Saturday, October 14, 2017

Side by Side: SAW IV (2007) vs. SAW V (2008)

Welcome to another installment of SIDE BY SIDE, where we dissect the differences and similarities between two films, be it a remake/reboot with its original, a sequel with its original, or two similar movies. Our five-part discussion of the Saw series continues, as we prepare for the October 28th release of Jigsaw, the eighth installment in this landmark series. In case you're late to our game, you can get caught up with part one, discussing the first film, and part two, covering chapters two and three. This week, we continue with SAW IV and SAW V.


I have mixed feelings about Saw IV. On the one hand, its another chapter in this groundbreaking horror franchise and it doesn't completely fail to live up to the standards of the previous installments, but it does fall short. After the previous three films, the fourth comes off as a bit of a low point in some ways.

First, the positives. Unlike the other chapters in this series, Saw IV does not open with a game. Instead, the first scene is the autopsy on John "Jigsaw" Kramer's body. Now I have no experience with the policies surrounding such things, so I can't speak to how plausible it is that Kramer's remains would be autopsied at all. I agree that it's probably unlikely that your average real-world pathologist would care overmuch about the contents of Kramer's stomach. This is likely a contrived point to move the story along. But I'm not mad at the autopsy scene itself. Being a child of the 1980s, I well remember the old trope of the undying horror movie villian: burn them up, blow them up, grind them into little pieces; that bastard would always come back for more because they're Just. That. EVIL!!! So I appreciate why Saw IV takes the time to show us Kramer's remains being disassembled. This is one more way the movie drives home the point that Jigsaw is not coming back, and while we're on that subject, I hope the minds behind the upcoming Jigsaw were paying attention on this point.

The autopsy uncovers another tape hidden in Kramer's stomach, and what's on the tape seems to suggest that Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) is involved in Kramer's so-called "work". The mystery deepens!

This fourth installment expounds on the philosophy behind why Jigsaw did what he did. Yes, he wants his subjects (he never thought of them as "victims") to appreciate their lives and the blessings they have, but also he understands that the only one who can help a person find the way to a better life is that person themselves. This line of thinking might not sit well with audiences in current year, and I agree that the methods Jigsaw employed to this end are, to put it lightly, harsh, but it's true. All the outside help in the world cannot give a person a better life; they have to want it for themselves.

And so it is that the theme behind this chapter's game comes into play. This time the subject is Lieutenant Rigg (Lyriq Bent), the SWAT commander who we've encountered in the previous two chapters. Lieutenant Rigg's problem, as Hoffman puts it, is that "everyone around him keeps dying", and in fairness to Rigg, this is one of the hardest things about leadership in law enforcement. The people under your command will occasionally die. Rigg is taking this reality of his position badly, and it's made him obsessed with the idea of keeping everyone safe. The point of the game, then, is an old truism of police work: "you can't save every puppy in the pound."

The tests Rigg faces require him to walk away and let events play out. Of course these tests are setup to make such a course of action so difficult as to be unlikely (though not impossible), but let's consider. Had Rigg walked away, the woman caught in the first test would likely have survived. Scalping, even scalping by the means involved in the game, is not a fatal injury. The subject of the second test is a known rapist. Yes, he paid his debt to society (so he claims), but I haven't seen the sex offender registry yet that cares about such things. The woman in the third test has to "unbind herself" from her abusive husband. And finally, if Rigg had just stayed away, Detective Matthews would still be alive. But as one of the tapes points out, "experience is a harsh teacher. First comes the test, then comes the lesson."

Finally, we get more examples of the kind of planning that must have gone into making this serial, as we learn that some of the events of this movie are happening at the same time as the events of Saw III. I know I've said it before, but I never get tired of the way the Saw series plays with our sense of chronology, and I have to respect the work that must have gone into managing and filming these overlapping points. One of my favorite non-essential points to this story is that we find out that the pig masks, the ones worn by the kidnappers whenever a subject is abducted, have a signifigance. In an oblique way, they reference the year Jigsaw's work began, which according to the Chinese Zodiac was a Year of the Pig. The neat thing about this is that 2007, the year in which this film was released, was a Year of the Pig. It's got very little to do with the story, granted, but I get a kick out of little details like this.

The main problem I have with this movie is one of pacing. It's great that the movies link so closely together, especially so from Saw III onward, but Saw IV tries to cram too much detail into its 90-some minutes. it feels like the story is racing to get to the next clue, or the next flashback, or the next test, and so there's no time to really get invested in what's going on. Even understanding the point of the game Rigg is in, it still feels like Detective Matthews is only in this chapter to finally die. Again, I get the "why" of it, but this just comes off as a sloppy resolution to a loose plot thread.

Saw V corrects the pacing issue of its predecessor, so this chapter doesn't feel nearly as rushed. More clues are introduced that lead into the remaining two installments, including John Kramer's ex-wife, Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell), receiving a box of "important materials" left to her in John's will, but this movie smartly focuses on three things.

First, in the previous movie we learned that Detective Hoffman is in league with Jigsaw, and that, following the death of Amanda, as well as that of John himself, Hoffman now stands alone to carry on the mantle of the "Jigsaw Killer". A portion of this chapter is spent filling in the blanks of just how long Hoffman had been working with John Kramer, and we learn that Hoffman has been instrumental in the events of this serial from the beginning. I concede that this can be taken as an example of "retconning", or retroactive continuity, which occurs when a later installment of a film series makes some change to the details of the story of a previous installment. Hoffman, after all, doesn't appear in our story until Saw III, and before that his name isn't even mentioned. Normally, yes, I agree that can be annoying, but I say that, in this case, it's an example of the technique being used correctly. The details of Hoffman's involvement only serve to fill in blanks that were left from the previous chapters. No details of the story are rewritten. Detective Tapp, for example, was set on the path of suspecting Dr Gordon as the killer because Gordon's prints were on a pen light found at the scene of a Jigsaw game -- which was planted there by Hoffman. These flashbacks explain a lot, and fit very well with what's come before.

But while Hoffman is unchallenged, he isn't unopposed. The second major point of this installment follows Special Agent Strahm (Scott Patterson) as he begins to put the pieces together and figure out who Hoffman really is. The cat and mouse chase the two have over the course of the story is the best part of this film, as it's indicated to us early on that Hoffman hadn't planned for this. Previous clues suggest that the only way he's able to deal with this wrinkle is by making use of contingencies prepared for by John Kramer before his death, and in this way I argue that the series begins dropping subtle hints at Hoffman's eventual downfall.

The third major point is, you guessed it, the game. Every Saw film has one, and this one is no exception, and this leads into where this film disappoints me, and where the series begins to decline. Instead of continuing to raise the bar, or at least live up to the standards of the previous two installments, the game in Saw V returns to the trope of a band of unlikeable scuzzballs being picked off one by one in service to a fairy-tale moral, in shades of Saw II. The only difference between this group of subjects and thier predecessors is that this group isn't made up exclusively of small-time criminals, but they are each dirty in their own way. Like the previous group, this bunch will scream at each other and die, but not before the survivors figure out, far too late, where they went wrong. The final point against this game is it's payoff in the larger narrative. Which is to say, it's pretty small potatoes. We're told that this group, and the purpose of this game, is "part of something greater", and while the thing that brings these people together is unfortunate, it has nothing to do with the greater story. As far as I can recall as of this writing, what this group were a part of is never mentioned again in the final two films. It seems to have been put in place only to reaffirm a point about Jigsaw's character; as the man himself put it in the third installment, "I don't condone murder, and I despise murderers." So ... justice, I guess?

This chapter marks the beginning of a decline in the series in that this is where the gore starts to be turned up. Yes, previous movies had their moments: Amanda digging through entrails, The Rack, the end of the rapist in the previous film and so on, but for the most part the gore is low key, or even hidden from view. Yes, The Rack in Saw III is an exception, but the other two tests in that movie involved a woman being frozen to death, and man drowned in pig offal. There's just no comparison.

Saw V, on the other hand, is devoted to feeding the itch of the gore-hounds in the audience, and this is where the series begins to earn its label as "torture porn". Following that porn metaphor, if Saws 1 to 4 were an R-rated movie on HBO (plenty of teasing with relatively little payoff), Saws 5 to 7 would be closer to the kind of movies your Dad hid in his sock drawer. Even at the end, I wouldn't say this series reaches the gore level of, say, Eli Roth's Hostel, but it will push the envelope all the same. In this film alone we get a sustained disembowlment, an on-screen decapitation, a loving examination of what's left following one unfortunate's run-in with a shrapnel bomb (!), and a good, close look at a survivor's hand and arm following the completion of the final test. This was what I was referring to when I said the Saw series ends up trying to be "all things to all horror movie fans". By the standards of Ameican horror cinema, the Saw series is one of the smartest projects ever made, and it disappoints me that the series begins to pander to the lowest common denominator here.

If the series's scores on Metacritic are any indication, and I maintain that the critics are largely wrong about this series, then Saw V represents the series at its lowest point. With a Metascore of 20, this installment ranks lower than any other chapter. I say Saw IV comes out the loser among these two, for its issues with pacing, and its throwaway ending to Detective Matthews' storyline. I can forgive fan service in the face of production issues.

Saw IV is rated R for sequences of grisly bloody violence and torture throughout, and for language.
Saw V is rated R for sequences of grisly bloody violence and torture, language and brief nudity.

Robert's Scores:

Saw IV: 4.5 / 10 
Saw V: 5 / 10

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