It's been interesting to watch the rapid rise and dramatic downfall of the Saw franchise - at least from an aesthetic standpoint. From festival darling to part of the much maligned 'torture porn' genre, James Wan and Leigh Whannel's original Hitchockian exercise has been associated with everything original and all that is derivative with the post-millennial movie macabre. While the series wasn't helped by the switch in direction (or director) once Darren Lynn Bousman was brought on board, the filmmaker has since fallen back into line. While Saw II was successful, it remains the most unusual follow-up to a fright film since Stonehenge shards were stuffed into children's masks for Halloween III: Season of the Witch. This time, instead of trying to jerryrig the journey into something resembling a slasher film with brainteasers, the wonderful Saw III brings the endearing legacy of "murder scientist" Jigsaw, his apprentice, the various victims, and the numerous law enforcement officers investigating the crimes to a logical, legitimate end. While Saw IV is still waiting in the wings (and how that will work out remains a mystery), the conclusions drawn here are very solid indeed.
As we left Saw II, Detective Eric Matthews was locked in the bathroom setting from Saw I, destined to die in the blood soaked Hellhole. He does something desperate in an attempt to escape.
In the meantime, Jigsaw (or someone assisting the murderer) is continuing his killing spree, leaving a trail of badly mangled bodies along the way. His failing health has his assistant Amanda worried, and she kidnaps a local doctor as part of a plan to treat her mentor. Lynn is a listless medico, married to a man she can barely tolerate and hating her job with obvious disdain. But once Jigsaw makes her a life or death deal, she reluctantly agrees to care for him.
Simultaneously, a man named Jeff finds himself inside one of the villain's evil experiments. Devastated over the death of his only son at the hands of a reckless driver, Jigsaw gives this determined Dad a chance to get even with everyone - witness, judge, perpetrator - who contributed to the case. His reward will be based on his ability to forgive, not his need for revenge. As Jigsaw's illness worsens, Amanda starts getting nervous. She is dedicated to this man, and doesn't want to see him die before their work is completed. As time slowly ticks by for Jeff, Lynn and our killers, it is clear that there is something more than meets the eye going on. When the links are finally discovered, it puts a cap on the duo's diabolical legacy.
Saw III stands as an excellent end to a rollercoaster franchise, a film that wants to make up for all the liberties taken by the somewhat scattered second installment. While James Wan and Leigh Whannel, the Australian duo responsible for the original, can argue all they want to about overriding story arcs and interconnected character ideals, what many in the fanbase understand is that part two was derived from a script that had very little to do with Jigsaw and his games. Instead, director Darren Lynn Bousman brought in a project he was working on when hired to helm the sequel, and together with input from the creators, managed to make it work. When you consider that the original movie was a terrific, tight little thriller and the sequel was a slightly hackneyed extension of the same, there was quite a mountain to climb to get this final installment to succeed. Luckily, Wan and Whannel were agreeable to stitch it all back together, and the results are exemplary. Much better than the redux while upping the ick factor substantially, Saw III is one of the best epilogues to a horror property ever. Even better, it's geared directly to those of us ensconced in this narrative's death by mechanical misadventure mythos, answering major questions while giving everyone a much deserving peak at the reasons behind cancer ridden John Kramer's conversion into a harbinger of evil.
At first, there will be those who find the numerous flashbacks and fill in the blank moments frustrating. They do tend to play like party favors for the obsessive, little winks to long supportive devotees. But once we meet dour doctor Lynn and devastated father Jeff, the movie really starts to gel. Soon, we have a sensational give and take between Jigsaw's desire to stay alive and a grieving dad's desperate attempts at justice. Like Saw II, the traps (or games, as they should rightfully be called) are inventively disturbing: a naked woman is covered in layer after layer of ice; a man is strapped to the bottom of a trough, while decaying pig carcasses are liquefied and dumped all over him; another individual has his arms and legs encased in mechanical screws, gears twisting each limb a full 180 degrees. When you add in Lynn's shotgun shell collar (linked to Jigsaw's heart monitor) and the opening contraptions complete with chains through the skin and automatic rib spreaders, you've got some of the best, most disgusting slaughter scenes in the series. Unlike Wan, who underplayed the devices in the first Saw, Bousman likes to go for the grue. And thanks to this latest DVD revisit we get more moments of bone-popping, flesh tearing, brain salad surgery delights.
Yet it's the acting, not the atrocities, that hold everything together. Tobin Bell, who has played Jigsaw as both powerful and less, is really pathetic here. He's a weak shell of a man, desperate to see his protégé succeed. As the murderous magician's apprentice, Shawnee Smith's Amanda is a mess. Having become a cutter to deal with her master's impending death, there are facets of great darkness in how she responds. There's also a shockingly sad vulnerability that's hard to shake. As for the newest players in the Saw cast of characters, Bahar Soomekh is excellent as the burnt out Lynn. Even with her hands wrist deep in cranial fluid, she finds a way to project confidence. As Jeff, the torn apart pop with a grudge bigger than Japan, Angus Macfadyen provides a nice audience window. We see most of the secondary subplot through his eyes, and it's very effective. Bousman's even reeled in a few of his more excessive showboating traits to keep the story succinct and free from tangents. In fact, as Saw III moves along, and Whannel keeps closing off threads, we hope that the climax will match everything that's come before. Thankfully, it does, leaving macabre mavens satisfied while throwing into doubt how the upcoming Saw IV will ever succeed. With the way this plot dealt with the characters, three should have been enough. Of course, where there's success, there's sequels. At least Saw III had the good taste to play fair with the fans. It makes this intended final film all the sweeter.
If you're unaware of the Saw series release schedule by now, here's how it goes. First up, we get a decent initial DVD release with excellent tech specs and a smattering of added content. Fast-forward a few months (usually around the time another sequel is ready to hit the big screen) and a full blown two-disc package is presented. For Saw III, such double dipping turns out to be a delight. Gore lovers will enjoy the fact that the version offered here is, again, "Unrated". During the differing commentaries, director Darren Lynn Bousman fills us in on where the new material has been inserted. As one can rightly guess, all the MPAA mandated corpse cutting has been reinstated. Some added bits are quite sickening. Others merely amplify the abominations we've experienced before. Visually, the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image is excellent, loaded with radiant colors (bile green backdrops never looked so lovely) and specific details (this critic did no know that the first killing took place in an elementary school classroom - he missed that in the theater). Thanks to the brilliant cinematography of David A. Armstrong, who has been on board for all three films, Saw III looks absolutely fabulous on the digital medium. The new material blends seamlessly into the overall presentation, looking just as good - and just as gross - as the original design of the image offered.
Presented in both a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround presentation and an evocative 6.1 DTS multi-channel mix, the sonic elements of Saw III are just as impressive. From a personal preference standpoint, go with the latter technological tweak. It creates an amazing aural experience for their viewer. Directional elements abound, especially during the different death games, and the dialogue is also sharp and easily understandable. The numerous music cues - provided by another three film veteran Charlie Clouser - do an excellent job of tying in all the varying facets of the narrative, turning the auditory experience into one giant cohesive whole.
Spread out over two different discs, the added content provided is very good indeed. On the first DVD, we are treated to three incredible audio commentaries. In order of excellence, we have a director's discussion with Darren Lynn Bousman and actor J Larose (he plays Troy, the third film's first victim). While the least effect of the trio, it is a witty and self-effacing affair, offering an intriguing behind the scenes discussion. Next up is Leigh Whannel's solo farewell. In essence, this is a look at where Saw has been and where it is going from one of the main men responsible for its success. From his warning about Part IV (he and friend James Wan will have NOTHING to do with it) to his dedication to the fans, it's a wonderful listen. But best of all is the exclusive villain's conversation with Tobin "Jigsaw" Bell and Shawnee "Amanda" Smith. It's a treat to hear these two discuss the film, their relationship on camera, and the background characteristics they've given to these psychotic personalities. While they occasionally fall into "performance mode" - riffing on things while in quasi-character - it's a fascinating added element. For those counting, that makes SIX separate tracks between the two Saw III releases alone.
As a result, there is a decided dip in quality when it comes to Disc 2. The Jigsaw's Plan video game is irritating, while the "Killer Inside - Mixed Up World" music video from Hydrovibe is barely passable. The 'Choose the Death' dynamic and 'Looking Tortured - Make-Up F/X How-To' are entertaining in their own right, while the 'Filmmaker Faves' is a text-based overview of selected cast and crew members favorite deaths, favorite characters, favorite lines, and favorite memories. Of course, what most fans will be wondering is what's contained on the Sneak Peak of Saw IV. Well, it's not a trailer. Instead, it appears to be a four minute stand alone sequence involving two men, a length of chain, and a winch contraption pulling them to their death. To say more - including who may be involved, character wise - would be giving away too much. All in all, the commentaries are definitely better this time around. However, don't throw away your original Saw III DVDs. The other bonus features offered there are much, much better.
Nothing warms a fright fan's heart more than a sequel done right. Saw II was rather sloppy when it came to staying true to Leigh Whannel and James Wan's original vision. Thankfully, Saw III does get it right. Even better, for those who've been waiting for the inevitable Unrated Director's Cut, this version of the film really piles on the pus. Easily earning a Highly Recommended rating, Saw III stands not only as a fitting finale to the first phase of this series, but it is also a glorious gorefest destined to fill the splatter aficionado with untold moments of mindless mayhem merriment. Certainly there will be those who feel the films have gone astray from their original twist and turn subtlety, and anyone who abhors onscreen violence should avoid this offal exercise at all costs. But for anyone who remembers the days when brains and body parts littered nearly every scary movie landscape, your endless longing is finally over. Saw III is one amazing explosion of entertainment and entrails.
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