Lionsgate—you know, the folks who are just too darned classy to give this year’s The Midnight Meat Train a proper release—dumped the latest installment of the torture-porn cash cow, Saw V, into no less than 3,060 theaters on Friday. And, of course, since it’s Halloween season, people flocked to it—although, despite this, it appears that Disney’s High School Musical 3 tap-danced all over its bloody carcass, securing the top spot at the box office. (Now, if the two films could somehow be combined, they might be onto something.) The ad campaign for Saw V assures the viewer, “You won’t believe how it ends.” This is true, because you won’t believe it could possibly be this lame, even though it is. Less truthful is the promotional image of someone wearing a mask made of Jigsaw’s (Tobin Bell) face. No such thing occurs in the film. Perhaps it’s allegorical, but that seems like a pretty big word for the people making these movies to know.
Even granting that the Saw pictures have always been the no-frills franchise of fear flicks—they’re as generic as Chicago album titles; just number the damn things and ship ‘em—Saw V is notably threadbare. There are more flashbacks to previous movies than you’d find in the average “economy chapter” of an old Republic serial, where recycled footage from earlier chapters was strung together to make sure everyone remembers the story thus far. The rationale behind this “previously on Saw” approach is that we’re learning how the late Mr. Jigsaw recruited, trained and used detective Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) to help him in his work—and now to carry on in the same tradition. No, that’s not a spoiler—it’s in the official promotional synopsis and is revealed early on anyway.
This is all intertwined with FBI agent Strahm (Scott Patterson)—who evaded one of Jigsaw’s traps by giving himself a tracheotomy with his handy Bic pen, which doubles as a breathing tube (good thing he doesn’t carry a pencil)—trying to uncover the truth of it all. There’s also some red herring-ness (that may or may not be designed to lead to the already announced Saw VI) involving Mr. Saw’s widow (Betsy Russell), who inherits a never-revealed mysterious box (I’m voting for a collection of sex toys) from her late husband. And, of course, there’s the standard-issue collection of unlikable meat-on-the-hoof characters being put through their gory paces via one of Jigsaw’s “redemption” schemes—complete with videotaped instructions from that increasingly ridiculous Howdy-Doody-of-Horror puppet.
None of this should matter, though, because let’s face it: These movies exist solely for the torture-porn sequences that are too often mistaken for horror these days. Problem with that—apart from the aesthetic and moral speciousness inherent in the approach—is there’s nothing all that new here. The pit-and-the-pendulum opening might have been effective (it’s certainly bloody enough), but the constant close-ups of the screaming victim (Joris Jarsky) become laughable, and the post-production visual jiggery-pokery does the scene no favors. The rest of it is in the more-of-the-same realm of horrific ho-hummery. Even the flashbacks to Jigsaw’s Greatest Hits are on the lame-and-tame side, while the series’ most notoriously gag-inducing death device—the vat of pureed rancid pig from Saw III (2006)—is conspicuously absent.
I’m sure there’s some appeal here for hardcore fans of the series. (Thank goodness, one was in the audience to remind me that the avoirdupois-afflicted fellow in his boxer shorts trapped in barbed wire was from the first film. I feel better knowing that.) I cannot imagine Saw V being of any value to anyone else, though it is admittedly somewhat easier to follow than all the cluttered, shifting time lines in last year’s entry. Perhaps the whole thing is somehow educational. You, too, can become a colorful serial killer if you have a good deal of money, a penchant for Rube Goldberg killing/maiming machines and unlimited access to old, dark labyrinthian warehouses. Whether this is useful knowledge is another matter. Rated R for sequences of grisly bloody violence and torture, language and brief nudity.