by Paul Deeter
Where does a horror franchise go when things start to stink? That question has been broached by critics in regards to franchises like the Halloween series and infamously the Friday the 13th series which suffers from "saminess" across its many kills. Halloween is a franchise rebirthed with different ideas, directors and styles it's no surprise David Gordon Green's Halloween Kills saw such a successful 90+ million box office response (even despite tepid reviews.) And unfavorable reviews haven't done so much to stop horror viewers from returning to their favorite series year after year. I've heard from more than one of my peers that horror films usually get a bad rap critically within the genre alone; I take overall Rotten Tomatoes scores with a grain of salt when it comes to them. So consider the original Saw franchise, or the series of seven features that exist between the early 2000s. The Saw series, which differentiates by director but not much else stylistically, fell into that saminess I previously mentioned. Although not universally hated, critics agonized over the sometimes bonkers continuity of the character arcs. The films would fall back on unnecessary flashbacks and random character reveals to keep its central narrative from derailing. I mean how easy is it to defend a franchise where its central antagonist dies in the third entry?
Fellow staff writer Jordan Thoennes and I may disagree on the validity of the newest entry Spiral, but to Spiral's credit Darren Lynn Bousman's return to the series justified its 2021 release. This is a series that existed from 2004 and didn't miss a beat for 6 years following. Spiral is a good case for a revitalization of its initial sinister concept, and Bousman's return (an original brainchild for the series) offered a lot of strength to the feature. But I digress from the major topic at hand, and if you want to read a great article on Spiral I will link Jordan's right here. Right, so let's talk about the sixth Saw feature, dramatically titled... Saw VI. (Yeah the titles don't do much to differentiate the films either.) Saw VI is, in conjunction to the earlier films, a sequel following the death of Jigsaw, but still in the legacy of the villain. The shadow of the serial killer is heavy in this film, but the crimes of this character are carried out by ex-FBI traitor Mark Hoffman. Hoffman follows through on different blueprints laid out by Jigsaw, and the trail to catch him is evolving as he sets up more traps for future victims. These traps are naturally set not to kill or torture its participants, but to allow them a new lease on life. From the get-go, two money sharks are told to "pay their pound of flesh" to save themselves from death. A woman named Simone wins because she cuts off her own arm and outweighs the other "contestant." It's all very gruesome (and very Saw) and the conclusion to Simone's win is her asking forgiveness for her work practices is all very blah. If this opener is of concern that you're in another lifeless sequel to the series, well you'd be surprised. The film that follows is not the incoherent low that is Saw V, but of a very different flavor altogether.
To preface with a question: what are the Saw films truly about? Is there any overlying message outside the theme of retribution, redemption or just plain punishment? A lot of the critical complaints about the franchise argue that the films don't represent much more than the guilty pleasure of watching "torture porn", or our characters suffer for our entertainment. I'd argue that the series is better than its violence because of its genuine commitment to its complex traps. But the sixth entry saw (haha) a new approach to the stylish violence it relied on, by offering a more satirical edge. An edge sharper than any blade used in its traps: a dissection of the modern American healthcare system. And yes, you're reading that right. Saw VI is a film that cuts into something far broader than any of its subjects. It's as broad as any documentary topic might take things, focusing on telling a tale steeped in an argument that boils down to the question: who's the real bad guy here? Well let's not split hairs: it's Jigsaw. But this film offers a more ambiguous tale of wrong versus right.
Jigsaw (or John Kramer) is revealing a story through flashback about his tribulations with the system that isn't helping from his own suffering: the cancer that would take his life in the third film. John's ironic discovery of the fact that his own fate is in hands other than his own comes from a meeting with a doctor as follows in a flashback that... "shows John at (Dr.) William's office, calmly stating that his insurance coverage denied him treatment - an experimental treatment using gene therapy could save his life. William denies him for it being unprofitable, and John is furious that William would allow him to die, calling him out on his lack of morality and the faults of the health care system...". This conversation paints the final picture of Jigsaw's most personal plan: to wrong those that let him die. The twist of a moral compass existing in the powers that be to setting Kramer on his journey to become Jigsaw rises this film thematically above its clever traps. It would surprise critics as well, as the Rotten Tomatoes consensus was 44% (miles about the fifth entry.) It's a lot to say that's an improvement, but considering the score lingering under 10% for a few of the features, this is a stark increase. Critics noticed the new satire, and some of them favored this as a surprise sequel that offers more than meets the eye. It was also to the film's strong suit that the setting of an abandoned zoo with various amusement park features mixed up the normal warehouse backdrop. Additionally some of the traps, (one in particular of a carousel of judgment you have to seek out) are really more focused on suspense over gore. This definitely works in the film's favor to differentiate it from the others.
But is Saw VI really an improvement over the prior films? I'd argue in favor of the universally considered lackluster Saw IV while also hating the turn from Saw's initial concept in its first sequel. I think this film benefits from Tobin Bell's more contemplative performance as Kramer, some uniquely horrific sequences and an overall better focus on morality. It is also suffers from terrible editing and even worse acting. Does it hold up? God, no. I wrote this piece as I re-watched the film, and its age shows clearly. But in a continuous dredge of uninteresting horror franchises, Saw VI once dared to try something a little different, and maybe its time to appreciate that hindsight.