Spoiler Warning: This review contains spoilers for previous "Saw" movies. Readers who have not seen these films may not wish to read further.
The "Saw" franchise has proudly set itself as the premier model of the so-called "torture-porn" subgenre that has ignited a new wave in film horror. Upping the ante on blood and gore with each entry, the "Saw" films have become less about trying to scare audiences and more about pushing viewers to the limits of what they can stand to watch. Grisly images of helpless victims trying desperately to escape ingeniously crafted machinations and usually failing are the stuff that has made this franchise profitable, but there is little else to be found in the way of either suspense or intelligible storytelling. Instead, the "plots" of these movies are methodically constructed around the gore in order to string together each kill scene.
Like the previous entries in this franchise, "Saw IV" sets its primary focus on the elaborate death traps designed for its motley crew of ill-fated victims. Some of these traps include a machine rigged to pull a woman's hair back until her scalp is ripped off; an S&M-inspired contraption that will dismember a man's limbs unless he allows it to poke out his eyes; and a head clamp made of knife blades that a man must push his face through in order to free himself from another device that is slitting his wrists. All of these, and more, are shown with intense and graphic realism that leaves nothing to the imagination.
Connecting these scenes of death is SWAT Officer Rigg's (Lyriq Bent) search for his partner, who is currently in a trap himself (his involving a noose and a melting block of ice). Led by cryptic clues, Rigg encounters each of the film's victims and must choose whether to help them or let them die in order to move on to the next clue. The nastiness that he and the viewers are in for is well established by the opening scene, in which a graphic autopsy is performed on Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), the killer mastermind behind all of the carnage. With his death at the end of "Saw III," Jigsaw should no longer be a threat, but the filmmakers have wormed their way around this by having the rest of the film take place in flashback before his death (some have read this as a twist, but astute viewers will realize it from the very beginning).
The original "Saw" (2004) was written by James Wan and Leigh Whannell and directed by Wan. They have returned to produce all three sequels, but Darren Lynn Bousman has taken the helm as director. While the original film was not great, it at least made some attempt to create an atmosphere of dread and claustrophobia. Bousman's latest film, on the other hand, is downright celebratory in its depictions of violence. The characters are written for the sole purpose of dying, and it is their deaths rather than their lives that the target demographic anticipates, relates to, and rejoices in. The film is adept from a technical standpoint and reasonably well-acted (granted that the actors are mostly called to scream for their lives), but it is all in the name of pandering to an audience's desire to witness the most depraved levels of human suffering. Furthermore, Bousman fills the screen with so many visual flourishes, including some truly annoying scene transitions that scream of Film Editing 101 pretentiousness, that he dispels any sense of fear or suspense the viewer might have derived.
"Saw IV's" one innovation over previous entries is that it offers a backstory for Jigsaw, whose real name is John Kramer, involving his anguish over the death of his unborn child after an attack on his pregnant wife (Betsy Russell). However, the details of this history are more immediately focused on cleverly tying it to the methods of his murders (including his reasoning for incorporating a pig mask and a puppet) than on giving John any psychological depth. His descent from innocent man to demented killer is only a narrative convenience to justify the gruesome displays of violence. The film absurdly tries to ingratiate John Kramer with the audience by turning him from a serial killer to a kind of crazed moral watchdog who takes people of questionable moral character and puts them in life-or-death situations to remind them of the life they are wasting. David Fincher explored this idea far more intriguingly in "Se7en," and Bousman's interest clearly lies not in the motivation behind the violence but in the spectacle of it. "Saw IV" exists for no other reason than to present the audience with graphic depictions of torture and mutilation, and any serious consideration of the killer's fascination with violence is superseded by the director's (and the returning viewers') own sadistic pleasures.
Lions Gate Home Entertainment has brought the unrated version of the film to DVD in an anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen image. I did not see the theatrical version, but I am sure this cut has a little extra meat on it as far as gore goes. The movie boasts a rather stylized appearance with deliberately muted colors at times and flashback sequences (that is, flashbacks within the main flashback) with intentional dirt and grain. As such, the transfer here does not look very clean, but that is what the filmmakers intended. Black levels are generally strong throughout, and when the colors are supposed to be bold, they do pop. Sharpness also varies throughout, but it appears to be intentional as well. Overall, "Saw IV" is not a polished-looking film, and the DVD transfer does it justice.
Audio is presented in a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX track that boasts clear and natural voices and dialogue. The surround is utilized well to ensure that all of the nasty squirting, squishing, crunching and creaking are sent around the room for maximum gross-out effect. Sudden blasts of music are given appropriate intensity for shock value. An additional English track is provided in Dolby Digital 2.0, and optional subtitles are available in English and Spanish.
Starting off the special features are two audio commentaries. The first features producers Oren Koules and Mark Burg, and executive producers Peter Block and Jason Constantine. The second is provided by director Bousman and actor Lyriq Bent. Both are fairly routine, entertaining, and consistent. Everyone clearly enjoys the final product very much, especially Bousman, and they are not shy about congratulating themselves. There is a bit of overlap in their anecdotes, but both commentaries kept my interest enough to recommend them for fans.
Up next is "Darren's Video Diary," which contains 33 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage of the production over a 31-day period. Viewers are treated to a candid look at the filming as things go wrong, Bousman struggles to keep production on schedule, and the cast and crew joke around. This will be more interesting to people who actually like the movie than it was for me, but I suppose it is a good look at the making of the film.
A collection of featurettes examining "The Traps of Saw IV" follows, each one lasting around two to three minutes long. These are pretty self-explanatory, and they consist mainly of the director and effects creators discussing where the ideas for the death traps came from and how they put them together, sprinkled with behind-the-scenes footage. Next is a similar featurette on "The Props of Saw IV," lasting nine minutes and focusing on various objects used in the movie, including the infamous puppet and pig mask.
A music video for X Japan's song "I.V.," which is played over the film's closing credits, is included, as is one throwaway deleted scene. Promos for the video game "Condemned 2: Bloodshot" and other releases from Lions Gate round out the disc. There is nothing spectacular included here, but fans of the "Saw" franchise should easily be satisfied by what is offered on this DVD.
It is clear that this series of films is not going away anytime soon, and as long as there is an audience for "torture-porn," there will be "Saw" sequels. The objective of these films is not so much to frighten viewers or generate suspense, but rather to meet and surpass a specialized audience's undemanding expectations. Alfred Hitchcock once said that to scare an audience, all you need to show is a group of people sitting at a table with a bomb under it. The "Saw" films give us the explosion, the demolished building, and the mangled corpses, but no reason to care about them. Incidentally, an actual saw figured horrifically in the climax of the original film, but there is not a one to be found in this movie. Go figure.