NEW YORK -- He's dead, and he's back.
Jigsaw, the diabolical mastermind whose elaborately twisted torture concepts have fueled this ultrasuccessful horror franchise, returns for this fourth installment that demonstrates that, while it hasn't yet jumped the shark like such predecessors as the "Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Friday the 13th" movies eventually did, diminishing returns are beginning to set in. Not that it will matter to the gorehounds who have made the series as much of a Halloween ritual as donning silly costumes.
"Saw IV," which naturally was not screened in advance for the squeamish press, opened Friday.
The fact that the villain (the ever-creepy Tobin Bell) passed away in the last installment is literally hammered home in the opening sequence, in which an autopsy is performed in gruesomely sickening -- or delightful, depending on your predilection -- detail. Of course, a mere annoyance like rigor mortis can't prevent the inventive Jigsaw from continuing his brand of gruesome mayhem. As he declares from the grave via a tape recording found in his stomach, "I promise that my work will continue."
As so it does, with Jigsaw attempting to turn the tables on the cops pursuing him, especially a SWAT team commander (Lyriq Bent) with control issues.
A series of flashbacks detail how the mild-mannered engineer John (Bell) was transformed into a vengeful moralist, via a tragedy inflicted on his pregnant wife (Betsy Russell) by a violent junkie. But as with the recent "Hannibal Rising," this attempt at a backstory and psychological motivations only demystifies a character who would have been better left in the murky shadows.
The plotting, mainly involving the efforts of a team of FBI profilers (Scott Patterson, Athena Karkanis) and a police detective (Costas Mandylor) to prevent further Jigsaw-fueled mayhem, is more perfunctory than usual. More problematically, the famously inventive torture sequences here seem depleted of imagination. Only a couple of the gruesome set pieces, most notably one in which a battered wife and her abusive husband are impaled together -- I won't spoil the resolution -- display the usual cleverness.
Director Darren Lynn Bousman, who also helmed the past two installments, doesn't deviate from the stylistic formula, which includes grinding industrial music, frenzied editing and a blue-gray color palette.
Twisted Pictures, Lionsgate
Director: Darren Lynn Bousman
Screenwriters: Patrick Melton, Marcus Dunstan
Story: Patrick Melton, Marcus Dunstan, Thomas Fenton
Producers: Gregg Hoffman, Oren Koules, Mark Burg
Executive producers: Daniel Jason Heffner, James Wan, Leigh Whannell, Stacey Testro, Peter Block, Jason Constantine
Director of photography: David A. Armstrong
Production designer: David Hackl
Music: Charlie Clouser
Costume designer: Alex Kavanagh
Editors: Kevin Greutert, Brett Sullivan
Jigsaw/John: Tobin Bell
Hoffman: Costas Mandylor
Agent Strahm: Scott Patterson: Jill: Betsy Russell
Rigg: Lyriq Bent
Art: Justin Louis
Agent Perez: Athena Karkanis
Lamanna: Simon Reynolds
Fisk: Mike Realba
Running time -- 95 minutes
MPAA rating: R