Sunday 22 October 2017

From the archive: "Saw V"

Saw V opens with a murderer being strapped to a table and offered a choice between crushing the tools of his trade (his hands) in a vice or being sliced in two by a blade swinging over him. With the blade swinging ever lower, the murderer chooses to put his hands through the wringer in a bid to appease his captor - only for the latter to slice his victim in two anyway. So far, so much carnage as usual, yet more proof that the Saw franchise has become further and further detached from the rules of the game established by 2004's ingenious first instalment. The surprise is how the rest of the new film, a slight return to earlier form, should come to call the franchise out on its recent sloppy work, and make tentative moves to correct it.

That franchise remains the biggest fluke, the goriest anomaly in recent movie history: every Halloween since the original, a sequel has arrived in cinemas, shot on a minimal budget, with fewer narrative ideas, less well-known stars and heightening grimness, and yet still - somehow - managing to attract an audience. It's not as though these films reward Johnny-come-latelys: unlike the Friday the 13th, Nightmare and original Halloween movies, where only the monsters remained consistent from film to film, the Saw series has developed its own (literally) torturous mythology, one that - rather cleverly - means individual movies only really come into their own as part of a DVD boxset, to be consumed one after another.

Saw V, by way of an example, moves in three directions at once while rewriting series history in much the way Back to the Future Part II did its predecessor. With sadistic killer Jigsaw seemingly off the board for good, the focus settles first on two detectives (Scott Patterson and Costas Mandylor) investigating one another's involvement in a pattern of serial slayings; then, in the most cursory strand, on Jigsaw's ex-wife (Betsy Russell) as she takes delivery of her late husband's legacy; and then on the latest round of victims to find themselves in a copycat killer's lair, trying to avoid being decapitated, electrocuted or otherwise blown to bits.

Some of this fifth instalment - directed by David Hackl, taking over from gorehound hack Darren Lynn Bousman - wouldn't even pass Filmmaking 101: Patterson and Mandylor, neither possessed of an excess of charisma, are so physically similar as for the opening scenes to be plain confusing. But the meat of the film revives the warped gameplaying of the first films, and the main players, far from the usual disposable no-marks, are at least recognisable: Julie Benz from Dexter, Morris from 24 (his line readings as gloriously flat as ever) and Meagan Good from The Love Guru.

After the anything-goes Saw IV, some small measure of quality control has been reasserted here, principally through the revival of a key character who insists "killing is distasteful" and rebukes their copyists' methodology and tools. It's still as grim as all hell, and the trailer's promise "you won't believe how it ends" proves, perhaps unsurprisingly, an empty one: with two, perhaps three killers on the loose as the end credits roll, the wheels of Saw VI are, even as you read this, very much in motion. The uneasy fascination of the first film, however, is back; viewers of a sensitive disposition are advised to try High School Musical 3 in the screen next door.

(October 2008)

All seven Saw films to date are available on DVD through Lionsgate; an eighth in the series, Jigsaw, opens in cinemas nationwide this Thursday.

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