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Trick or Treat: 'Saw VI' Revitalizes a Dying Franchise

Lionsgate Films declined to screen Saw VI for critics, but perhaps they should have. Despite employing the same media-blackout strategy for prior sequels to the 2004 original, time and an increasingly lackluster on-screen product seem to have finally caught up with the franchise. The latest installment has underperformed at theaters, where horror fans are embracing a fresher alternative, Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity.

That’s ironic, because Saw VI is belatedly enjoying some of the strongest reviews in franchise history, and rightfully so. After a pair of distressingly convoluted clunkers, in which directors Darren Lynn Bousman and David Hackyl tried to explain Jigsaw’s posthumous killing sprees, the moralizing serial killer seems revitalized here, however improbably. That’s good news for fans who stuck with him through thick and thin.

I confess myself among them. After the successive disappointments of IV and V, I didn’t rush to an opening-night screening of the newest Saw, but I remained curious enough to give it a chance. Did I expect a gory slice of wish fulfillment in which Jigsaw’s disciples borrow a page from Michael Moore’s playbook by targeting health-insurance profiteers and predatory lenders? In a word, no.

That Saw VI surprises on this count hardly makes for sophisticated satire, but director Kevin Greutert’s stab at social relevance breathes new life into a series that has lately lost its raison d’être. The movie is shot in the drabbest of tones, and Costas Mandylor’s colorless detective once again returns to carry out Jigsaw’s dirty work. But the tension missing from recent installments is back, thanks to an inventive narrative that manages to tie up the ever-evolving saga’s loose ends.

As always, the logic of Jigsaw’s purported quest to teach his victims the value of life remains utterly laughable, but no matter. Here, his choice of victims seems intended to satisfy anyone who’s ever been screwed by the system, and at the screening I attended, several members of the audience cheered as his demonic toys shredded a group of cynical insurance adjustors. The movie isn’t as convincing a plea for universal health care as, say, Sicko, but its points are hammered home with the kind of visceral force that fans have come to crave and expect.

More pleasing developments include expanded roles for Shawnee Smith (TV’s Becker) and Tobin Bell, the previously little-known character actor who will now forever be recognizable as the pale, leathery-faced Jigsaw. Both had been relegated to the back burner in recent sequels – less so Bell, for obvious reasons – but VI gives their stories a satisfying feeling of closure.

Does that mean we’ve seen the last of Saw? I doubt it. If there’s money to be made, Lionsgate will churn out a new sequel every Halloween, even if VI fails to rake in the profits as efficiently as its predecessors. (A new gimmick might help. Saw VII in 3-D? Don’t bet against it.) And while some might roll their eyes at the prospect – movies in which a man’s body is melted in half by hydrofluoric acid aren’t for everyone – Saw VI serves notice that the creative well isn’t yet dry.