TOBIN...OR NOT TOBIN
Review: David Stephens
And once again the major US studios make a mockery of the so-called “Final Chapter” of a horror franchise. From “Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter”, to “Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare”… the declarations of last bows have all been absolute cobblers. Sequels and reboots will inevitably return to revive a genre brand, as long as there is enough fan interest or the merest chance of a profit. So it was with “Saw: The Final Chapter” (aka: “Saw 3D” – aka: “Saw 7” – aka “Saw: Commit to one frickin’ title and stick with it FFS”). The R-rated franchise was often derided by critics, but still maintained a strong showing at every Halloween from 2004-2010. Not bad for a series that killed off its main antagonist on the third entry and maintained one of the twistiest and most intricately crafted story arcs, outside of an Agatha Christie book adapted by M. Night Shyamalan. Aside from the bloody traps, you could always expect a last-act burst of “Hello Zep” to blast out as a shocking plot-development ended the film with a gush of gore. With the rumours of “Saw: Legacy” circulating for the last few years, it was actually the Spierig brothers - Michael and Peter the directors of “Daybreakers”, “Predestination”, and the upcoming Helen Mirren chiller “Winchester” – that have helmed this new chapter named after John Kramer himself. Opening in the UK and the US at the same time, and “taking back Halloween”, YGROY take the opportunity to play the game at the local cinema…
After a (needlessly) updated version of Charlie Clouser’s classic theme, and rather than the usual opening of a hapless victim in an ingenuous trap, we’re in the middle of a high-speed chase with the police. Felon Edgar Munsen (Josiah Black) is pursued by the law to a rooftop stand-off, where he brandishes a found kill-switch. Unless he gets to talk to Det. Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie), then he will start a sequence of events that will inevitably take the lives of five victims. During a shoot-out, Munsen is badly injured and the trigger is released. Elsewhere a timer starts up and five captive victims awake in an insidious contraption. They’re all chained and being pulled towards a wall of buzz-saws, which will mince them if they don’t provide an offering of blood. And that’s just the start of their problems. Elsewhere, Halloran works with forensic pathologists Logan (Matt Passmore) and Eleanor (Hannah Emily Anderson) as bodies appear on the streets. Bodies that appear to have been victims of Jigsaw (Tobin Bell… of course), who died 10 years ago. But has he really risen from the grave, or is this another copy-cat killer?
If we forego the formalities and call this “Saw 8” (which it really is… despite the apparent lack of returning characters and themes), then this is unfortunately one of the more mediocre entries in the franchise. Something that should have been a revitalising jolt of new life and innovation, feels a little bit like a fan-film made for the online community, or a generic TV cop show with added blood. In some respects it distances itself a bit too much from previous entries (there are initially no returning characters or common ground), whilst ironically copying some of the franchise’s best ideas (the frequent attempts at misdirection). And then there are plot elements that grate… but we can’t discuss those because they’re out-and-out spoilers. Godammit!
Staying on the positive side for a moment though. The initial set-up and the way in which most of the traps and situations are revealed are pretty cool for the most part. They come together like a horror maze in one of those popular US Halloween hayrides… but a bit more lethal. There is one neat trap that feels like it ups the ante, along with a couple of other set-ups that cruelly test the morality of the victims in a particularly juicy way. Tobin Bell’s appearance(s) - flashback, present, or just audio? We’re not telling – are just as classy and as compelling as always in the series… even if his sense of justice is as warped as ever. Laura Vandervoort’s Anna makes for a feisty victim, whilst some of the others don’t necessarily imprint themselves too well. And there is an audacious moment at a certain stage that looks to signal a brave/ludicrous development in the plot.
On the gore level though, it is perhaps a little more restrained and “coy” in comparison to the previous “Saw” movies. There’s no graphic rib-cage splitting or reverse-bear-trap head-mutilation, or similar. Yes, there are some gruesome deaths, but the camera averts its singular eye at the crucial moment, catching just blood-spurts. The most explicit scenes are body autopsies and brief glimpses of the aftermath. In these days of post-“CSI” mainstream gore and “Walking Dead” atrocities, it actually feels a little… tame. There is one spectacular money-shot however, which harkens back to g(l)ory days.
There’s a sequence where a “gallery” of Jigsaw’s old traps are glimpsed, and it makes you weirdly nostalgic for those sequences and films, because there’s not anything really new here. Apart from the motorbike engine trap (you’ll know it when you see it), there’s nothing to compare with the shotgun carousel or needle-pit from previous films. It all feels a little run-of-the-mill to be honest and slightly lacking in innovation. This also applies to many of the plot-twists and sleight-of-hand moments that have distinguished the franchise over the years. Long-time fans will immediately recall similar tricks on the audience in certain sequels, and some plainly re-hashed ideas. It actually makes that one apparently impossible sequence a welcome treat, if only because it could mean something truly outrageous… but we won’t elaborate further.
Whilst previous “Saw” films haven’t exactly dazzled with sparkling dialogue, this feels a little perfunctory to say the least (“He’s in a coma. How does he fucking vanish?!”) And apart from Vandervoort and Bell, other characters struggle to make an impression. The final solution and revelation doesn’t even make proper use of “Hello Zep” and feels pretty underwhelming (and a little easy to guess to be honest). And as for the fantasy use of traps with (to quote “Austin Powers”) frickin’ laser beams… Seriously? Another major bone of contention is the pure chance factor of the traps themselves. Previous films have never been close to credibility, but for the traps to work here, victims must make observations at exactly the right time, stand in exactly the right place, and make exactly the right/wrong decisions.
There’s a hell of a lot of negativity there. And this is from a writer that really loves the franchise, so it feels a shame. But for all that, there is still an oddly comforting feeling of familiarity and some pleasure in sitting down and watching the story unfold. It might be a weak “Saw” film, but it is still a “Saw” film at Halloween. And although further entries feel unlikely with the reception so far, there IS potential there for good follow-ups, especially if they embrace the “legacy” aspects from the predecessors. But we’ll have to wait and see (saw).