And here we go again: Much like a critic you probably know (and read regularly) who cracks his knuckles and leers nefariously before sitting down to disembowel the annual Saw chapter, I'm here to do my yearly admission: I still really like this series. Yes, even Part 5, which even the die-hard Jigsaw junkies seem to dismiss out of hand. And I think I've cracked the part of the formula that works so well for me: It's not just that the Saw franchise has now transformed into a horror geek's version of Lost or Heroes or Dallas, it's that each flick is composed of two halves that complement one another rather effectively: Not to be obvious here, but we've got a rough and gritty horror series that's wedged (rather comfortably) with a basic but compelling "cop story." And as this series has progressed into its 4th, 5th, and now 6th chapter, I find myself more and more interested in the "cop stuff" and only slightly less interested in the seriously twisted horror bits.
Easily the best entry since Saw 2, the sixth chapter picks up in a simple enough location: Jigsaw is, of course, still dead, but his influence is felt through the lunacy of Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) and the demised killer's own widow Jill (Betsy Russell). When we last saw Hoffman he was smushing (and framing) a good cop in an effort to keep his tracks covered, but this time out ... Hoffman's superiors are beginning to suspect something. But while Jigsaw and his first apprentice Amanda had a twisted sense of morality about their crimes, Hoffman is mostly just nuts.
This is going to cause some difficulty with Hoffman's newest project: At the behest of his late master, Hoffman captures an executive from the health insurance company that "allowed" John the 'Jigsaw' to pass away (sorta), and it's this poor sap (a very game Peter Outerbridge) who must wander through a torturous playground full of red-hot pipes, vats of flesh-eating acid, and numerous pointy implements if he is ever to learn the error of his ways. Apparently that lesson is this: Don't play with people's lives. That's either very ironic of Jigsaw, or slightly hypocritical. Either way it's fun.
Again, the killer is also the detective in charge of the case. It's a simple gimmick, but it gives Saw 6 a little more zing than its immediate predecessors. (First-time director Kevin Greteurt has edited all of the films in the Saw series, so it's no big shock to learn that this entry is the tightest and most concise since the original flick.) As usual, the highly elaborate "trap" scenes are supremely effective: You'll squint, squirm and squeal through most of Saw 6's best moments, and if this series has never been all that traditionally scary, it's still adherent to adjectives like creepy, disturbing, shocking, and (of course) often pretty disgusting. Certainly not highbrow (although a little smarter than its given credit for), the Saw series is more than happy to linger and leer at some of its most creative carnage, which is some of the fun, I suppose.
But where Saw 6 earns a few points over its predecessors is in its devotion to simple but effective gallows humor. It only takes a few minutes of the flick before you'll realize "oh man, it's going to be a big-time beat-down on health insurance providers," and it's this clever new angle that gives a long-running series a new spark. (Also, c'mon, how many "Horror Flick Part 6" movies do you know that even try to deliver a little social commentary in between the slit throats and wonderfully predictable cliches?) Screenwriters Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan are clearly enjoying their darkly amusing attack on "evil" health insurance companies (as the theme runs through virtually all of the traps), but hey, it also manages to tie into Jigsaw's earlier ailments ... which naturally allows for a handful of revelatory flashbacks that will only make sense to serious fans of the series.
And I suppose that's also some of the appeal as well: That everything about Saw, at this point, is "fans-only." So while I'm a film critic who can plainly see, for example, that a few of the supporting actors are slightly ripe and that a few of the chattier scenes feel a bit ... blah to look at, I just take those as part of the whole "horror fan soap opera" syndrome. Flaws and all, the Saw series is absolutely one of the best horror franchises out there, and if you thought the last few chapters were just sorta spinning their wheels, you be pleased to know that Saw 6 answers more lingering questions than it poses, it moves like a shot and doesn't waste any time, and of course: the traps, the kills, the gooey gore, and the funhouse morbidity of the series are still alive and well and, yes, currently planning more snarky depravity in Saw 7.
Maybe next year we'll see some economists earn some of Jigsaw's posthumous wrath.
(Random note of geekdom: I don't think it's fair that all you LOST, HEROES, TRUE BLOOD, etc., fans get one new story a week. Saw fans only get one a year.)