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|Written by Kevin Johns|
|Friday, 30 October 2009 00:00|
For many of us, it's an annual pre-Halloween tradition. We pull those DVDs off the shelf and spend the entire day watching the previous instalments in the Saw series before heading to the theatre to see the new film. It was the same this year, but with one significant difference: only half of us kept up the tradition.
The Saw sequels consistently opened at the $30 million mark. Last weekend, Saw VI brought in less that half that amount. The film's $14.1 million gross placed it in second place, firmly behind the weekend's number one film (and direct competitor in terms of target audience) Paranormal Activity.
It seems the great Saw machine, which has been churning out one movie per year for six solid years, has finally begun to run out of steam.
Saw VI isn't bad, but part of what made the Saw films so fantastic was how the franchise managed a miraculous sort of reinvention with each film, morphing into something completely new and interesting, while simultaneously staying true to its roots. Unfortunately, the miraculous reinvention didn't take place this time around.
As Box Office Mojo recently noted, Saw VI's marketing campaign "simply announced the new movie" while revealing "no new hooks." As it turns out, there was no revelation because there were no new hooks. There is a 'been there, done that' feel to the entire movie. Perhaps this shouldn't be surprising after six films, but it is disappointing nonetheless.
Saw VI returns to the Saw III formula in which a single victim moves through a sort of labyrinth, finding other victims already placed in traps as he goes, and invariably failing to save them. While the filmmakers have improved upon the "I'm not going to save you/Okay, I'll try to save you/Oh no, I'm too late!" indecision that made the earlier film so annoying, watching an unlikeable character fail to save characters we hardly know still isn't nearly as interesting as some of the other Saw formats, including the original two-men-in-a-room scenario.
But as fans of the series know, Jigsaw's victims stopped holding any real interest to the filmmakers years ago. Beginning with Saw III, it became the killer himself, and his ever growing group of protégées, that fascinates the filmmakers and fans alike.
Much of the franchise's success is owed to the brilliant performances that actors Tobin Bell and Shawnee Smith bring to the series. The depth with which they infused the characters of John Kramer and Amanda Young transformed the films from gory shockers into fascinating explorations of moral ambiguity.
One of Saw VI's biggest problems is that Costas Mandylor's character Mark Hoffman (revealed last year to be Jigsaw's accomplice, set on continuing his legacy) is not nearly as interesting as the characters played by Bell and Smith. Mandylor makes for a convincing detective, but fails to deliver a threatening performance as a serial killer. Despite the back story about a murdered sister, Hoffman comes off as one dimensional and uninteresting, especially when placed next to one of the greatest horror movie killers of all time: John Kramer.
Luckily, Mandylor's got the great Betsy Russell helping him out. Russell, playing Kramer's wife Jill, has steadily moved from the periphery of the series into an all-but-starring role over the last few films. Russell is best known for her performances in 80s sexploitation flicks. She brings a gravitas and toughness to the role that Mandylor just can't match, no matter how much he pouts his lips.
Russell does her best to infuse some life into the film, but for a series that has always shocked and surprised, Saw VI does neither. Perhaps the film's biggest fault is that it takes one of the franchise's best assets -- brilliant twist endings -- and utterly fails to deliver on the level of quality and ingenuity established in each one of the previous films. There hasn't been a "twist" ending this predictable since Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell.
What does differentiate Saw VI from some of the other films in the series is the direct address to contemporary politics through a narrative in which the employees of a health insurance company are murdered by the client whose claim they denied after he developed cancer. Saw has never been an apolitical series; Jigsaw is convinced that he is offering his victims (all of whom are guilty of failing to cherish human life in some manner) a chance to save their own lives, not murdering them. As such, there is a fascinating moral ambiguity to the killer, his victims, as well as the various police and FBI detectives that try to catch him. Unfortunately, there isn't much ambiguity to John's statement, "It's not the government or the people who decides who lives and who dies, it's the insurance companies." Either you agree, or you don't. Either way, it doesn't add much drama or intrigue to the viewing experience.
The complexity of the Saw narrative, the temporal experimentation that takes place within the films, and, of course, the intense violence and torture throughout means that these are movies with a limited audience. But that audience, me included, loves these films. There is something surprisingly comforting about revisiting a series year after year, and despite its failures, Saw VI does contain enough of that good ol' Saw magic to save it from being a complete write-off.
In a series with this many films, you are going to have some off-years. Let's just hope Saw VII can get things back on track!
Saw VI opened in theatres across Canada and the United States on October 24. Saw I-V are available in DVD stores everywhere.