By the time Saw III faded to black, Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) and his seemingly heir-apparent were both dead. Just to stamp out any lingering doubt, Saw IV opens with the lifeless body of John Kramer -- the Jigsaw Killer -- having the flesh of his face peeled back, his skull sawed open, his brains scooped out, his ribs spread apart, and his stomach carved out and sliced open. So...yeah. Dead. And just like the impromptu shark autopsy in Jaws sent fish guts and a crumpled license plate spilling out, the coroner carving up Kramer's corpse finds an audio cassette coated in wax in the murderer's severed stomach.
Jigsaw bellows in that final recording that the game isn't over yet, although that kinda stands to reason when there are still eighty-something minutes to go in the movie. Anyway, considering that Jigsaw's always kept himself somewhat detached from his grisly tests of morality, speaking as a rumbling, disembodied voice or an eerie image on a video monitor, it's not that hard to keep the vivisections and dismemberments splattering along outside of this mortal coil...as long as you have help.
Anyway, the primary focus of Jigsaw's tests this time around is the impulsive Lieutenant Rigg (Lyriq Bent), whose fruitless obsession to track down his missing partner has nearly cost him everything. Jigsaw reveals that Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg) is still alive all these months later, hanging from some remote ceiling by an iron chain and only kept alive by the quickly-melting block of ice under his feet. The movie from there unfolds almost in real-time -- which is completely unrealistic, but...y'know, suspension of disbelief and all that -- as the 90 minute timer ticks down. Rigg becomes increasingly ensnared in Jigsaw's machinations, faced with a slew of victims inches from a bloody end in the psychopath's legendary death traps while struggling to make some sense of the clues he'd left behind. The torture-fu this time around includes eye gouging, total body dismemberment, scalping, a hear-no-evil-speak-no-evil tug of war to the death, head mashing, face slicing, double-impaling... Yup, it's a Saw flick. While Rigg is following Jigsaw's blood-spattered trail, two feds (Scott Patterson and Athena Karkanis) are tailing Rigg, convinced that he could be another of the killer's accomplices.
I wouldn't exactly label myself a rabid fan of the franchise or anything, but I really was looking forward to Saw IV. I dug the hell out of Feast, which had been penned by first-timers Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan. Once word came that they'd been pegged to tackle Saw IV -- the first in the series not to be written by Saw creators James Wan or Leigh Whannell -- I was hellbent on giving it a look. The thing is, everything I loved about Feast...? Nowhere to be found here. Feast screamed ahead at an inhumanly fast pace. Borderline-zero characterization. No long, rambling introductions. No backstories or awkward exposition. No long-winded flashbacks or explanations where Feast's insatiable critters came from. It was just a bunch of folks holed up in a bar in the middle of nowhere, under siege by a bunch of unstoppable, flesh-eating monsters.
Saw IV is just about the complete opposite. There's not much of a twisted sense of dark humor this time around; it's all deathly serious, which makes all the overacting that much tougher to stomach. It doesn't help that Melton and Dunstan don't have any sort of ear for dialogue; damn near everything sounds stilted and awkward. Despite the obnoxious jump cuts and hypercaffeinated editing, any scene where someone's not being tortured is...well, torture...just agonizingly dull. The past couple of Saw flicks made the mistake of overhumanizing and overexplaining damn near everything about Jigsaw, and Saw IV leaves almost nothing about the man left to the imagination. So much of the movie's told in distant flashbacks that even though Jigsaw is carved open in the first couple minutes, Tobin Bell still manages to be in damn near every other scene.
What's more unsettling -- seeing someone stagger to consciousness only to find himself in a death trap, greeted by a detached, booming voice, or knowing that the man pulling the strings is a bed-ridden cancer patient who used to build section 8 houses and had his heart shattered thanks to the careless actions of a strung-out junkie? Jigsaw's already kind of an anti-hero as it is, fueled by a twisted sense of morality and not thinking of himself as a murderer at all, but stripping away any hint of ambiguity...trying to make him as sympathetic a figure as possible, to the point where he's not Jigsaw anymore but a once-happily married civil engineer named John...it's just a colossally bad idea.
Saw IV is awfully lackluster and easily the weakest of the franchise to limp into theaters up to this point, with only a couple of its trademark torture devices really seeming all that visceral, all of which have been haphazardly strung together by a clumsy, boring plot. I can't blame Lionsgate for churning out another few sequels -- even though Saw IV was just about universally panned, it still raked in around $150 million worldwide and cost next to nothing to make -- but this one's really only for the series' most ardent fans.
This Blu-ray release is of the unrated director's cut of Saw IV, but the extras suggest that there's almost certainly another re-release waiting in the wings. Bousman speaks at length about a grisly trap filled with shards of glass that was too stomach-turning for the studio to consider letting out in the wild, and it got the axe along with a full five minutes that originally followed the ending of even this cut. None of these scenes are anywhere to be found on this disc, and the same goes for other scenes like Kramer's teary trip to the cemetery before becoming Jigsaw that are glimpsed in Bousman's video diary.
Video: Saw IV generally looks great on Blu-ray, but its heavily stylized visuals make for a deliberately erratic high-def presentation. Color saturation, depth and dimensionality, and fine object detail can vary dramatically from one scene to the next, but I'm sure much of that's either intentional or just the result of the quick-'n-dirty shoot. Each scene has its own distinctive color palette: clinical and desaturated under the fluorescent lights in the morgue and police station, warm and vivid as the budding killer stalks his prey in a Year of the Pig celebration in Chinatown, a dingy hotel room tinged red as if it were a dark room, and a jaundiced yellowish-green in several of the trap sequences, to rattle off a few. Contrast is heavily skewed throughout, with black levels occasionally looking anemic. Film grain is generally tight and unintrusive, but the image does get particularly noisy under low light. Saw IV has somewhat of a rough-hewn look to it, but it's pretty clear by this point that that's just part of the series' aesthetic, and it still looks nice enough on Blu-ray.
Audio: The DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio track is as unrelentingly aggressive as you'd expect from the franchise at this stage of the game. I mean, Saw IV is the sort of movie where flicking on a light switch is backed by a twenty megaton, foundation-rattling sonic boom. There's a colossal amount of bass throughout, particularly the thunderous stings in the electronic-tinged score. Sounds frequently swirl from speaker to speaker to help flesh out an unsettling atmosphere, from creaking metal fans to the labored breathing of Jigsaw's victims to even some directionality to the dialogue. The fluidity of the line readings keep the dialogue mostly discernable throughout; the center channel is noticeably lower than the others. The goal is really to just be loud, eerie, and everywhere, and Saw IV pulls that off pretty well, especially considering how quickly the movie was put together.
A Dolby Digital 5.1 EX soundtrack has also been included alongside subtitles in English and Spanish.
Extras: Saw IV has one feature exclusive to this Blu-ray release, geared towards the 2.0 profile players that are just off on the horizon as I write this. The MoLog system lets viewers mark up certain scenes from the movie and share them through their players' network connections. I was able to play around with some of this functionality offline, but I think I'd need to see a couple of really compelling examples to get a sense of what all a MoLog would have to offer. I'll revise this review once the PS3 gets the upgrade necessary to take advantage.
Saw IV serves up a pair of audio commentaries, with director Darren Lynn Bousman and star Lyriq Bent stepping up to the mic first. Bent really doesn't have all that much to say -- this is his first time seeing Saw IV in any form -- while Bousman is startled early on when he realizes he's watching his director's cut rather than the theatrical release. Bousman's quite a bit more chipper and upbeat than he is in some of the other extras in the set, and since he was recording the track while Saw IV was still in theaters, he takes the opportunity to respond to some of the fans' questions about the convoluted storytelling. It's a really energetic track, with Bousman pointing out that the MPAA is perfectly fine with mutilating bodies as long as the poor schlub being carved up isn't alive and kicking, filming a gruesome miscarriage that even he thought went too far, pointing out all of the Saw alums lurking in the background, mentioning how Donnie Wahlberg wasn't on-board until two days before filming was underway, and having a set built, torn down, and rebuilt several times while trying to perfectly nail one key sequence. Bousman also describes in detail the alternate ending he and Bent fought for, as well as hinting at another twist that had been lopped off of the movie's final moments. He quips several times about how the Saw flicks keep getting re-re-re-released year in and year out, and when he mentioned over the end credits that an extended director's cut of Saw IV is lurking in the shadows, I wasn't sure if he was kidding or not. Anyway, I dug it.
The producer commentary has Oren Koules, Mark Burg, Peter Block, and Jason Constantine piling into the recording booth. It complements the other commentary pretty well, focusing more on the story, the movie's timeline, and its cast than Bousman's track. Some of their notes include the opening autopsy originally being eyed as part of Saw III, tiny background details like the key Jill wears around her neck, how they debated losing the impaling sequence altogether, and shuffling around some of the footage near the climax. They poke a bit of fun at Bousman too, pointing out his obsession with half-naked men, S.W.A.T. teams, and a mostly-insignificant key. This is the less essential of the two tracks but still a pretty good listen.
Also included are three featurettes. "The Props of Saw IV" (9 min.) runs through some of Jigsaw's other weapons -- a spine cutter as well as a cannon that blasts out long iron rods -- along with a locket that didn't make it into the final cut, the pig masks and clay soldier figurines that've been such a mainstay in the series, and the elaborate body cast used for the autopsy sequence. The featurette takes care to explain both how these props work as well as what they represent in the movie as a whole. "The Traps of Saw IV" (17 min.) does the same for six of the flick's cacklingly devious death traps, explaining, for instance, how the ice block rig evolved over time and how tough it was to get the hair-pulling trap to come close to working as expected. Both of these featurettes have been put together particularly well and are extremely comprehensive.
The best of the disc's featurettes -- hell, my favorite extra in the entire set -- is "Darren's Video Diary". This half-hour collection of footage from the month-long shoot stands out above the puff pieces on most DVD sets, dripping with Bousman's self-deprecatory sense of humor. Instead of playing up the "hey, look at what a great time we had during filming!" angle, Bousman's constantly being groused at by producers as the schedule falls further and further behind, key plot points leak out before cameras roll, one of the first traps in the movie just flat-out doesn't work, the sets are too cramped for Bousman to pull off the fluid camerawork he's halfway envisioned, he and Lyriq Bent squabble about the proper way to put on a pig mask... The tone isn't as bleak or depressing as that might sound; just picture everyone either quietly shaking their heads at the whole thing or snickering uncomfortably. There are far too many highlights to list, but to spout off a few: Bousman's dog taking thirty-someodd takes to lick a pig mask slathered in honey, his folks visiting the set while one of Jigsaw's victims is being dismembered, a sloppy kiss sopping with stage blood, quips about the lack of blood (or any other) continuity, pranks with fart machines and rotten eggs, picking out the best rape photos to scatter across a flophouse hotel room... Great, great stuff and just a hell of a lot of fun.
"The Traps of Saw IV" is presented in standard definition, and the other two featurettes are encoded in high-def. The odd thing is that the interview footage in the supposedly high-def featurettes was either shot with a really dodgy HDV camcorder or it's a straight-up upconvert. Still, they look a couple hundred times better than the visually lackluster "Traps...", so I'll take what I can get.
Despite all of the teases at additional footage elsewhere in the extras, there's only one deleted scene on this disc, presented in standard definition and clocking in right around 45 seconds in length. It's nothing that revelatory: just a really short scene in the police station running through a list of missing people mentioned in Jigsaw's archives that could be his accomplice. Also in standard definition is a music video for X Japan's prog-metal number "I.V.".
The disc opens with a slew of high-def trailers: The Eye, Rambo, The Condemned, War, Saw III, and The Descent. A quick 38 second trailer for Saw IV is tucked away under the 'special features' menu, and a plug for the video game Condemned 2: Bloodshot rounds out the extras.
Conclusion: Saw IV is the weakest and most tedious movie in the series up to this point, just a cash-in to guarantee another installment in theaters like clockwork every Halloween. Still, this is a franchise with a doggedly loyal fanbase, and if you've picked up the other three flicks and are eager to sop up some more of Saw's gruesome torture, you'll probably find this latest sequel at least worth a rental on Blu-ray. It's a poor starting place for the uninitiated, though, and fans whose patience was already wearing thin by the time part three rolled around would probably be better off giving it a pass entirely.
The images scattered around this review are promotional stills and aren't meant to represent the way the movie looks in high definition.