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Seen: The Bousman Trilogy
Horror's longest-running cinematic soap opera continues with 'Saws' II, III, and IV.
I want to play a game: In anticipation of the September 29 release date of Saw X, I’m going to take a look back at all nine previous entries in the divisive Saw franchise. Yesterday, I revisited the original Saw; today, I’m tackling Saw II, Saw III, and Saw IV, which were all directed by Darren Lynn Bousman. My characteristically-neurotic thoughts about the movie are below. Read or die: Make your choice…
The first Saw opened in October of 2004 and was a massive hit, grossing more than $100 million worldwide off a $1 million budget. Consequently, Lionsgate decided they wanted to strike while the iron was hot and get a sequel into theaters by October of 2005. That meant they had less than a year to actually make the movie.
Fortunately, the music video director Darren Lynn Bousman, looking to break into features, had written a Saw-esque horror script, The Desperate, on spec. So the powers that be got original Saw co-writer Leigh Whannell to adapt The Desperate into Saw II, hired Bousman to direct, and bada bing, bada boom, they were off to the races.
What no one knew at the time, of course, was that Bousman would ultimately direct three consecutive Saws in three consecutive years, and that the three films he helmed would be the most financially-successful in the series.
They’re also the ones that kick off the completely absurd soap opera that is the Saw series in earnest.
The “mysteries” of these movies, such as they are, grow increasingly convoluted. As we learned in Saw Original Flavor, the motive of the killer, John Kramer (Tobin Bell), a.k.a. ‘Jigsaw,’ is to make people appreciate their lives - because he himself has terminal cancer. But that brief character bio kinda wrote the filmmakers into a corner, because now John Kramer had to necessarily be on his way to the big blue disgusting anonymous warehouse in the sky. Which is obviously a real drag in terms of producing sequels.
The creators found two ways around this issue.
First, they took the non-linear puzzle structure of Saw the First Saw and stretched it out to truly ludicrous levels. Saw II, III, and IV take place before Saw, during Saw, and after Saw, but also, some of Saw III takes place before Saw II, and a character you thought died in Saw II winds up still being alive in Saw IV, which, it’s revealed at the end, takes place simultaneously with Saw III. So while John Kramer dies at the end of Saw III, and Saw IV opens with his (extremely graphic) autopsy, he keeps popping up via various flashbacks/flashforwards/flashsideways (see what I mean when I say this whole series is a soap opera?).
Second, they gave John a disciple to continue his work after he kicks the bucket: Amanda (Shawnee Smith), the drug addict he helped “cure” in the first movie. John and Amanda’s relationship is, um, colorful. He’s basically her Svengali, and, appropriately, it’s hard to tell if she sees him as a father or lover or both (Saw may very well be the most sexless slasher series of all time, but the way Amanda reacts to seeing John holding another woman’s hand doesn’t exactly scream “platonic relationship” to me).
Sadly, Amanda turns out to be a lunatic - or, rather, the wrong kind of lunatic, at least in John’s eyes - and thus fails a test she didn’t even realize Jigsaw was administering. Consequently, she also gets killed at the end of Saw III. Which is a shame, both because it was the first time since 1997’s Scream 2 that a major slasher film had a female killer, and because Smith may very well give the best performance in any of these movies. She’s equally believable as a meek hysteric and a homicidal hysteric; you believe that she’s terrified and terrifying.
Further soaping up the opera is that because Amanda and John are both dead at the end of Saw III, Saw IV winds up being all about Jigsaw having ANOTHER accomplice. Suspects this round include John’s wife, John’s lawyer, John’s accountant, John’s dental hygienist, John’s dog, John’s father's brother's nephew's cousin's former roommate, and a guy who gave John a ride to the airport once in college, as well as various law enforcement officials. It turns out to be a cop, Detective Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor, one of People’s "50 Most Beautiful People in the World," 1991), although we don’t find out his motive for joining Team Jigsaw until Saw V.
The soapiness of John’s backstory grows at a commensurate rate. See, he wasn’t just a terminal cancer patient. John was once either an engineer or an architect or both depending on what the plot needs at any given moment. At the tender young age of 61, he was in love and married to Dr. Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell), who ran a drug clinic. While she was pregnant, one of Jill’s patients whacked her right in the stomach with a door while making a post-drug-theft getaway. Jill lost the baby, of course, and John sunk into a deep depression. Then he learned he had terminal cancer… and then he tried to kill himself by crashing his car… but he survived the crash… and that made him decide it was a good idea to spend his remaining days torturing people. As anyone would, of course.
All the while, characters continue to insist that John Kramer is a genius - and in their defense, he is a genius compared to any other character in these movies. I watched six-year-olds at a birthday party participate in a treasure hunt a few months ago, and Jigsaw’s clues continue to be about as sophisticated as the clues for that treasure hunt. In one of the movies, the abductees need a combination for a safe; after Jigsaw tells them that the numbers for the combination are “in the back of your mind,” it still takes like an hour for anyone to notice that said numbers have been tattooed onto the backs of their necks (and P.S., the back of your neck is not “the back of your mind,” but okay whatever). Not infrequently, characters die because they’re too stupid to see an obvious trap, even when Jigsaw LITERALLY WARNS THEM IT’S A TRAP.
In point of fact, John Kramer isn’t a genius - but he may be a psychic. There’s simply no other explanation for the accuracy with which he’s able to predict people’s exact actions. Come to think of it, it would be kind of cool to see one of his plans go wrong and then learn that he has a back-up plan, and maybe even a back-up for the back-up. Perhaps John is the kind of person who makes decision trees?
As for the traps in Bousman’s trio of Saws, they continue to be hit or miss; sometimes they follow John’s stated goal by presenting the abductee with a difficult decision, but sometimes there’s virtually no chance the victim could have ever have survived regardless (and I’m not just talking about the traps Amanda made where she “cheated”).
There is, however, one truly brilliant trap in these three movies. And by “brilliant,” I mean “confounding and moronic.”
In Saw IV, Detective Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg) is made to stand on a block of melting ice; if he steps off or the ice melts too much, it will trigger a series of events resulting in the electrocution of Hoffman (who, at this point in the story, no one knows is one of the bad guys). The test is being overseen by Jigsaw’s lawyer (Justin Louis), who makes it clear that the last thing any of them want is for another of Matthews’ peers, Rigg (Lyriq Bent), to come through the door (because Rigg’s test has to do with teaching him can’t save everyone… don’t worry about it, like everything in these movies, it’s complicated and dumb). Of course, Riggs does come through the door, resulting in two hilarious developments: Matthews’ head gets Gallagher’d by two huge blocks of ice…
…and the lawyer magically grows a dolly beneath his feet.
Maybe John Kramer is magic after all.
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