So it's late October again and the horror fans know what that means: Time for another icky installment of the Saw series! Yes, what began as a low-budget indie horror flick (that even played Sundance!) has turned into a mega-profitable mammoth for Lionsgate Films -- and apparently they're intent on never taking a year off. After unleashing a pair of surprisingly compelling sequels, the producers seem ready to re-invent the franchise -- because that's what you have to do when you kill off most of your characters in every movie. And since the Saw flicks are a lot more plot-heavy than your average horror series, the fact that LG keeps churning 'em out, year after year, is pretty impressive. Someone's actually figured out how to nurture a cash cow while also keeping the fans happy -- and that's no small feat, if you ask me.

So the question of the day is this: Is Saw IV any good? Does it maintain the nasty freshness of the opening trilogy while laying down some groundwork for future installments? Or is the newest entry just a simple case of "Get the product on screen by the end of October, period," and to hell with stuff like quality, continuity, and craftsmanship? Well, considering you won't find a professional film critic who digs the Saw movies as much as I do, you're asking the right guy ... and my opinion is this: Saw IV is almost certainly the weakest of the series where stuff like plot, logic, and chills are concerned -- but there's still more than enough here to keep the fans intrigued, entertained, and squirming in their seats.

Whereas Saw 2 and Saw 3 deviated from the formula just a bit (Saw 2 feels sort of like a haunted house flick, while Saw 3 is one of the grungiest medical dramas you'll ever see), Saw IV seems intent on returning to the original flick. When we last left the series, both of our villains Jisgaw (Tobin Bell) and Amanda (Shawnee Smith) were completely and entirely dead ... and that hasn't changed. As we open on Saw IV, we learn that nasty ol' Jigsaw has left a whole bunch of calling cards lying around. And by calling cards I mean A) bloody people trapped in B) elaborate torture devices and surrounded by C) clues left in voice recorders and D) professionally-printed instruction cards. And since pretty much everyone else is dead, the solution of the never-ending case falls to Detective Rigg (Lyriq Bent) and Lieutenant Hoffman (Costas Mandylor).

In order to keep the plot over-stuffed with plot threads, we're also introduced to a new pair of FBI agents, several shrieking new victims, and a few (kinda) surprise appearances from a handful of established characters. As Rigg digs deeper into the mayhem, Hoffman interrogates Jigsaw's former flame (Betsy Russell) before ending up strapped to a rusty chair of his own. To divulge much more would rob the longtime fans of some (sorta) surprises, so let's just leave the plot synopsis as is. Plus there's a whole bunch of flashbacks that explain how John Kramer finally became Jigsaw, just to keep things moving.

Basically, I think Twisted Pictures and Lionsgate should take a year or two off from the series, and give the horror fans a chance to actually "crave" a new installment. Which is not to say that Saw IV is a bad horror movie (because it's not), but that the harried effort it takes to produce a new chapter every year is really starting to show. Screenwriters Marcus Dunston and Patrick Melton (new to the series) do what they can within the limits of the unimpeachable formula -- but the simple truth is that you're a hardcore Saw fan, you'll be able to spot the cracks in the foundation. Saw IV is powerfully beholden to the series' well-established formula, which really doesn't help things when you're trying to make a movie fill of unexpected surprises. Also, one begins to feel as if Lionsgate should start handing out scorecards, so densely-plotted and (enjoyably) convoluted are the myriad character loyalties and fractured back-stories.

But it is pretty creepy. The traps, while not nearly as elaborate or as aggressively disgusting as the ones found in the first three films, are suitably icky. Director Darren Lynn Bousman (who also directed the last two Saw movies) maintains a strong eye for unpleasant atmosphere, particularly during the movie's nastier moments, but the overlong Saw IV is also packed with a few too many "cop moments" and relatively clumsy volleys of exposition. Fortunately, when the movie gets down to the nasty stuff, there's some grossly good fun to be had. So while I'd definitely call Saw IV the slightest of the series, that doesn't mean I'd call it a waste of time.

Frankly I think the Saw-makers are to be commended for actually putting forth this sort of effort. I grew up in an era that offered little more than quick-cash, stand-alone horror sequels like Halloween 5 and Friday the 13th Part 7 -- so the fact that these producers actually give a damn about narrative continuity (right down the smallest detail) is fairly impressive. Saw 4 feels a bit like the series is "spinning its wheels" until someone comes up with a REALLY cool new idea, but it's still slick, sick, and spooky enough to appease the fans.

It's a been-there, done-that sort of sequel, but it's still more creative than most of what passes for Hollywood horror these days. And don't even think about checking out Saw IV if you haven't seen Saw 3 (and Saw 2!) fairly recently. More and more this series is beginning to feel like the world's most violent soap opera, and you really should take a refresher course on the trilogy if you want to follow what's going down in Saw IV. Same advice will undoubtedly hold true when Saw 5 hits theaters this time next year.