For anyone who doesn’t happen to follow limb-dismembering, mechanized-torture horror films, the fact that the sixth entry in the Saw series is being released this weekend will seem unremarkable in just about every way. For decades now, gruesome new horror movies have arrived at the multiplex with big fat roman numerals stuck at the end of their titles. Only the most fanatical droolers of the “horror community” are even still counting. I mean, really, who would seriously bother to keep track of how many interchangeably cruddy Friday the 13th sequels there are? Or how many times Freddy Krueger ever came back from the dead to brutalize a new crop of Elm Street kids? Or how often the Halloween franchise has been scavenged, rebooted, Zombie-fied, and generally flogged to death? Quick, can you name all the Texas Chainsaw movies? How about Hellraiser? Who the hell cares?

Like I said, Saw VI sounds like bloody business as usual. But there’s a big difference. Every one of those other series enjoyed a brief period, of maybe two or three years, in which they really connected with an audience, followed by sequels of increasingly diminishing returns, released in a spotty, opportunistic, every-few-years fashion, during which their appeal was bled dry. The Saw series, by contrast, has been a clockwork blockbuster, a squirm-in-your-seat annual carnival for gore freaks. The first one was released on Oct. 29, 2004, and by the time Saw II came out exactly one year later, on Oct. 28, 2005, the series “owned” Halloween. The release date had become part of the brand, almost as if Lionsgate had licensed the holiday.

For the horror audience, going to a new Saw movie has become an essential Halloween ritual, a kind of torture-porn equivalent of watching The Wizard of Oz once a year on TV. And even though the new Saw film, at least to me, is easily the worst in the series (here’s my review) — it’s the first sign that the whole premise is really running out of gas — I suspect that the simple, power-tool-meets-Rocky Horror ritual of going to another one will trump any bad word of mouth.

Or will it? What I want to know, from anyone who considers him or herself a Saw fan, is: How long can this series go on? And how long should it go on?

That booby-trap-crazy, lugubrious-voiced sicko-genius known as the Jigsaw killer, played by an increasingly reluctant-looking Tobin Bell (I now look at him and think that he’s thinking, “Is this what I’m going to be remembered for?”), was killed off several installments ago, and watching him bring the pain from beyond the grave has become an increasingly strained exercise in back-story convolutions. If it’s our destiny to be watching Saw XVII by the time the next decade rolls around, what should the producers do to revitalize the series? Or is time that the Saw franchise, like its victims, was offered the option of a quick and painful death?

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