‘Saw’ sequel still scary

Anyone who’s seen Saw III might have thought they’d seen the last of demented serial killer John Cramer (A.K.A. Jigsaw). However, thanks to a legion of clamoring fans and impressive box office grosses, his story continues in the fourth entry of the phenomenally successful Saw series.

Immediately setting aside fears that the saga would somehow miraculously resurrect its title character, Saw IV opens with a graphic autopsy scene during which a gruesome discovery within Jigsaw’s corpse starts off a whole new set of twisted games.

What ensues is typical Saw fare. As the police apprehend and question Jigsaw’s ex-wife Jill (Betsy Russell) about her potential involvement, policeman Rigg (Lyriq Bent) engages in a mad rush against time to save the lives of two of his fellow officers from one of Jigsaw’s sinister traps. But, since Jigsaw’s dead, the question remains: who’s continuing his work?

Although the film clearly continues in the tradition of its predecessors, the script – by the writers of last year’s under-the-radar monster flick Feast – manages a few surprising twists. Also, the direction of Darren Lynn Bousman, who was at the helm for Saw II and III, lends a remarkable sense of stability to the series by seamlessly creating the illusion that all the films exist within the same universe. This skill is especially important in a series as mind-bending as Saw. Essentially, the films have become more of an interconnected web of events than a linear storyline, and Bousman’s return perpetuates this warped continuity.

The series, like most horror franchises, is only as good as its villain. For his fourth go-round as the man behind all this mayhem, actor Tobin Bell offers yet another brilliant performance as Jigsaw. Saw IV offers more details about his past than any of the previous films, providing rabid viewers with hints about what caused him to become the infamous killer, all the while laying plenty of groundwork for future sequels. Like Robert Englund’s portrayal of Freddy Krueger in the A Nightmare on Elm Street films, Bell has become the anchor that holds this series together. The humanity he bestows on a character as malevolent as Jigsaw is undoubtedly the chief reason that this series continues to draw in such big crowds.

While the failure of Hostel Part II may have signaled that films of this ilk are on the decline, Saw IV’s $32 million opening weekend indicates that fans are still hungry for more. The death of its main character could have had debilitating effects on the series, but the makers of the Saw films have managed to reinvigorate it instead. By putting a new post-Jigsaw spin on the primary narrative, they have raised an entirely new set of questions.

Since 2004, the arrival of a new Saw movie has become a Halloween tradition. With Saw V and VI already in development, the series – which has raked in more than $200 million in the U.S. alone – has no end in sight. As long as the writers remain loyal to the psychology that made the first film a surprise smash and stay focused on the iconic Jigsaw, the audience will be there. And so will I.

Grade: B

Running time: 108 minutes

Rating: R