Urban Explorer (2011)

Nazi-themed horror seems to be in fashion at the moment, which is probably why there’s a swastika on the UK DVD cover of Urban Explorer, since the film doesn’t really have anything to do with the Nazis.

It starts out promisingly: a group of strangers pay a tour guide to take them on a tour of the abandoned underground network beneath Berlin. Apparently, somewhere deep below the city is a forgotten Nazi bunker, which was recently rediscovered and then bricked up again to prevent neo Nazis gathering there; but when the intrepid explorers venture below ground, they quickly run into some violent creeps who very well might be neo Nazis.

Spoiler alert: they aren’t. They’re just one of the many, many red herrings this absurd piece of sub-Hostel nonsense has to offer.

As is traditional in this sort of horror movie, the victims soon make a succession of bad ideas – straying into parts of the underground that haven’t been properly explored before, building makeshift bridges out of debris – putting themselves in danger. After one spectacularly stupid move on the part of the group’s photographer, the group is forced to split up to seek help, and, naturally, soon fall prey to the monster lurking in the shadows. Despite the tour guide’s fanciful campfire stories of Nazi piano-playing and super-soldiers, the actual threat turns out to be much more recent: an ex-military psychopath who relished his border guard duties so much that he continues to enforce them from a drug-filled bunker in the bowels of the earth. It could almost, maybe, work as a concept… unless you stopped to think about it for a second.

In the utter absence of logic, then, what Urban Explorer delivers instead is some very nasty gore. It starts out pretty tame, and there’s a scene that appears to have been directly lifted from Hostel, but it builds to one particularly nasty scene that is, at least, reasonably original, and deeply unpleasant. You’ll need a strong stomach to get through it. That’s the only glimmer of originality to be found in this film, though, and its extreme gore sits oddly alongside its occasional moments of pure slapstick. All your standard horror movie tropes crop up, including the botched calls for help, the lack of cell phone signal, and the killer who’s never quite dead no matter how many bullets you put in him. It’s a frustrating mess that spoils itself by promising something interesting and then backing off, lapsing into cliche and boredom.

Apart from frustration, though, the main feeling this film provokes is déjà vu. We’ve seen spooky underground spaces lit by flares in The Descent; we’ve seen those dirty, dimly lit rooms full of torture instruments in Hostel; and we’ve even seen someone fall down a shaft and break their legs in The Ruins. It feels like this film should’ve come out five years ago; now, it seems a bit anachronistic. And while most horror movies are derivative in one way or another (and if you’re going to borrow from other films, you’re better off borrowing from half-decent ones!) it really does feel like this one doesn’t have anything new to offer.

Which is a shame, because if it’d delivered the winged Nazi super-soldier it suggested in its first half hour, it could’ve been amazing. But no. Most of the things that are set up at the beginning fail to pay off: there’s no Nazi element to the murders or the murderer; the piano doesn’t come back into play; even the creeps lurking in the underground don’t have any bearing on what happens later. In a better film, this might feel like deliberate misdirection; here, it just feels like carelessness. The sort of complaints that can be levelled at Urban Explorer – that it doesn’t quite make sense, that the characters have no depth, that the gore is purely sadistic and serves no greater purpose – are the same complaints that have been made of many other, better films over the past decade; it’s just kind of boring.

One final minor gripe, too: the young explorers are all different nationalities, which could be interesting, but only really means they each have a different accent. Most of the dialogue is in English, but it’s so heavily accented that it’s frequently difficult to understand, so it’s a relief every time the film lapses into (subtitled) German. Given that none of the group has a discernible personality, there doesn’t seem much point to their differing geographical backgrounds, other than making the (not particularly sparkling) dialogue that much harder to follow.

Basically, this is another one for the “why bother?” file. There’s some nice photography in the first reel, and the location is intriguing, but beyond that there’s absolutely nothing to recommend it.

IMDB link

Wake Wood (2011)

I really don't enjoy hating new, low budget, British horror films. I'd love to champion Wake Wood and tell you how brilliant it is. But I can't, because it's awful - in an oh-God-I'd-rather-peel-my-face-off-than-keep-watching-this kind of a way.

The Wake Wood of the title is actually Wakewood, a small town in Ireland that's got some serious idiosyncracies. Bereaved parents Patrick and Louise move in after their young daughter is tragically killed by a dog, and are quickly offered the traditional monkey's paw: by using the remains of a recently deceased townsperson, they can conjure just enough life force to bring Alice back to life for three days.

This is, apparently, something all the townsfolk do whenever someone dies, and despite the obvious Pet Sematary parallel, it's usually totally okay. There are rules, though: the person to be resurrected must have been dead for less than a year, and during their three days they mustn't cross the town's boundaries. After their three days are up, too, Patrick and Louise will be bound to the town, and must never move away. You'd think warning bells would be ringing already, but the promise of seeing their daughter again is too much, and the couple go ahead with the ritual, using the corpse of a farmer who was recently crushed to death by a cow.

Something's off about Wake Wood from the beginning. Partly it's the ugly way it's filmed; it looks like it's been filmed on an iPhone and then passed through half a dozen filters in an attempt to make it look cinematic. Partly it's the awkward dialogue, and the way characters seem to react as if they can't quite hear each other. Mostly, though, it's the strange way it feels like this wasn't written as a movie. The death-by-cow is a prime example - it looks faintly ridiculous seeing a man squished between a cow's backside and a metal gate, but it feels like it was an idea that might have worked in print. There's a discrepancy between the way the film's been shot and acted - trying to wring every last drop of pathos out of Alice's admittedly tragic death and her parents' subsequent grief, for example - and the inherent campiness of the script. Some of the characters' stranger decisions would make more sense if the world they inhabited was less familiar-looking; if they were in a slightly more stylised, gothic universe, it might be easier to accept that, yeah, there's this whole community who can resurrect their dead people for three days at a go, and they've been doing it for generations, and it's all cool. As it is, it's tough to swallow that any rational adult could buy into this, and the film doesn't seek to address any of the issues built into a system like that before everything goes horribly wrong.

Which of course it does, because Patrick and Louise break both of the fundamental rules of this game: not only do they take Alice outside of the town's limits, but she had been dead for over a year in the first place, which means she came back wrong. Yup, we're back in creepy little girl territory: Alice starts by murdering animals and quickly moves on to killing people and generally being a terror. Why? God knows. Somehow, in the three or four extra weeks she'd been dead, something terrible happened. (It's difficult to know the exact chronology, because the beginning of the film is intentionally muddled to prevent you from figuring out that Alice had been dead too long; actually, what this muddle does it make it really difficult to understand quite what's going on for a while, because although Patrick and Louise are supposed to be outsiders in Wakewood, just learning about its weird traditions, we've seen them both working in jobs that are pretty well embedded in the community.)

There's a logical and emotional leap that the film makes that leaves its audience behind; when Alice comes back, her parents seem to revert to their normal, happy, pre-dead-child state, ignoring the fact that they've only really got three days with her. I mean, if your child had been killed by a stray animal while you weren't around, and then you got to spend just three more days with her alive, would you really want to go playing hide and seek in the woods? There's no sense of urgency to their interactions with her; they're desperate to have her back and then, when she is back, seem to forget what's going on, not finding it in the least bit strange that she's come back with someone else's eye colour or that she frequently disappears only to come back with bloodstained hands.

The film ends with one of the most stupid - and yet painfully obvious - scenes ever committed to celluloid (or digital video; whatever). By this point, though, it almost doesn't matter. Wake Wood is terrible through and through. It wants to be a cross between The Wicker Man and Don't Look Now, but can't manage it, resorting instead to heavy-handed references to both. Where those films had emotional resonance - or, at least, gorgeous photography - Wake Wood has a daft scene with a cow and a magic town of rural stereotypes. If the new Hammer Films can't do better than this, they might as well give up.

My Soul To Take (2011)

Dissociative identity disorder, or multiple personality disorder, is a controversial condition: it seems that it's linked with traumatic events in a patient's life; it doesn't have easily definable symptoms; and according to some clinicians, it might actually be caused by the therapists themselves. So what better topic to make a terrible, dull, confused slasher movie about?

My Soul To Take is not a clever film. It starts, as all slashers must, with a bit of backstory: a man, Abel Plankov, is working on toys for his young daughter when his pregnant wife interrupts and says that the news is scaring her with its reports of the Riverton Ripper, a local serial killer. In the background, a psychiatrist named William Blake - and I'm going to pretend I didn't notice that, because, ugh - tells the news reporter that the killer might be suffering from mental illness, and might not even be aware that he's the killer. Surprise! It turns out Plankov is the killer - or, at least, one of his other personalities is. He calls Blake with his worries, but it's too late, and he kills his wife before the police arrive. And then he kills some of the police. They shoot him, but like all slasher movie villains he's not going down that easily. Even when they get his corpse into an ambulance, it's not over; the ambulance crashes into the river, and we fast-forward 16 years.

On the night Plankov supposedly died, something strange happened in the maternity ward. Pregnant women spontaneously went into birth, even when they weren't due, and seven babies were born that night. Improbably, a legend sprang up around them: that Plankov's personalities were in fact separate souls, which had passed into the babies. Every year, on the anniversary of his death, the seven kids gather at the scene of the ambulance crash and carry out a bizarre ritual that involves someone dressing up in a "Ripper" costume (which bears no resemblance to anything, but you've gotta have a mask in films like this) and being symbolically "killed". Apparently, this ritual will stop the Ripper from rising again, but this year, it's interrupted by the police. And so the killing starts again.

There's a ton of extra symbolism thrown in haphazardly: lots of stuff about mirrors, and a Native American myth about the condor being a bird that can absorb souls, but even that can't save the majority of the film from becoming a dull exercise in watching daft teenagers get butchered. The dialogue is embarrassingly bad, and the plot is convoluted without ever actually being interesting. It's obvious what's going to happen, and even the identity of the killer isn't really a surprise. There's no reason for the audience to become invested in any of the characters, there's no real tension at any point, and the ending is just too stupid for words. The idea that someone with a mental illness might be possessed is horribly outdated, offensive, and amateurish; there's just no excuse for falling back on that ugly trope in 2011.

Worse, the movie was shot in 2D, then converted to 3D for its theatrical release, which is the only way to make something this stupid even more painful.

Season of the Witch (2011)

Nicolas Cage is capable of making brilliant films. Last year's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans was magnificent, and Kick-Ass was great, too, so it's not like he's given up on trying to make good movies. But he seems to be bizarrely determined to destroy any goodwill generated by those performances by appearing in crap like Season of the Witch. It's frustrating.

Season of the Witch lays its cards on the table early. We open on a witch trial, where three women are found guilty of witchcraft by virtue of, basically, being female, and are promptly killed. For a moment, it looks like the film might be condemning their prosecutors for their cruelty, but then - aha! - it turns out the women really were witches after all, and through the power of shitty CGI they come back to life to claim their revenge. The film immediately marks itself out as stupid, ugly, and deeply offensive, all before Cage even appears onscreen.

But it doesn't get any better when he does. Cage plays Behmen, a seasoned soldier in the Crusades who suddenly decides he doesn't want to kill any more people. He and his best mate Felson (played by Ron Perlman) become deserters, riding round half the world on their trusty horses before arriving at a creepy-looking town where everyone's dying of the plague. Because no-one understood germs back then, they hang around until a member of the clergy spots them and has them thrown into jail. They're offered only one way out: the Cardinal believes that the plague was caused by a witch, and the only way to cure it is to take the witch to a monastery miles away, where the monks have a special plague-curing witch-killing book of some kind.

It's all a very, very complicated way of setting up a quest, basically: Behmen and Felson, along with a ragtag assortment of untrustworthy locals, must accompany a young girl who may or may not be a witch through a series of Tolkien-esque obstacles to get to Mordor, where the monks will use their magic ring to cure the plague. Or something.

Already, the script is being pulled in a number of different directions. Behmen is apparently the hero, even though we know he's massacred hundreds of people, so we're supposed to invest in him and share his disapproval of the Catholic church and its methods. The Cardinal certainly doesn't appear to be a sympathetic figure, and there's something suspicious about the priest who goes along on the mission; it's implied that he's been mistreating the girl/witch, possibly sexually abusing her. The Church is wrong about the Crusades, and since we, the audience, know that the plague wasn't caused by witches, we think they're wrong about that, too, and logically should assume that the girl is innocent. Except that we've just seen that this is a film in which magic and witchcraft exist, because we just saw an old woman come back to life.

Season of the Witch can't seem to make up its mind whether it wants to be a serious movie about the ways in which religion can lead people to do awful things to each other, or whether it wants to be a swords 'n' sorcery style epic about brave men fighting monsters. That first scene kills all the film's attempts at ambiguity, and renders them merely confusing instead. Any attempts to build dramatic attention are skewered by that first scene; we know the girl's going to turn out to be a supernatural entity, otherwise the first appearance of a CGI witch doesn't make any sense.

But the film's too stupid to realise that it has already shown its hand. Its wobbly internal logic collapses completely when the travellers arrive at the monastery to find that all the monks have died of the plague. And when the priest tries to exorcise the witch using the Big Book of MacGuffin, two entirely separate endings attempt to happen at once: the girl initially starts speaking out against the cruelties of the Catholic church, and then reveals herself to be a demon. There's a possibility the film could resolve its problems by making her a demon that's come to punish the Church for its sins, in a be-careful-what-you-wish-for kind of a way, but it doesn't even do that. No, instead, it turns out that the girl has been possessed by a devil the whole time, and the trek to the monastery was so that it could kill the monks and destroy all the remaining copies of the magic book that could defeat it. The demon takes on its true form - a bat-like gargoyle thing - and starts killing everyone in the hope the audience won't notice that none of that makes any sense: why would the demon need anyone to transport it anywhere, if it had wings? Why would it need to go to the monastery to kill everyone when they were all already dead from the plague? Why bother with the whole 'witch' disguise in the first place? And why kill so many of its entourage along the way if what it wanted was for them to take it to the monastery? Either this is the stupidest demon ever committed to celluloid, or someone started rewriting this movie halfway through.

To add one final insult to injury, when the battle is finally over, the vanquished demon turns back into a girl - so apparently it was a demon possessing a girl, rather than a demon disguised as a girl - who's completely innocent and remembers none of what happened. As she and her one remaining knight ride off into the sunset, there's a voiceover in which she tells us she wants to tell the story of all the brave men who died to rescue her. Except that they didn't, they were trying to kill her, and she just said, right in that scene, that she doesn't remember anything that happened. It's like there are two, or maybe three or four, movies running simultaneously here, and all of them are terrible.

Without Nicolas Cage, this movie would never have seen the inside of a cinema. There isn't a single part of it that's well-made, and its stupidity is offensive. Hundreds of women really have been murdered throughout the ages because someone accused them of being witches. None of them were actually demons. The Crusades actually happened, and people really got killed. Making a film in which all of it comes down to a giant CGI bat is about as insensitive as you can get.

IMDB link

Nicolas Cage is a shouty man

Oh yes he is.

Anyone else feeling the need for a Nicolas Cage movie marathon now?

Let Me In (2010)

Not all vampires live in castles. Since Dracula’s day, vampires have had to downsize significantly: but while Louis and Lestat might’ve had a gorgeous big house in New Orleans, Let Me In’s Abby has to make do with a poky flat in a suburb of a small New Mexico town. The walls are so thin that her neighbours can hear every time she raises her voice, and the windows are covered over with cardboard. Even a thick blanket of snow can’t make her Los Alamos home look anything other than rundown and dreary.

Let Me In is a wonderfully real vampire story, based – of course – on Swedish novel, and film of the same title, Let The Right One In. As remakes of foreign horror movies go, it’s by far the best. In fact, it might even be superior to the much loved Swedish film (though suggesting that is regarded as blasphemy in some circles!). Let Me In pares the story down to its most essential elements, disposing of almost all of the subplots and extraneous characters that populated the world of the novel and focusing right in on the main relationship of the story: the weird love affair that blossoms between vampiric Abby and her next-door neighbour, a sad, bullied 12-year-old called Owen.

Owen’s life is, basically, miserable. His parents are getting divorced: his father is absent, and his mother isn’t much better. (To the point where we never quite see her face in the film, and only hear his dad’s voice over the phone.) He’s bad at sports, addicted to sweets, and mercilessly bullied by a gang of boys at school – to the point where he takes up afterschool strength training in a hopeless effort to stand up to them. When a mysterious family move in next door, he’s determined to make friends with the girl, despite her warnings. They bond over, um, a Rubix cube, and the lack of anyone else to talk to, and she encourages him to stand up to the bullies. But as they grow closer, Owen discovers that Abby really is strange: she doesn’t feel the cold, sometimes smells funny, and turns into a monster when he attempts a blood-bonding ceremony with her. Ultimately, though, she’s the only one who seems to understand him (or even pay him attention that doesn’t involve beating him up) and he becomes fiercely loyal to her, even as the body count starts to rack up.

The novel is littered with subplots and background characters: there are the town drunks, two of whom are repurposed in Let Me In as Virginia and her boyfriend, though they get have a much smaller role to play here; there’s Oskar’s neighbour, Tommy, who only gets a passing mention this time round; and all of the other characters, particularly Hakan (who doesn’t even get a name in Let Me In) are far more fleshed out. There’s also a brief historical interlude in the novel where we find out a bit about how Eli became a vampire, including the revelation that she’s actually a boy – he was crudely castrated as part of the ritual that presumably made him a vampire. This is only fleetingly referred to in the Swedish film, when Oskar spies on Eli getting changed and spots the scar; it’s kind of confusing, and not something the film had time to really explore. Without that complication, Abby’s line “Would you like me if I wasn’t a girl?” means something slightly different: because she isn’t a girl. She’s a vampire. Let Me In changes the story by choosing which elements of the novel it retains or discards, but it’s still a great story.

And it’s beautiful. Really, really beautiful. The movie borrows some visual elements from its predecessor – though they’re also things that are important in the novel, like the dismal housing estate the characters live on – but adds its own style. It uses the ubiquitous teal and orange colour palette, but for once, it’s for a good reason: the film is full of fire and ice, and the colours in every scene seem to reflect that contrast. There’s the cool blue swimming pool, and the orange glow of the bonfire; the cold blue snow, and the warm orange living room. Almost any shot from the film could be frozen and used as a poster, it’s just gorgeous to look at.

The acting, too, deserves a mention: it’s fantastic. The two children, in the absence of almost anyone else at all, have to carry the movie, and they’re both brilliant. Chloe Moretz’s Abby is just as weird and cold as Eli in the original, while Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Owen is by turns creepier and more sympathetic than Oskar.

The only problem with Let Me In is that the action sequences largely don’t work. The choice to use CGI to make vampiric Abby freakishly fast feels strange, and her spidery form is the only thing in the film that doesn’t look real. It’s also unnecessary plotwise: every time Abby is forced to attack someone, things are set up to allow her to do so easily. She doesn’t need to move so fast – she arranges her attacks deliberately, coaxing her victims to lift her in their arms, or dropping onto them from a tree branch above their heads. The only time her strength and speed is necessary is in the final swimming pool scene – which we don’t see, anyway, watching from Owen’s perspective under the water’s surface. And the non-CGI action sequences aren’t much better, generally seeming comical rather than disturbing. The scenes where Abby’s “father” goes out to hunt for her could be creepy, but seem instead to be played for laughs, which is kind of a shame. Let Me In is more of a horror movie than Let The Right One In was, but neither comes close to approaching the brutal, disturbing darkness of the novel.

It’s strange, because Let Me In is exactly what fans of the original most feared: it’s simpler, glossier, and frequently more obvious with its themes. It’s clearer what the stakes are, too. But that doesn’t stop it being a great film. It’s visually stunning, well paced, and frequently horrifying. Matt Reeves is, in my book, two for two: Cloverfield and Let Me In are radically different films, but they’re both excellent.

One final note: the repeated use of the Now & Later theme might seem out of place at first, but when it recurs at the very end, it’s downright chilling. Brrr.

IMDB link

Saw Week: Saw 3D

Maybe Saw 3D was inevitably going to be a disappointment. It's the final instalment, and so needs to wrap up the entire franchise in a satisfying way, while showcasing plenty of new and elaborate traps ... and it's in 3D. It's a lot to pack into one movie, and ultimately, it doesn't really work. Which is such a shame, because there are parts of it that are really promising, but it just doesn't quite deliver.

The main problem is that it introduces too many new elements when, really, it needed to spend its time and effort tying up existing loose ends. We open on a trap, but a trap unlike any we've ever seen before: instead of being hidden away in a grimy basement somewhere, this trap is in a shop window, on a busy street, in broad daylight. Two men are chained to a workbench with three circular saw blades on it, and suspended above them is a woman: apparently she'd been cheating on one of them with the other, or something, it's not quite clear. Billy the puppet tricycles in to tell them that only two of them can possibly escape this trap: either they push the saws all to one side and murder one of the men, or they leave them in the middle, and let the woman perish. There's something particularly ugly about this trap, a hint of misogyny that hadn't really been present in the franchise before. But what's worse about this trap is that it doesn't tie into the rest of the film at all. Is this the work of John, or Hoffman? Who are these people, and why are they relevant? At what point in time is this happening? It doesn't matter, as it turns out. Not even slightly. So let's forget about that and get on with the story.

At the end of Saw VI, we saw Jill carry out John's final instructions by putting the reverse bear trap on Hoffman's head and locking him in a room, supposedly to perish without a hope of survival. But Hoffman did survive, albeit with a nasty facial wound. Saw 3D picks up from there, with a panicked Jill fleeing the scene as Hoffman chases her down. There's an obvious Halloween reference in this sequence, and that pretty much sets the tone for the rest of Hoffman's storyline. He's become a stalk'n'slash killer, a Michael Myers/Jason Voorhees character, walking slowly but inevitably towards his victims ... and killing them with a knife. There's none of Jigsaw's characteristic twisted morality to this: Hoffman's on a killing spree, and there's no subtlety to his methods at all.

While the previous films were complex, this one's just messy. There are at least two new stories running simultaneously here: there's a police plot, where Hoffman takes his revenge on Gibson, an internal affairs officer who previously turned Hoffman in for brutality, and there's a maze trap, where fake Jigsaw "survivor" Bobby Dagen must try to rescue his publicity team and his wife by actually going through some of the things he's become famous for claiming to. This trap's actually quite clever, but it's overly elaborate: Dagen is being punished for lying, for turning himself into a celebrity by pretending to have overcome a Jigsaw trap, and so the various stages in his maze are labelled with the steps from his self-help book, S.U.R.V.I.V.E. (Start your live anew, understand your problems, redefine your priorities, verify your self-worth through commitment, ignore your detractors, value your loved ones, and embrace every day as if it were your last.) That's further complicated by the addition of the themes of the three wise monkeys: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. And while Hoffman's trying to force Gibson to hand over Jill, he's also setting up some elaborate traps at various significant locations from his own past. There's a hell of a lot going on here.

The twist that slightly unravels some of this tangle is that there's yet another Jigsaw accomplice to be unmasked: and, if you've seen any of the publicity for this movie, this is hardly a spoiler. It's Dr Lawrence Gordon. After he dragged himself out of the bathroom at the end of the first movie, Jigsaw took him in, built him a prosthetic foot, and brought him into the rapidly growing cult of Jigsaw. So all those incredibly intricate, surgical elements in many of the previous traps? That was Gordon's work. I'd like this twist a lot more if I didn't know Cary Elwes was returning; it would've been excellent if we hadn't seen him until right at the end, but he's been way too prominent in the publicity campaign for this twist to hold any real shock value.

So, while Gordon's running a trap for Dagen, Hoffman's leading Gibson around by the nose, and Jill is ... mostly just running away from Hoffman. Saw 3D commits one of the most obnoxious cinematic tricks when it gives us a dream sequence fakeout: while all of the previous films have tried to mislead and trick the audience in various ways, none of them have done it in such an obvious, clichéd and tired way. (Plus, in the dream sequence Jill is inexplicably wearing very little clothing, and an awful lot of lip gloss: really, guys? Really?) I think I just expected more.

There are lots of opportunities to do interesting things in this movie: Dagen's support groups for Jigsaw survivors are the perfect opportunity to give fans a little continuity porn by bringing back everyone who'd previously survived a trap, and while there were a couple of familiar faces back (Tara, Addy and Simone from Saw VI, and Mallick from Saw V), there was also a completely new trap and survivor thrown into the mix, which ... what? When was that supposed to have happened? It would've been better to stick to existing survivors, as few of them as there are. And the trailers for Saw 3D hinted that the audience would be implicated this time, which was really the only way to make sense of the opening trap. I expected some element of accusation - an invitation to consider what's wrong with me, personally, that I want to watch these movies? - but there was nothing.

Another major issue with Saw 3D is the relative lack of Tobin Bell. I know. John Kramer's been dead since Saw III, so continually bringing him back is getting a little tired. But we only got two new scenes with him this time round, and the film really suffered from his absence. Saw 3D focuses on Hoffman, a relative newcomer to the mythos, and all the new characters, even sidelining Jill Tuck in favour of bloody Gibson. (Chad Donella is my new least favourite Saw actor. He's terrible.) Jill's been lurking in the background for three movies now, and this was the filmmakers' last chance to really do something interesting with her, but they didn't. After their rehabilitation of Amanda in Saw VI, I really had faith that they'd give us some much needed insight into Jill, but sadly not.

I'm being overly negative now, I know. Saw 3D isn't terrible (it's certainly not as gutwrenchingly awful as Hostel Part II; it's more disappointing in the way that The Wire season 5 is disappointing). It's entertaining enough: it's camp, occasionally funny, and frequently disgusting. It's watchable. It's just not the high note I thought the franchise was going to go out on. This week has been an interesting experiment, though, and even taking the disappointing final instalment into account, I still hold the Saw franchise in far higher regard than I did even a week ago. I'm especially excited to see what creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell will do next.

Saw Week: Part VI

I think Saw VI is my favourite. Finally, everything makes sense (well, almost everything); the main story is just as engaging as the mythology stuff – and that gets an added dimension that retroactively improves the earlier movies – and it even has a serious political point to make. The editing is less distractingly awful, and the writing is as strong as in the previous two. It’s … really, really good.

That, or watching this many Saw movies in such a short space of time has utterly destroyed my brain, but I think it’s just good.

Saw VI’s centrepiece is another big maze trap, like the ones in Saw III and V. William Easton, a health insurance executive at Umbrella Health (that’s gotta be a Resident Evil reference, surely?) is an awful, smug man whose algorithm for determining individuals’ health risks has meant the death of countless people – including, indirectly, John Kramer. Jigsaw met Easton at a party (and let’s just take a moment to imagine what it would be like to get into a drunken conversation with him at a party, shall we? Urghhhhh) but he also had health insurance with Umbrella, who turned down his desperate request to be part of a Norwegian trial for an experimental cancer treatment. Tobin Bell does some amazing work in these flashback scenes; I particularly liked his “Pirahna!” non sequitur.

Anyway, Easton is a pretty nasty piece of work, which makes rooting for him almost impossible. Luckily, Saw VI’s traps are designed in a particularly cruel way: each of them requires him to choose between several people, letting some die and others live. Jigsaw wants to show him that no mathematical equation can truly measure the value of a human life, and Easton learns the lesson pretty quickly, choosing to save a middle-aged housewife over a young, healthy but unattached file clerk. These traps do sort of make a mockery of Jigsaw’s idea that everyone should get the chance to make a choice between life and death for themselves, since in several of the traps – particularly the carousel – not everyone can survive, no matter what. That’s the first time that’s happened, since in all of Jigsaw’s previous traps (not Amanda’s rigged ones) there’s always been the possibility that everyone can survive. But since all of these people are Easton’s employees, mostly his most heartless favourites who spend their working lives trying to find reasons to deny people the healthcare they so desperately need, it’s difficult to feel too much sympathy for them. And since this is Jigsaw’s final game, we’ll just have to cut him a bit of slack.

At the end of William’s maze, there are two cages: one containing Pamela Jenkins, a journalist we briefly glimpsed at a press conference in Saw V, and the other Tara and her teenaged son Brent. Without spoiling the twist too much, the end of Saw VI is another exercise in showing us not to make assumptions, ever. It’s kind of similar to the twist at the end of Saw III, really, but even more effectively executed.

Outside the trap, the police are closing in on Hoffman. Special Agent Perez, Strahm’s partner, turns out to have survived the injuries she suffered back in Saw IV, and she doesn’t believe that Strahm was Jigsaw’s accomplice. The tape Hoffman made in his first trap (the unwinnable pendulum game) is being analysed by a techie who unscrambles the distortion on the voice and reveals … Hoffman! Sadly, he’s in the room when that happens, and wastes no time in killing Perez for real, along with Erickson and the hapless tech. (A particularly nice touch: the soundbite that’s being unscrambled is “right now you’re feeling helpless”, and it plays over and over again during the scene where Perez confronts Hoffman. It’s maybe a little heavy-handed, but at this point, it really works.)

Revelation is piled on top of revelation as the final pieces of the story start to slot into place: Jill Tuck has been in on Jigsaw’s schemes since at least Saw III, if not earlier; Hoffman and Amanda were always jealous of one another and constantly jockeyed for position in Jigsaw’s affections; and most devastatingly, it emerges that Amanda was with Cecil, the junkie who caused Jill to miscarry Jigsaw’s child, on that fateful night - and Hoffman used that information to blackmail her, forcing her into failing her final test in Saw III. That last revelation at least partially redeems Amanda, changing the franchise’s treatment of her; she wasn’t just stupid after all, she was just a woman whose life took a really, really bad turn. Her desperation for John’s approval was her undoing, finally, but it wasn’t just because she was an idiot, or evil. Saw VI makes her more tragic, but also more sympathetic. It feels like a more dignified ending for her character than the previous one, and I’m really glad it happened.

It’s interesting: over the last couple of films, the new writing team have created a weird nuclear family for Jigsaw where Jill and John are the parents and Mark and Amanda are the squabbling kids. It’s perverse and twisted and … weirdly moving. Like any long running horror franchise, the villain eventually becomes the point, the one consistent element through all the films that, despite their undeniably evil intentions, the audience can’t help but sympathise with, at least a little bit. No-one remembers the eighth person Freddy Kruger murdered, or who Jason kills in Friday the 13th Part 5: A New Beginning, but Freddy and Jason are indelibly burned into our brains. Jigsaw slots effortlessly into the canon, but he’s exponentially more nuanced than any of the other mass murdering horror icons out there. We can’t entirely identify with him, or condone his actions fully, but there’s a sense there that, on some level, what he’s doing makes sense. It’s vigilante justice that he dispenses, but it’s not madness without method.

The final moments of Saw VI bode well for Saw VII: as Hoffman completes Jigsaw’s final game, he finds himself thrown into his own test, as Jill carries out the final instruction John left for her. Will he pass or fail the test? What’s the lesson Jigsaw needs him to learn – and will he learn it, or will he ignore it like so many of the other things John tried to teach him?

The attention to detail is probably my favourite thing about Saw VI, and it’s what gives me hope for Saw VII. There’s a particularly jaw-dropping bit of coffee cup continuity in Saw VI that’s so nerdy I wanted to stand and applaud, and the tiny, almost insignificant detail about Hoffman using an inferior kind of blade in Saw V that leads to his undoing in Saw VI is bloody beautiful. I’m simultaneously really excited to see Saw VII/3D, and terrified. I want it to be a fitting end to this franchise that I’ve somehow, unexpectedly, come to really love; I’m afraid that it’ll get too caught up with doing crazy 3D stunts to deliver the in-depth character exploration I crave. 3D has the same writing team and director as VI, which I’m hoping means it’ll be as good. Oh, please let it be as good.

Saw Week: Part V

Unsurprisingly, Saw V opens with a trap. A convicted murderer, who escaped a life sentence on a technicality, is chained to a table beneath a swinging blade. A slightly strange Billy tape tells him that in order to stop the pendulum from slicing him in half, he must crush his hands in vices – but when he does, nothing happens. The pendulum continues to descend, slicing him in half. Although it looked like a Jigsaw trap, it wasn’t: it was the work of Detective Mark Hoffman, and it took place several years ago. Saw V is about to significantly rewrite Saw history, and in a shockingly skillful way.

Since the first one, the Saw movies have been teaching us to be careful with the assumptions we make about what we’re seeing: people aren’t who they seem, and things may not be happening the way we think they are. Jigsaw’s ex wife, Jill Tuck, even explicitly tells us, more than once, not to take anything for granted: “John’s life defies chronology and linear description”, she says in Saw IV. That’s only going to seem more significant as things progress. Because it turns out that everything we thought we knew wasn’t quite true.

The action of V picks up at the end of III. Special Agent Strahm finds Jigsaw’s lair just as Jeff murders Jigsaw, and shoots him … but soon finds himself in a trap of his own, a box filled with water where the only way to survive is to punch a hole in his trachea with a helpfully supplied tube. Ouch. He does survive, though, as backup arrives just in time to see a soggy Hoffman carrying Jeff’s daughter to safety. Hoffman is lauded as a hero; Strahm is taken off the case for forging ahead without backup (and, sensibly, because he obviously needs some time to recover from his ordeal). Like everyone else who ever comes into contact with Jigsaw though, Strahm is obsessed, and no orders could ever really take him off the case.

Finally, a good 20 minutes in, the movie’s main trap is revealed: six people are chained by their necks to a winch, with the keys to their collars in glass boxes in front of them. But by struggling towards the boxes, they pull one another’s shackles tighter – and there are nasty blades behind each of their heads. Jigsaw’s video tells them that the reason they’re there is that they’ve all squandered advantages of birth by selfishness, and the only way to win is to work together. Naturally, they don’t listen, and as they progress through the maze, each trap kills another one of them, so that, at the finale, there are only two of them left. The twist? Co-operation was the only way to win, and by killing each other, they’ve thrown away their chance to survive. (Or, maybe: it’s not clear whether the two final test subjects actually die or not, though it doesn’t look good.)

That’s not the interesting bit, though. What's interesting about Saw V is the way the stories of Detective Lieutenant Mark Hoffman and Jigsaw’s ex wife Jill Tuck unfold. See, it turns out that Amanda wasn’t Jigsaw’s only accomplice – she wasn’t even his first. Hoffman created the pendulum trap to punish someone he thought had escaped justice, the man who murdered his sister. But because he wasn’t really on board with Jigsaw’s “everyone deserves a chance to chop bits of themselves off to discover their purpose in life” manifesto, he made an unwinnable game, and Jigsaw wasn’t impressed. He kidnapped Hoffman, forced him through a game of his own, and then basically adopted him. Hoffman was there from the beginning, supplying Jigsaw with the police records to select his victims and helping him build the traps. Hoffman is instrumental throughout; every time in a previous movie where something seemed like too much physical exertion for a terminally ill cancer patient to perform, it’s because Hoffman was doing it. Every time Jigsaw seemed to be in more than one place at the same time, it was Hoffman helping him. And now that John Kramer is dead, it’s down to Hoffman to finish Jigsaw’s final games – including trapping Agent Strahm and framing him as Jigsaw’s accomplice in the process. It’s breathtakingly daring, the way he pulls it off, and Strahm’s end is one of the franchise’s nastiest moments.

Stylewise, Saw V is littered with Argento references, but they’re far more subtly integrated than the franchise’s earlier horror references (e.g. in Saw II, Jigsaw directs Det Matthews to “the last house on the left”). The pendulum trap is straight out of The Black Cat, and the close-ups on Hoffman’s black leather gloves recall … well, most Argento films, really, but neither of these things seem particularly obtrusive in context. Director David Hackl doesn’t bother with Bousman’s obnoxious green and yellow palette, instead going for a more common teal-and-orange colour scheme for most of the movie, and the quick cutting has calmed down considerably. So far, Saw V is probably the best photographed film of the series, and the cleverness of the writing is astounding.

Honestly, I expected to be flagging by the time I got this far; I usually find it an uphill battle to get beyond the third movie in any horror franchise, because by most franchises have degenerated into exercises in making money off established names. But after Saw V, I was excited to revisit Saw VI … and even more excited to see Saw 3D (or Saw VII, as I may start calling it, in defiance of its actual, confusingly numbered title).

Saw Week: Part IV

Saw IV opens with John Kramer's naked corpse lying on an autopsy table. Just in case there was any doubt that he really did die at the end of Saw III, the film spends a lot of time with his dead body as it's dissected. Piece by piece, Jigsaw's body is taken apart. But the games aren't over yet. Not by a long shot.

Like Saw III, Saw IV is better than I remembered, but it's also massively flawed, like all the Saw movies. The first trap in Saw IV is utterly nonsensical: two men are chained together, their chains attached to a crank. One man has his eyes sewn shut, the other his mouth. Soon, the crank begins to turn, and apparently both of them perish. There's no handy tape to explain to us who these men are, or what they did to deserve their predicament. It's very, very gory, and very, very badly edited. All of the Saw films are fond of the rapidfire, epilepsy-inducing montages, but Saw IV is actively difficult to watch because of the nauseating way the camera moves. The colours look even more exaggerated, too, to the point where some scenes almost look like they're in greyscale. Bleurghhh.

It takes a little while for Saw IV's characters to emerge. Once again the police aren't just investigating the murders, they're actively involved. The only cop left from the original investigation, Rigg, is at the heart of this movie: because everyone around him has been murdered, he's become obsessed with the case, to the point that it's destroying his personal relationships. Unfortunately, because he's the only one left, he's also the prime suspect. FBI agents Strahm and Perez have been brought in to investigate, and the complexity of some of Saw III's traps has tipped them off to the existence of a second accomplice. Someone else was helping Jigsaw, and all the signs point to Rigg. When he discovers that Detective Matthews is still alive (while poor Kerry isn't!) Rigg has to submit to Jigsaw's tests to save him ... but unfortunately for Matthews, the lesson Jigsaw wants to teach Rigg is that it's impossible to save everyone.

Saw IV sits kind of strangely alongside Saw III. In III, Jeff had to put aside his personal grudges to save the lives of some pretty terrible people. In IV, Rigg must set aside his personal saviour complex to allow people to try to save themselves - or, if they can't, he needs to learn to let them die, and accept that he can't save everyone. Rigg has to actually put some people into their traps, though, and the film flirts with the idea of setting him up as Jigsaw's accomplice - though we've already seen that Jigsaw often uses people to do the physical labour that he can't manage, and has done ever since he made Zep in the first movie kidnap Dr Gordon's wife and child. (Actually, that might make the whole idea of a second accomplice nonsensical, because there will always be someone Jigsaw can coerce into doing his bidding, even if they aren't wannabes like Amanda -- but there is a second accomplice, so let's not think too hard about that.)

Ultimately, just like virtually everyone else before him, Rigg will fail his test and doom various other people to death in the process. What's more interesting about Saw IV, though, is the sizeable chunk of Jigsaw backstory it offers us. For one thing: Jigsaw had a wife. He nearly had a child, too, before a drug addict accidentally caused his wife to miscarry, and set in motion the whole Saw thing. That addict, Cecil, was the first person to be tested by a Jigsaw trap, the first time John had used his engineering skills to create torture devices. The origin of the pig head mask is also explained (though it's ... still kinda random) as well as the origin of the Billy doll. Everything that had previously been a mystery (or just a cool image without any explanation) gets explained in Saw IV, and unlike the awkward, stupid backstories that later sequels offered horror movie villains like Freddy and Jason, Jigsaw's backstory resonates. He's a very human kind of monster, and while much of his philosophising doesn't really hold water, it does make sense to him. His motivations suddenly come into focus; he's actually a cohesive character. This feels like a significant revelation, somehow.

Saw IV is the first Saw movie not to be written by Leigh Whannell (though it is still directed by Darren Lyn Bousman, which explains why it looks terrible) and it seems like the new writing team really has a handle on this stuff. It'll be interesting to see what they do with the Hoffman character over the next couple of movies, and whether they can create a more worthy successor to Jigsaw than Amanda turned out to be.