By this point, a new Saw sequel every October has become as much of a Halloween tradition as toilet-papering homes and slipping razor blades into apples for trick-or-treaters. True, Tobin Bell's evil puppetmaster Jigsaw perished in the series' last entry, but horror-movie villains have historically never let anything as inconsequential as death get in the way of their evil schemes. Death hasn't even affected Bell's screen time: Thanks to the magic of flashbacks and voice recordings, he's all over a movie that opens with his gruesome autopsy.
A commercially savvy though ultimately empty combination of warped morality tale, mystery, gore-fest, and torture porn, Saw IV casts Lyriq Bent as a tormented detective who must figure out how to survive Bell's deadly posthumous games in order to save colleague Donnie Wahlberg from a gruesome fate. The punishments Bell devises for the series' suffering sinners function as the world's grisliest Choose Your Own Adventures: Do you sacrifice your eyes to save everything else, or let yourself be torn limb from limb? Though it seems a little ridiculous to ascribe a coherent philosophy to movies like this, there's a certain Zen sadism to the whole endeavor: Bell "teaches" morality through wantonly immoral acts, while the most heroic thing Bent can do is give up on acting heroic.
With this perversely unforgiving sense of morality, Saw IV pushes the old slasher-movie trope of disproportionately punishing victims for relatively minor transgressions to ridiculous extremes. It's only a matter of time until Bell starts punishing hapless souls for failing to floss regularly by having them yank out their own teeth with rusty pliers. It's easy to imagine him portentously intoning, "You thought tooth decay was a big joke. Now rats will feast on your decaying corpse after you bleed to death." And yet the plot's interlocking mechanisms have a certain cruel, impressive efficiency. The Saw movies are either clever in a really stupid way, or stupid in a surprisingly clever way. In a way, reviewing them is an exercise in futility: Fans know exactly what they're in for, while everyone else knows to stay far away. Everyone can agree, however, that this is probably the worst date movie ever. For non-sadists, at least.