks so we understand that just because he didn't enter the picture until film three, Hoffman was there the entire time. The gore is plentiful, if tiresome, the plot twists are half-assed (two characters theoretically survive the game in Saw V but we never see them again), and everything seems to be building towards a loop connecting film seven to film one.

 Which brings us to Dr. Lawrence Gordon, who cut his own foot off at the end of Saw and was bleeding and hysterical as Adam was bleeding to death from a gunshot wound. At the beginning of Saw VII, we see that Dr. Gordon managed to open the door, drag himself along the floors, and cauterize his wound with a hot pipe. And then, at the end of the film, we find out that Kramer found him (no Hoffman or Amanda this time), nursed him back to health, got him a job back at the hospital in a secret room, and had Jill communicate with him in secret. Why? Well, Jill was John's fail-safe, and in his guilt over her losing a child or something (it's a large subplot in Saw IV, V, and VI that honestly didn't seem to go anywhere), so when Hoffman goes rogue and tries to kill everybody (including Jill, who slaps Amanda's trap on his head at the end of Saw VI), she can activate their sleeper cell.

 Dr. Gordon, in the meantime, is also making the rounds holding support groups for survivors of Jigsaw's games, which is how we're reintroduced to him in the present. His path crosses with Bobby (Sean Patrick Flannery), the aforementioned faker, who decides to show up at one of these meetings as a publicity stunt. We also see Simone, played by VH1's Scream Queens winner Tanedra Howard, who cut her own arm off in Saw VI, but not Julie Benz, who "won" at the end of Saw V, presumably because she realized that unless you become Jigsaw's accomplice, there's no real point in coming back for another Saw sequel. It's kind of the opposite of most horror franchises - instead of dying at the beginning of the next movie, you disappear for a while and then get to be the killer's mysterious "other" sidekick.

 Luckily for us, Dr. Gordon is just that accomplice, complete with his own heretofore unseen flashbacks that happened concurrently with the Amanda, Jill, and Hoffman John Kramer flashbacks. His purpose, it turns out, is to take out Hoffman once everybody else is dead, and then chain him to the floor of the bathroom facade from Saw, say "game over" and close the door. Dunstan and Melton have blown our collective minds with how the series came full circle... but wait...

 As I mentioned when I reviewed Saw VII, because the end of the film is essentially the same as the ending of Saw II, where Amanda is revealed to be the accomplice and locks Eric Matthews in the same room with the same chain, then we already know that Hoffman can easily escape by breaking his ankle. He's not trapped at all, and I'll give him enough credit to suggest that Hoffman is smarter than Matthews, so there's a good chance he could escape and not be captured by Gordon (the only remaining Jigsaw).

 Wait... hold on. I think I mentioned this in the last piece, but all of Jigsaws games are situated in one of two locations: in the house (where Saw and Saw II take place, and where the bathroom is) or the warehouse where III, IV, V, and VI take place. The police know about the house, and it's safe to say that they might eventually find the warehouse that Hoffman operated out of, but how did Dr. Gordon get into the house to lock anybody up in the bathroom when it's at least a reasonably safe guess that it's under some form of surveillance? After all, it's a known hideout of the Jigsaw Killer, who is still on the loose, and Gordon snuck in Mark Hoffman without anybody so much as noticing?

What's that, you say? "Who cares," you say? Oh, right. Well, that's the Saw series in a nutshell. If it seems like I tend to skip over large parts of the last film in each portion of this special series, it's because I have a difficult time staying invested in giving you recaps and analysis, and let's be honest, they kind of bleed together (no pun intended). I watched Saw IV, V, and VI in one weekend, and they're pretty much all one giant ret-con of the first three films, with the final serving in VII that, if you managed to stick around for, you could see coming a mile away. Also, if you hate Linkin Park, I guess there's something to like in Saw VII - lead singer Chester Bennington has to rip his own back off. Now that's classy.

 For now, that ends our Saw coverage; Whannel and Wan have indicated publicly that they'd like a shot at "ending the series" their own way, and I have the feeling that Lionsgate will probably give them the opportunity, as the fans will line up to see it. Maybe next time I'll look at Dunstan and Melton's The Collector (which began its cinematic life as a proposed Saw sequel) and its forthcoming sequel, The Collection. I mean, if they're anywhere as well thought out as the second cycle of Saw films (or the Feast sequels), then how could I not be a winner?

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