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Goodbye John: A Farewell to Saw, as Jigsaw Lays His Last Trap

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For one half a decade, he has thrilled us with his adventures, amazed us with his discoveries, and inspired us with his courage. His traps were beyond imagination. His name has become legend, his cohorts the finest ever assembled. We have traveled beside him from one poorly-lit warehouse or factory to another. He has been our guide, our protector, and our friend. Now, you are invited to join him, for one last game...
The first Saw (which I rather disliked) was the last film I saw in a theater before I left for Los Angeles. The far-superior Saw II was the first date with the woman I would eventually marry (her choice, fortunately I had already seen The Legend of Zorro at a test screening months earlier). Needless to say, the series has had a strong nostolgic value in our household for the duration of our relationship. We haven't actually seen a Saw picture on opening night since 2007. Saw IV was our second movie-night after our daughter was born in late August (the first was Michael Clayton in early October). Saw IV's mediocrity gave way to Saw V, which we casually saw on opening day in an after-work matinée. Last year, the series had declined enough to make my wife pass on our annual tradition. Bitter irony that I ended up seeing Saw VI on my own, only to discover that it was perhaps the best of the whole series. She eventually saw it on Blu Ray, and she immediately regretted skipping out. So now, with a babysitter in tow and our schedule cleared, the wife and I are doing an old-fashioned date night. Dinner at a favorite seafood restaurant, then off to the 8:00pm show, and home before bedtime (I'll try to have a review up around midnight).
Yes, if this is truly the end of the line, I will miss the series. I will miss Tobin Bell's gravitas and genuine pathos. I will miss the only ongoing horror series to constantly feature adult actors playing adult characters, with hardly a child or teen actor in the bunch. I will miss the rare horror franchise that never veered into misogyny and never pandered to the prurient desires of its audience. I will miss the insanely retroactive continuity that became more convoluted than later seasons of Lost and/or Arrested Development. I will miss the inexplicable need to spend 15 minutes per film detailing random character interactions from Saw III and the setting-up of a random trap from Saw IV. I will miss the absurdity of building an entire second trilogy around a character (Costas Mandylor's Hoffman) who had but a thirty-second cameo in Saw III. I will miss the inconstancy of Jigsaw's schemes, which targeted everyone from murders and rapists to cops who cared too much and federal agents who trusted their instincts too much.
But, warts and all, there was something weirdly special about the Saw series. Unlike so many horror films that basically amounted to 'kids get lost in the woods, get slaughtered by supernatural freaks', the Saw franchise was an intricately plotted and carefully constructed puzzle box. It featured not a random boogieman, but a genuine character (John Kramer) played by a real actor (Tobin Bell). It didn't always make sense, but you could tell that the writers were sincere about laying the longterm groundwork, or at least successful in retroactively paying off random moments from the earlier films. Jigsaw's philosophy was pretty absurd (free legal tip: putting a guy in a room with a bomb and putting the key up his ass is still murder), but the films occasionally called him out on his failings and we were never really expected to accept Kramer's monologuing at face value.
They really weren't 'torture porn'. Sure, a few of the on-screen demises (just over a dozen out of just-under fifty) involved pain and suffering, but most were spectacularly quick and completely painless. The Saw franchise was a place for undervalued actors (Donnie Wahlberg, Shawnee Smith, Angus Macfadyen, Peter Outerbridge) to shine in the genre sandbox, as well as a place for somewhat more well-known actors (Scott Patterson, Julie Benz, pretty much every single performer in the first Saw) to fall on their faces. There were moments of high art (Angus Macfadyen choosing to burn his dead son's belongings in order to save the life of the judge who gave his son's killer a light sentence in Saw III) and unintentional hilarity (Scott Patterson conducting the world's police worst interrogation of Betsy Russell in Saw IV).
Of the six movies thus far, I could only call three of them (Saw VI, Saw II, and the ambitious but flawed Saw III) truly good, although the overwrought and absurd Saw IV isn't the least bit boring. And yes, sorry to say, but the original Saw still stinks. It's slow, boring, and still feels like a sloppy and on-the-nose first-draft screenplay that never got rewritten after it sold based on the Amanda trap scene. It also contains the worst performance of pretty much everyone in it, and that even includes Michael Emerson. But the franchise as a whole stands out as a unique bit of horror filmmaking, not to be dismissed out of hand. For six long years, we have amused ourselves watching John Kramer and his cohorts strive to teach random citizens to value their lives. If this is to be the end, then it is the end of something worth remembering. Let me be the first to say goodbye to Mr. John 'Jigsaw' Kramer. You will be missed. Thanks for the memories.
Scott Mendelson