If Jason (Friday the 13th) and Michael Myers (Halloween) have taught horror fans anything, it's this: You can't keep a monster down.
And so it is with Jigsaw, the sadistic, moralizing malcontent at the center of the inexplicably popular Saw franchise. This twisted torturer met his own gruesome demise in Saw III—a point driven home, as it were, by his graphic autopsy in this installment's opening scene. But, while the aforementioned killers bounce back from death as if it were just the sniffles, Jigsaw doesn't even feel the need to do that. Instead, the catalyst for his latest torture spree is a series of traps he set and tapes he recorded before his demise.
The first of which, ironically, turns up during his postmortem, when the presiding pathologist finds a microcassette in his stomach. Detective Hoffman, a survivor from Saw III, plays it and hears Jigsaw's voice grimly intone that his "work is just beginning." It seems Jigsaw, even in death, is still working out some anger-management issues.
We witness the origin of that rage as the film flashes back to when Jigsaw was simply John Kramer, a gifted engineer with a rewarding job and a beautiful, pregnant wife. But when his wife loses the baby because a drug addict slams a door into her protruding belly, John makes him pay for his misdeed by forcing him to push his face through a brace of knives. The wounds inflicted, John tells his first victim, will make his face match "the ugliness of your soul."
Back in the present, the fact that Jigsaw is technically no longer around means that his latest batch of victims needs someone else to spring his traps. FBI agents Strahm and Perez are eager to find out who the killer's new protégé is even as Jigsaw's bloodthirsty contraptions begin to maim and claim lives once more.
Meanwhile, Saw vets Hoffman and Commander Rigg get sidetracked as Hoffman apparently becomes grist for Jigsaw's latest killing game. And when Rigg is sent by the not-so-dearly departed to rescue the detective, he's drawn, step by horrific step, into Jigsaw's pitted mind.
"He's being recruited," Strahm says.
And with every ticking second of the clock, the blood flows more freely.
Jigsaw would have us believe that the killer is attempting, in his own diabolically twisted way, to help his victims appreciate life. Appreciating life is positive. But in what may be the most obvious sentence I've ever typed, Jigsaw's methods are not. (In "Other Negative Elements" I'll further this thought.)
Jigsaw uses Christian buzzwords to justify his work. As he manipulates Rigg from beyond the grave, he tells the commander to strap an unconvicted rapist into a contraption that Jigsaw calls the "tools to his salvation." When Jigsaw tortures the addict who killed his unborn child, that man asks for forgiveness. Jigsaw says he has forgiven him—as the addict's blood continues to trickle to the floor.
Jigsaw's child, by the way, was to have been named Gideon—presumably a reference to the biblical character (Judges 6-8) who tore down altars to Baal, defeated the Midianites, and, possibly more relevant here, punished elders from the city of Succoth with thorns and killed its inhabitants. A machine is designed to blind a lustful man, and there's an allusion to Mark 9:47: "And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out."
One of Jigsaw's victims is a rapist who apparently videotaped his exploits. Jigsaw replays those tapes for him, Rigg and the audience. Though we never see the critical body parts of either him or his victims, we do see one of his victims tied to a bed semi-clothed. We see the rapist in his underwear smile and climb on top of her. She begs for him to stop. He writhes about on her, and his boxers slip to reveal part of his backside.
During Jigsaw's autopsy, his body lies face-up and naked (with all of his anatomy visible) on the morgue gurney. One of his victims is perhaps a prostitute wearing an extremely low-cut top. Her breasts may or may not be exposed at one point—a question that's difficult to answer definitively because of the massive amount of blood in the scene.
Before he becomes Jigsaw, John is approached by a prostitute. He tells her to leave him alone and find a new line of work.
Jigsaw's autopsy is extraordinarily graphic. The pathologist peels away Jigsaw's scalp, draping the skin over his face, then noisily cuts into the cranium with a circular saw. He pulls out the brain, then opens the chest cavity and peels away the skin to reveal muscles and sinews. The stomach is removed and cut open.
It's impossible to catalogue every other bit of horrific brutality showcased in Saw IV, but a few lowlights necessarily follow:
Two men are tied to a machine by chains around their necks. One has had his eyes gouged out (we see gaping sockets), the other has had his mouth stitched shut. The machine slowly winds the chains into itself, meaning the men will be crushed within it unless they can use a key (unknowingly attached to the back of the blind man's neck) to free themselves. The men have a graphic fight with a crowbar—which gets lodged in various body parts of both—before the mute man eventually uses it to crush the blind man's skull. Before he can free himself, the chain winds tight as blood pours from his mouth.
A married couple is suspended from a ceiling by chains. Both are skewered by several shared metal spikes. The spikes are placed in such a way that the wife, if she frees herself, will kill her husband. If she doesn't, both will slowly bleed to death. She graphically pulls the spikes out as she cries an apology, and blood gushes from her dying husband's wounds.
A woman is tied to a machine that has a grip on her hair and slowly pulls it until her scalp begins to rip from her head. Rigg saves her, but she finds a knife and attacks him before he, in turn, kills her.
The rapist is hooked up to an implement that will cut him up into pieces unless he presses two buttons that will cause the contraption to puncture his eyes instead. He manages to push one button that gouges out one eye, but the machine finishes its grisly job before he can press the other. We see body parts strewn across the room.
A head is smashed to bits by blocks of ice. A forehead is pierced with shrapnel. Police officers discover one of their own in a creepy basement, her ribs ripped out of her torso. And on it goes as people are shot, bludgeoned and horribly mutilated at quite literally every turn.
Crude or Profane Language
The f-word is used more than 70 times, the s-word another 10. Jesus' name is used inappropriately a handful of times. Characters make obscene references to men's genitals.
Drug and Alcohol Content
John's ex-wife, Jill, works at a drug-addiction clinic; the addict who killed her unborn baby broke into the clinic to steal drugs. One character smokes.
Other Negative Elements
Jigsaw would like us to believe that he's a cross between an avenging angel and Dr. Phil. In this and previous films, his traps are intended (he says) to help his victims appreciate their lives more—assuming, of course, that they live. (Most don't.) Accordingly, the message "Cherish your life" is scrawled in blood at one murder site. Jigsaw's victims are often (though not always) drug addicts, rapists, abusive parents and the like, characters whose significant moral failings are intended to erode our sympathy for them as Jigsaw delivers "what they've got coming." But when a sadistic, crazed serial killer bent on mutilation and maximizing pain is a film's so-called "moral voice," you know it's got serious problems.
Director Darren Lynn Bousman has directed all but the first installment of this terminally popular franchise, and he knows that the secret to keeping his audience coming back for more is to up the blood-and-gore quotient every time. "Hopefully, I've found new and offensive ways to upset people," he told Entertainment Weekly shortly before IV began bludgeoning theaters.
Simply put, Saw IV's reason for being is to depict torture and mutilation as graphically, grossly and realistically as possible—nothing more.
And in doing so it doesn't scare as much as it nauseates. A writer for Time magazine, when reviewing the DVD version of Saw III, was incredulous when he considered that one of the DVD's special features was a behind-the-scenes look at how a woman's rib cage was torn apart. "Honestly, folks, which is weirder," the author wrote, "taking pleasure in the depiction of pain, or being so anesthetized to it that you want to study the particulars of its creation?"
But perhaps the most disturbing wrinkle in Saw IV is its insistence that, this time, the audience should see the world through Jigsaw's eyes. It's a request made explicitly (several bloody signs say things such as, "See what I see?") and implicitly. Jigsaw's victims are, for the most part, "bad" people. Heroes are cardboard-thin and often unsympathetic. Jigsaw, ironically, is the only character the filmmakers thought to infuse with any sort of humanity, such as it is—or isn't—this time around. In preparing for his role as Jigsaw, actor Tobin Bell apparently journals in character, imagining what Jigsaw might write. "I try to stay on my character's side and bring some kind of humanity," Bell told the Los Angeles Times. "The script will lead me toward the deeds that must be done. Those deeds will speak for themselves, and people can draw their own conclusions."
Here's mine, then:
Saw IV probably won't turn all of its fans into serial killers with a penchant for homemade torture devices. But more than any horror film I've ever seen, this one seems most likely to inspire a disturbed soul or two to emulate what oozes across the screen. It not only glamorizes death, torture and unadulterated evil, it asks audiences to excuse it and understand it.
And that is the most frightening turn of all.