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.
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.
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.
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.