Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) is it you? Back from the dead? Well sorta. In the fourth installment of a franchise seemingly headed for double digits the villain is indeed dead—and in case he wasn’t already coroners make a “Gotcha!” moment all but impossible. Saw IV begins with the opening-up of John Kramer aka Jigsaw in a scene straight out of HBO’s Autopsy. After methodically de-braining the killer coroners go straight for the gut—ours and Jigsaw’s—removing his stomach which turns out to house an audiotape. Natch. The homicide unit is called in to listen to the tape on which Jigsaw claims his “work will continue ” “The games have just begun ” and other sweet nothings. At which point Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) concurs: The games have begun. Before long Hoffman finds himself involved in a way he’d probably never hoped for leaving his workaholic partner Detective Rigg (Lyriq Bent) to rescue him and possibly a still-hanging-after-six-months Eric Mathews (Donnie Wahlberg). Here’s the bad news though: He’s only got 90 minutes. Jigsaw may finally be dead but Tobin Bell graces Saw IV with his presence quite a bit—via flashbacks. This installment is heavy on backstory filling in all those unanswered questions of how an engineer named John Kramer—who regularly appeared on the covers of business magazines!—became a madman with morals thus leaving no shortage of Bell. Just like the three Saws prior Bell is uber-creepy (especially vocally) but his scariest scene is the first in which you’re expecting his lifeless dissected remains to pull a Michael Myers. Elsewhere the actors seem like they downed too much Red Bull to get amped up. Bent (Saws II and III) the chief guinea pig this time around occasionally makes for an exciting scene but never a realistic one although his overreactions fit in with the kind of high tension Saw IV is hoping for. Mandylor (Saw III) meanwhile is exciting and somewhat credible when able to speak but that doesn’t exactly last very long. And Saw rookies Scott Patterson (TV’s Gilmore Girls) and relative newcomer Athena Karkanis both starring as FBI profilers dragged into the mess that is Jigsaw’s wrath are more "TV show" cops than anything. The book on Saw IV is pretty straightforward: If you dig torture porn and have already been sucked into the Saw machine there’s no radical shift into quality filmmaking in the fourth installment that will deter you. Likewise nothing here will convert anyone who hasn’t kept up with the franchise especially since some knowledge of the first three is very helpful. Director Darren Lynn Bousman whose next movie (Repo! The Genetic Opera) is a horror musical starring none other than Paris Hilton—now that’s a scary concept—pretty much sticks with what (apparently) works. It’s all nifty quick cuts all the time the type of dizzying gimmickry that is evidently favored by Saw fans. And there’s also plenty of over-the-top gore to go around of course; all the staples are here. The shame is that aside from the first Saw being somewhat inventive for creating a sub-genre there is always a slightly psychological aspect to the story. But lest we be intrigued instead of disturbed that side of the script from Project Greenlight winners/Feast co-writers Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton doesn’t come close to being explored.
A Native American legend tells a story about humans named Skinwalkers who get supernatural powers once they feast on blood. The legend also says a 13 year-old boy will come someday when the moon is blood red and break the curse. Enter Timothy (Matthew Knight) a 13 year-old who lives in the town of Hugenot. His mother (Rhona Mitra) is concerned about her son's persistent nightmares and tells Uncle Jonas (Elias Koteas) she wants to leave town. Maybe it’s because a pack of Skinwalkers led by Varek (Jason Behr) have invaded the town. But Mom is in for a shock. It turns out Uncle Jonas his daughter (Sarah Carter) her fiancé (Shawn Roberts) the mailman (Lyriq Bent) and even Nana (Barbara Gordon) all turn into werewolves once a month and Timothy is the half-breed who may save them. Behr (Roswell) is practically unrecognizable but does a nice job as the long-haired well-built Skinwalker who sets out to kill the boy but soon discovers a secret that changes his mind. His sidekicks are both scary (Kim Coates) and sexy (Natassia Malthe) and they do well playing evil. Familiar character actor Koteas becomes the emotional soul of the film even when he transforms into a werewolf. But it's young Knight (The Grudge 2) who has the biggest challenge showing he can be scared fearless and smart—all at the same time. Not easy to do but the kid handles the chores with aplomb. Skinwalkers is really a rather tame werewolf film not unlike the Lon Chaney versions back in the 1940s. It's hard to make a compelling werewolf movie these days because they focus just on the gore. The classic exception is John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London which combined blood and guts with comedy but Skinwalkers actually comes close. It has action a good story and decent special effects without relying on the usual violence. Skinwalkers’ director James Isaac was responsible for one of the more creative Friday the 13ths Jason X and has a special effects background which is evident in Skinwalkers’ wolf transformations. The battles are nearly Matrix-esque and the scenes of the red moon and the morning sunrises are quite spectacular. The film may have suffered some bad buzz earlier on but it's far better than most of the other werewolf offerings.