The advertising promises "You won't believe how it ends," but the problem with Saw V isn't so much its ending, it's everything that comes before. Oddly toothless, the entire flick feels like it exists solely as preamble for Saw VI. The greatest tension I felt was waiting for the movie to begin. I kept waiting, and waiting, and waiting, and then the end credits began to roll and I realized the movie had, in fact, ended. As one of the characters says, "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me."
The last installment, Saw IV, was both an origin story and a mild-tempered reboot of the series. Writers Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton (Feast) endeavored to provide deeper motivation for the Jigsaw Killer, AKA John Kramer (Tobin Bell), by introducing his ex-wife, Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell), and explaining that it was her tragic miscarriage years in the past that eventually set him on his deadly path. Jigsaw died at the end of Saw III, so Saw IV also had to resurrect him somehow, which was achieved by making the events of Saw IV concurrent with those of Saw III and introducing a new successor, Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), to carry on Jigsaw's "work."
Got that? I know, it's already way too complicated, which is one of the reasons Saw IV was such a drag; it felt like a dry police procedural interrupted by brief scenes of screaming torture. But hold on, because Saw V insists on revisiting the events of the first four films, this time inserting Jigsaw's successor as he is trained for the work ahead. I felt like I was watching Forrest Gump or Zelig, with some fictional phony inserted into historical events.
The original Saw set a new low for grotty, grueling, gory horror, delivered with grinding tension by director James Wan and benefiting from the unpredictability of its twists. Darren Lyn Bousman took the helm for Saw II, ramping up the pace to sometimes incomprehensible speed. The emphasis shifted somewhat away from the tension of personal confrontation toward more fiendishly inventive traps that served as Jigsaw's "tests" for those he deemed insufficiently appreciative of the gift of life. The film cleverly opened up the basic premise of its predecessor by following a small group trapped in a house, though it retained the narrative structure of alternating between the police investigation and the dilemma of the victims.
Saw III took an unpleasant turn toward truly nasty and sadistic violence. No body parts or bodily fluids were spared in the flick's effort to gross out its audience, but the generally hysterical nature of the performances and the apparent willingness to ignore the rules set forth by Jigsaw -- though explained away by the end -- moored Saw III on its own bloody island of self-indulgent mediocrity, in my mind. Big box office may have dictated at least one more film, but Jigsaw's death signaled that it was time for a change. Saw IV was a disappointment, yet I still thought there was a decent set-up for what could come next.
Instead of moving forward, though, Saw V stands resolutely still and motionless, gazing longingly back at its own past and trusting that horror fans have exceedingly short memories and very low expectations. It opens with a typically extravagant device of death (a giant swinging pendulum blade) and Jigsaw's voice on a tape recorder telling the victim (strapped to a big stone table) that he must stick his hands into devices that will pulverize them or else be sliced in half by the giant blade. The scene's climax reveals that the trap could not be Jigsaw's handiwork, which links easily enough to the previous film.
After that, though, the plot thickens into sludge. FBI Agent Strahm (Scott Patterson, from Saw IV and The Gilmore Girls) narrowly escapes from a watery trap meant to kill him, but since the Jigsaw killings have apparently been solved, he's off the case. He still harbors suspicions that Jigsaw had another accomplice, so he follows his hunch that Hoffman is involved. As he investigates Hoffman on the sly, he revists past killings, allowing for a multitude of flashbacks that carefully show the dour Hoffman as he is recruited and trained by Jigsaw. On the basis of their performances here, neither Mandylor nor Patterson are capable of generating dramatic conflict, and neither the script nor the pedestrian direction by first-timer David Hackl, the production designer on the last three films, does them any favors, though the script tries to explain Hoffman's inexpressiveness as necessary in order to properly carry out his "work."
Meanwhile, Hoffman watches a new set of victims undergo "testing." As in Saw II, a group of strangers (including the vastly underused Julie Benz and Meagan Good) suddenly awaken together in a dark and dank room. This time they're all professional-looking folks who are told that they have wasted advantages they were given at birth. Even though it's somewhat of a recycled idea, the prospect of intelligent professionals using their cool and collected wits to extricate themselves from intricate traps to avoid death is intriguing. Unfortunately, it's simply thrown away on the trash heap. None of the traps present difficult-to-solve problems, and no tension is built in solving them. None of the group has an interesting backstory, and we care even less about them than they do about each other.
And so it goes throughout the movie. More than anything, Saw V feels like a watered-down, alternate version of the earlier films in the series. I'm not talking about more explicit bloodshed -- there's a fair amount of gore, and at least three scenes made my faint heart pitter-patter and caused my fingers to hover near my face -- but suspense and tension are otherwise entirely absent. It wouldn't hurt to provide a story and characters that aren't tired retreads.
One more thing: it's not very nice to tease without any release whatsoever.