DVD Review: ‘Saw V’ Unrated

Saw V
Unrated Director’s Cut
Directed by David Hackl
Starring Tobin Bell, Betsy Russell, Julie Benz, Scott Patterson, Costas Mandylor
Lionsgate Home Entertainment
Release Date: January 20, 2009

I’ve never been a big fan of the Saw series. After the first two (and the sequel is better than it has any right to be) I tuned out to the phenomenon even though as a horror fan I couldn’t escape it. Ever since 2004 there has been a Saw sequel released every year right around Halloween and the series’ devious mastermind Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) has been elevated to the status of an iconic fright flick maniac. While I may not be his biggest fan, I can certainly understand his enduring appeal. For a generation raised on gruesome tales of masked madmen stalking dumb, nubile teens to their brutal deaths the Saw franchise, initiated in 2004 by writer Leigh Whannell and co-writer/director James Wan, is like a bit of fresh air. I’d hate to admit it but these films are at their best slasher flicks with a brain and a deranged imagination. The tagline for Saw II was “Oh yes, there will be blood” and as Saw V clearly proves, brother you don’t know the half of it.

Saw V begins exactly where the fourth one left off. Despite the fact that he died at the end of Saw III, Jigsaw’s work continues and the latest group of people to play his game are all pretty much dead, with the exception of Detective Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) and the young daughter of one of the hapless participants. Meanwhile, embittered FBI agent Peter Strahm (Scott Patterson), who managed to escape one of Jigsaw’s diabolical traps with his life, has begun to investigate Hoffman knowing full well that there was no way the cop could have walked away from his confrontation with Jigsaw unless he is not all he claims to be. Turns out the fed’s hunch is right on the money. At the conclusion of Saw IV Hoffman was revealed to be the latest convert to Jigsaw’s cause and the one who will continue to carry out his work long after he’s dead. Strahm knows the cop is no good but given that Hoffman is now known as the hero who ended Jigsaw’s reign of madness proving that will be harder than he thought.

Intercut with Strahm’s investigation is yet another group of unsympathetic douchebags who have been chosen for Jigsaw’s latest game. Trapped in yet another set of interlocking rooms loaded with the villain’s trademark implements of death, the group consists of Brit (Julie Benz), Luba (Meagan Good), Charles (Carlo Rota), Mallick (Greg Bryk), and Ashley (Laura Gordon). Obviously this fun bunch was put together for a reason as they all share a special connection that will become increasingly apparent to them as the story progresses and they are forced to negotiate one pain and potentially death-inducing trap after another. As Strahm draws closer to the truth about Hoffman he will learn some interesting lessons about human nature that won’t soon be forgotten.

If you’ve seen any of the previous Saw films then most of what happens in Saw V won’t surprise you. By now the series has been locked into an unbreakable formula that goes as follows: the story opens with one or more of the latest contestants in Jigsaw’s game awakening to find themselves in one of of his patented traps that will squash or render them limb from limb unless they choose to make a small sacrifice in lieu of saving their lives, and they usually end up dead because they always choose poorly (kind of like Julian Glover in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade); the police are called in to investigate; another batch of victims must negotiate another series of traps while discovering the hidden connection they all have to one another; people die quite violently because they make the wrong choices in Jigsaw’s traps; and then the big twist is revealed as Charlie Clouser‘s signature theme (which is the 21st equivalent of John Carpenter’s them to Halloween) ignites on the soundtrack and if you’ve seen a Saw movie before, then you know the rest.

Basically Lionsgate and the filmmakers behind each subsequent sequel (including creators Wan and Whannell) have taken what made the original so unique and beaten us over the head with it time and again. Plus, by killing off Jigsaw at the conclusion of the third film they hit a brick wall that could be seen from space: how do you keep the most interesting character, played by the best actor, in the series even though he’s dead? The narrative solution, obviously, was flashbacks and lots of them! But this does more harm than good because the Jigsaw character ends up being sidelined in favor of a gaggle of lesser performers with not a single shred of Tobin Bell’s charisma and dramatic acting chops, thus making the film even more of a trial to get through.

Bell is probably the most experienced actor in the cast having worked with directors such as Alan Parker (Mississippi Burning), Sydney Pollack (The Firm), Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas), and Wolfgang Petersen (In the Line of Fire) and amassed over 80 film and television credits. The role of Jigsaw a.k.a. John Kramer is the richest of Bell’s and makes the most of it, turning what could have been a one-note cinema psychopath into a haunting and complex character you rarely see in modern horror films. In the original Saw Jigsaw was nothing more than a malevolent presence taunting his victims on recordings and through the sinister-looking puppet that creepily rode into the room on a child’s tricycle. Bell had only a few brief scenes and wasn’t even glimpsed in full until the final scene. For the sequel we were given a deeper look into Jigsaw’s backstory, a move that often spells trouble for fright flick makers who often jump too soon at the chance to explain away their killer’s motivations. With Jigsaw it was important to know where he came from to understand the path he has chosen. John Kramer was dying of cancer and a near-devastating car accident convinced him that he had taken his life for granted and that his true purpose was to spend his remaining days showing others the same. He can give these people the choice he no longer has. Just as Jigsaw was growing into that most unique of silver screen monsters, the one with a strong moral code, he was killed off at the end of Saw III, thus significantly reducing his importance in the ongoing storyline the filmmakers had established and making Bell a mere phantom presence in the film franchise he was so crucial to.

Flashbacks are not supposed to take up a sizable chunk of a film’s running time. Look how well that worked out for Silent Night Deadly Night 2, which wasted most of its time reusing footage from the first movie! Saw V doesn’t make that fatal error but since Jigsaw was obviously killed off too soon the amount of flashback scenes needed to keep Bell in the film almost outweigh the present day story that we’re supposed to be focused on. We don’t the chance to really know the characters very much so we don’t care about their dilemma. Other characters such as Jigsaw’s wife Jill (Betsy Russell) and Strahm’s superior at the bureau (Mark Rolston) come and go without much purpose. The focus on Strahm’s investigation into Hoffman’s off-duty activities mostly consists of looking at old files and thinking up how Hoffman could have committed his crimes and first met up with Jigsaw. Since Strahm doesn’t know for sure what happened until it’s too late what goes on in his head can’t really be taken as the facts and it derails the story when the information we’re getting should be in the service of the story. Plus newcomer director David Hackl, who started out as a production designer and second assistant director on the previous three Saw movies, doesn’t do himself any favors by emulating the directorial styles established by previous series helmers Wan and Darren Lynn Bousman rather than trying to create his own voice.

The cast is a mixed bag with the exception of Bell. Scott Patterson makes a decent but unappealing lead with a raspy voice (due to a self-inflicted injury from early in the movie) that sounds like a pale imitation of Batman’s Dirty Harry growl. Costas Mandylor lurches around looking like a bored slab of concrete without a sliver of Bell’s lurid charm and intelligence. The five actors in the main body of the story do okay work, but that junkie asshole played by Greg Bryk irritated me in the point that I wanted him to die at every trap encountered. 

Lionsgate Home Entertainment has released Saw V  in an “Unrated Director’s Cut” but since I didn’t see the film in theaters I can’t tell what was added to this DVD edition other than the obvious gore footage that was trimmed to appease the pleasant citizens at the MPAA. The film itself is presented is a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer boasting crisp picture quality with strong blues and reds used to great effect. The proceedings are boosted by the presence of English Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 audio tracks that can make any home theater into a torture chamber of fun.

Kicking off the healthy array of bonus features is a pair of audio commentaries. The first features director Hackl and first assistant director Steve Webb and the second is hosted by producers Mark Burg and Oren Koules and executive producers Peter Block and Jason Constantine. Despite too many slow stretches both tracks are for the most part solid and good at sticking to the basics of filmmaking. Yet going by these commentaries these guys seem very happy with the movie, which is more than I can say for most of the series’ fanbase.

A quintet of featurettes focusing on each of the film’s diabolical traps comprise the bulk of the remaining extras: “The Pendulum Trap” (6 minutes), about the trap that opens Saw V; “The Cube Trap” (5 minutes), about the trap Strahm finds himself in early on; “The Coffin Trap” (6 minutes), about the finale trap; “The Fatal Five” (12 minutes), about the five traps Hoffman’s prisoners must face during the film; and “Slicing the Cube: Editing the Cube Trap,” which is just what it sounds like. Each one contains interviews with the filmmakers and cast. Unfortunately the lack of any substantial insight into the making of the film basically confirms the decline in quality of the Saw series.

The film’s theatrical trailer and a reel of trailers for My Bloody Valentine 3D, The Spirit, Repo the Genetic Opera, The Midnight Meat Train, Bangkok Dangerous, Disaster Movie, My Best Friend’s Girl, and Hulk Vs. that also plays upfront when you load the disc.

Saw V may have did well enough at the box office to justify another sequel but it’s now clear the filmmakers have run out of ideas for the series, and what started out with the original as a stark and intelligent antidote to mindless slasher flicks has become a series of mindless slasher flicks with a concept that was beaten to death long ago. By now even Jigsaw would be saying, “No mas.” Recommended for gore fanatics and cheap thrill seekers, but anyone else looking for unique horror films would be better off with Let the Right One In.

BAADASSSSS will return. “Game over!”

1 Comment »

  1. I have very little interest in these films.
    Just not my thing.
    Great review!!

    Comment by Jerry — January 30, 2009 @ 11:07 pm

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