How long can a horror franchise continue before the movies within the series become just plain bad? For most franchises it’s only a matter of two, maybe three movies before this occurs. Some examples would be the ‘Halloween’ series, the first 2 movies were solid entries into what at the time was a burgeoning franchise, but by “Halloween 3: The Season of the Witch” the series lost its footing and never seemed to regain it until the seventh installment “Halloween: H20”. The majority of horror franchises aren’t as fortunate as ‘Halloween’, because generally speaking once a franchise suffers one negative entry in terms of box office take or audience reaction, the series never gets back to what made it work in the first place. A perfect example would be the ‘Friday the 13th’ series, by the third film the series had tanked; however, in its case the films, as bad as they were, still made a lot of money so the studio kept cranking out more and more until the series eventually ran its course with the 10th entry, “Jason X”. Now I come to the series at hand, the ‘Saw’ franchise of horror films. The first 3 films in the series were better-than-average horror films, with the first film being the best. After releasing “Saw 2” and “Saw 3” with great success in terms of box office returns, Lionsgate had a virtual no-brainer when it came down to whether or not to return to the lucrative series for more traps and more lessons on valuing one’s life. Well, Lionsgate gave the 3rd sequel a go ahead, but the difference between this film and its predecessors was the fact that the writers for the previous three films did not return for this installment. So, with a different set of writers, along with the same director that helmed the previous two films, and numerous returning cast members from the first 3 movies, plus a few new ones to throw into the mix, the question that needs answered is, “Can this latest installment into the franchise possibly live up to the standards of the previous films?”

“Saw 4” does the exact same thing as the previous films had done; it begins exactly where the previous film left off. Meaning, Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) is dead, yet his traps that he set into motion prior to his death are still being played out. The victim this time is Sgt. Rigg (Lyriq Bent), whose only flaw is the fact that he feels the need to save everyone, but through his obsession he has managed to alienate his wife and some of the people that he works with at the police department. Now, from beyond the grave Jigsaw, will test Rigg’s commitment to his obsession with saving lives, and whether or not he can actually let go of some of the lives he failed to save in the past that continually haunt him to this day.

Well, it finally happened, the ‘Saw’ series has now joined the pantheon of average or below average horror franchises by having an installment whose quality is so beneath its predecessors that it reeked of existing purely to cash in on the name and the fame of those that had come before. When neither of the two writers from the first 3 films (James Wan and Leigh Whannell) opted to return to pen the fourth installment, that was the first warning sign that this series was going down the tubes; however, the one possible saving grace for “Saw 4” was the fact that director Darren Lynn Bousman (“Saw 2 and 3”) was returning to helm this current installment. In the end, the only thing Bousman’s presence did for this movie was ensure a steady directorial hand that has had plenty of experience with this franchise to keep the proceedings in a similar tone and feel, but other than that his presence did nothing to elevate the film above its meager standards. From this moment on the ‘Saw’ films will most likely be no different than your average, run-of-the-mill horror series, where each installment is worse than the previous one, yet until the movies quit making money at the box office we’ll still see more traps, more gore, and more mayhem at the hands of the now deceased Jigsaw (for those unaware he died in the third film).

The cast of “Saw 4” was essentially a reunion of many of the primary cast members from the first 3 films in the series. Donnie Wahlberg, Lyriq Bent, Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, and Angus MacFadyen each make appearances in the film, some with more substance than others, with a few of the appearances feeling like nothing more than tacked on cameo appearances that seemed to come out of nowhere. The newest addition to the cast, Scott Patterson (TV’s “Gilmore Girls”) was average as an FBI agent trying to piece together the recent murders that were the result of the various nefarious traps set by Jigsaw. However, the problem with Patterson’s performance was that he seemed to overact in many places, trying too hard to seem like the tough-as-nails, no nonsense FBI agent, that he instead came off as fake and even a little forced, allowing for none of his natural charisma and charm that he had shown so often on TV to shine through to make for an interesting character that the audience could root for.

My biggest complaint in regards to “Saw 4” lies in the inferior story that was written by series newcomers, Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan. Not only did these two writers craft the worst installment in the series thus far, but they also continued the trend that had begun in “Saw 3”, by trying to humanize the villain Jigsaw to the audience. As I said in my review for “Saw 3”, when the initial signs of trying to gain sympathy for Jigsaw first appeared, why do Hollywood writers feel the need to make villains in movies more human so that the audience will possibly empathize with them? I just want a villain to remain simply that, a villain, with his motives selfish and evil, not having his actions be caused by some unfortunate incident in his past that twisted him in such a way that he felt he had no possible alternative than to allow the darkness to consume him. I didn’t mind that in “Saw 2” the writers introduced the fact that Jigsaw had cancer, and that this terrible news essentially drove him insane and started him on the dark path to murder and mayhem that we had seen in the series. This aspect of the character was fine, and provided just the right amount of back story as to why Jigsaw does what he does, but it didn’t make any overt attempts to create sympathy from the audience, and seemed to serve the purpose of showing that the darkness had been within Jigsaw all along and merely needed a release.

“Saw 4” is without a doubt the weakest installment in the franchise, but it is also the goriest as well. It seemed like the biggest purpose for this movie was to just put more blood and guts on the screen, and not worry too much about substance within the story. In the defense of “Saw 4”, though it is the weakest of the series, it merely continued the already weakening storyline that had shown signs of trouble back in “Saw 2” and barely redeemed itself ever so briefly during portions of “Saw 3”. Ultimately this series was destined to fall prey to the shortcomings that befall most horror franchises; the shifting of focus from providing quality storytelling and good scares to merely cranking out as many films as possible before the interest fades. When this occurs the subsequent installments become lesser and lesser in quality and entertainment value.

“Saw 4” is available in rated R and unrated editions, both contain violence and language.