Review: Tedious, Inept SAW 3D Tries to Revive Tired Torture Porn Franchise

Movieline Score: 2

The Saw films have proved, with each grim installment, that Americans can turn anything into a franchise. We so want what's familiar, to revisit where we've been, that it hardly matters if our first -- let alone any subsequent -- experience was enjoyable. It's how we choose familiarity over originality, mediocrity over the unknown, or Applebee's over a local bistro, even if we claim to prefer the alternative. It's how the Saw franchise has become as dependable as Old Navy, its absurdly underlit rooms and time-triggered torture devices as cozy as a pair of shoddily stitched jeans. As certain as the globe turns, another outlet opens its doors each October.

The latest in the franchise, Saw 3D, is the seventh and supposedly last of the series, but if it performs better at the box office than its predecessors (grosses have fallen significantly over the years), Lionsgate will of course concoct yet another. After all, this is a series that killed off its villain in the third film but kept on going, relying on absurd flashbacks to keep Jigsaw (Tobin Bell, whose hawkish profile and strangely streetwise cadence has made him the films' greatest asset) alive in our minds. The series has helped define horror for the 21st century, stripping it down to endgame flesh fairs and cynically moralistic contraptions of convenience, begetting everything from Hostel to this year's Human Centipede. But the first Saw film, despite its overcaffeinated shooting style and tension-robbing tangents, had an awful kind of elegance, shackling two men to opposite corners of a bathroom to contemplate escape via self-amputation. All of the sequels have failed to honor the simplicity of that premise, and in fact have done the very opposite, following the twin tracks of an increasingly convoluted serial killer policier alongside endlessly regenerated tableaus of terminal torture.

Following custom, Saw 3D provides one such freestanding tableau right at the outset. Two young men awaken to find their arms strapped to circular saws at either end of a metal track. Their mutual lover is strapped to a false ceiling above and between them, her breasts bulging from the bondage while a third circular blade's is poised beneath her. One of the men has to sacrifice himself or the two-timing babe gets it in the stomach. And in a bid for self-reflexivity, the whole spectacle goes down behind the window of a retail store. People gather to watch, scream and retch. After all, isn't this what we all came for? But it's less a critique of spectatorship than a celebration of it, as we'll be denied not a second, nary an inch, of the incision. It's a promise that's fulfilled throughout the film. From a zig-zagged mouse trap that decapitates, quarters and obliterates a room full of white supremacists to doomed captives in an obstacle course of blade-rigged Nautilus machines, the film has a surgical fascination with penetrated skin, eyes, mouth and organs, and finishes off each session by ejaculating 3D remains at the audience. Say what you will about the tediousness, acting ineptitude, and infantilism of Saw 3D, but you can't say it doesn't go all the way.

Saw's sequels have been all about orgiastic fulfillment, which is why "torture porn" isn't a pejorative but an accurate description of how they function. From end to end they feature heavy breathing, escalated screams and wet, explosive payoffs. Jigsaw always schemes to give his victims a gruesome way out of his traps (or those of his proxies -- so many possible successors pile up in these films that only the most attentive and invested fans could possibly guess at who's responsible for what), but Saw 3D presents nothing but false hope and certain death, which must be why there's such an orgy of kills. There's no question of if, so there's no use in playing around with when. Simply count down from sixty; then start the stopwatch all over again. By comparison, horror built on suspense, rather than promised fulfillment, is more of a tease. It uses a language of foreplay and restraint rather than money shots of splattered blood. The original Saw was smart enough to tease its audience, to literally restrain its characters and gradually dial up the dread, setting the table for a truly shocking twist. The latest just wants bigger and bigger bangs.

In terms of plot, Costas Mandylor reprises his oily turn as Hoffman, a cracked, homicidal cop hell-bent on terminating Jigsaw's truth-telling widow Jill (Betsy Russell), while new addition Sean Patrick Flannery plays a preening celebrity survivor of one of Jigsaw's traps. Returning director Kevin Greutert toggles between the two strands while teasing in the revival of Dr. Gordon (Cary Elwes), the foot-less survivor of the first film and the subject of the series' final twist. It's nice to have Elwes back, whose reliably uneven American accent always seems to puncture the super-sub-Fincher pretension in the room, and whose literal emergence from the shadows is nothing short of soap operatic. He's given the last words, but they're ones we've heard before. "Game over," he says, and shuts a door. If only he meant it as a promise, rather than as a callback to unpleasant times of yore.



Comments

  • Martini Shark says:

    Nice going Eric - now next time I carve into my jalepeno pot-stickers I'll be imagining those various scenes of sanguinary excess and viscera. That's something only a triple-chocolate Meltdown can dispell.

  • casting couch says:

    Although this review was mostly negative, the actual description of the movie by the writer makes me want to watch this. I guess it's a natural human perversion -- and good writing.

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