Dir: Darren Lynn Bousman. US. 2006. 107mins.

Staying mostly faithful to the successful blueprintof its two earlier installments, while deepening the audience's connection withthe franchise's main character, Saw IIIis an adequate sequel that works well enough on its own terms. Saw aficionados should be satisfied bythe results, although the less fanatic will have to endure some shakyperformances and the diminishing returns of a once-clever premise.

The film, like the previoustwo, opened on the last weekend in October to take advantage of Halloween,bringing in an estimated $34m in the US. With no major genre competitionin sight, the Lionsgate release should enjoycomparable returns to 2004's Saw($55m domestic, $48m international) and last year's Saw II ($87m domestic, $57m international). As always with horrorfilms, holdover after the first weekend will be a major concern, but Lionsgate can look forward to brisk future DVD sales.

As a brain tumor leaves him atdeath's door, serial killer Jigsaw/John Kramer (Bell) and his assistant Amanda (Smith) kidnapa surgeon, Lynn (Soomekh), to help keep him alive,strapping a booby-trapped electrical collar around her neck that's linked tohis heart monitor. If his heart stops, the collar will explode, giving thedoctor ample incentive to treat his condition.

Meanwhile Jigsaw has alsocaptured Jeff (Angus Macfadyen), a bitter, suicidalman still mourning the death of his son in a car accident. Jeff must play oneof Jigsaw's elaborate puzzle games if he wants to escape the killer's compound.

In an era of uninspiredhorror remakes and ruthless splatter films, the Saw series boasts two unique elements: the killer's ingeniouslyconcocted games that test his captives' will to stay alive; and his twistedmotivation as a dying man who wants to "teach" his victims the importance ofappreciating the lives they've selfishly taken for granted.

Though hardly profound,these elements have given the films some emotional underpinnings andintelligence to go along with the du rigeur scenes of torture and carnage.

Film-maker Darren Lynn Bousman, who also directed Saw II, maintains a dark and vile atmosphere throughout, focusingon the horror and not the performances. However, since the new film seeks tosolidify the bond between Jigsaw and his unstable, co-dependent protege Amanda,Saw III requires a deeper resonancethan its predecessors for it to be effective.

But while Tobin Bellcontinues to be this trilogy's heart and soul - giving Jigsaw a dignifiedmenace without a trace of ham - Shawnee Smith's overly hysterical turn asAmanda makes her insufferable.

An unspoken irony about the Saw films is that despite his cruelinstruments of torment, Jigsaw's elevated consciousness ultimately makes himmore civilised and humane than his petty, ungratefulvictims, and that reality certainly comes through in the acting - you'd ratherspend time with him than with any of the screaming, swearing one-note cipherscaught in his web.

Much like the Mission: Impossible movies with their constantneed to outdo previous installments' action sequences, Saw III strains to top the franchise's earlier puzzle traps. Moreinterested in the Jigsaw-Amanda relationship - not to mention the surgeon'sefforts to save Jigsaw's life - Bousman andscreenwriter Leigh Whannell (who has written allthree films) don't put their full energy into Jeff's "game".

Indeed, for the majority ofthe running time, Jeff's subplot is the film's least interesting section,playing out as a repetitive, obvious test of whether or not he can finallyforgive those who allowed his son to die and end his quest to avenge thekilling.

Fans of the first twoinstallments have come to expect a third-act twist that brings together thedisparate plot strands, and Saw III's iscraftily done, although as with Jeff's game it's not nearly as much fun as inthe earlier movies. While the Sawseries has cemented its reputation on the merits of its maniacally gruesomeambiance, the well-established plot elements - and Bell's dependably strong performance thatanchors the movies - give the franchise an almost comfortable familiarity.

For those who have made a Saw screening part of their annualHalloween tradition, the enjoyment of the frighteningly unexpected might meanless at this point than the limited pleasures of the reliably predictable.

Twisted Pictures

US distribution

International sales

Daniel Jason Heffner
James Wan
Leigh Whannell
Stacey Testro
Peter Block
Jason Constantine

Gregg Hoffman
Oren Koules
Mark Burg

Leigh Whannell
from a story by Leigh Whannell and James Wan

David A Armstrong

Kevin Greutert

Production design
David Hackl

Charlie Clouser

Main cast
Tobin Bell
Shawnee Smith
Angus Macfadyen
Bahar Soomekh
Dina Meyer