Saw V: I Want To Play A Game (but I get to be the shoe)

We went to Saw V last night–would’ve gone sooner but we went with a buddy of mine and his wife, who are difficult to schedule.

The Saw series, at its best, is a creative vehicle for a series of suspenseful situations. The violence done is primarily to make the consequences that much more dire and the suspense therefore greater. (I mean, you may be in suspense whether you’re going to get a piece of cake at the office party, but the consequences are not dire enough for most of us for this to be a compelling situation. Office Space notwithstanding.)

They’ve done a pretty good job retconning the series, which was obviously meant to be a one-off. (You don’t make your villain fatally ill if you plan to continue forward.) The elaborateness of the set-up suggests more work than a terminally ill man could do. Actually, I’d imagine it would take a team of set designers.

What this means is that, here in the fifth installment, we’re actually going through all four previous movies to show how things were done. This is less compelling, actually, than previous movies showing random people placed in life-threatening situations. The part of the movie that actually involves five random people struggling for survival is the better part of the movie, and shows that the formula itself can work.

Except for the first scene and the last two scenes, it’s not really that gory. The first scene is overdone, gore-wise, I think to make sure you know that you’re in a Saw movie. The penultimate scene involves voluntary blood donation of the sort that has made the movie series famous. The ultimate scene is actually quite short, but effectively shocking.

Overall, not bad. For the fifth film in what has been a pretty good film series, well-nigh miraculous. Costas Mandylor is no Tobin Bell, though, and the movie’s attempt to convince us that he’s been around for all five movies (he hasn’t, just since the third one) is not entirely successful.

I managed to differentiate Mandylor from Scott Paterson, though despite this being Paterson’s second Saw movie, and me having watched “Gilmore Girls” for several seasons, I didn’t recognize him as diner owner Luke. (I’m bad at that; I just mistook Lon Chaney Jr for Leo Gordon, and there’s 15 years between them.)

And my heart (and other body parts) is warmed to see Betsy Russell back as Mrs. Ex-Jigsaw. Betsy Russell was a heart-throb for those of us who watched movies like Avenging Angel or Private School rather than Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Betsy–what an awesome first name for an ‘80s actress!–gets filmed in harsh light with bad makeup, but she’s still a knockout. She retired in the late ’80s/early ’90s to take care of her kids, so perhaps we’ll be seeing more of her in the future.

The real problem with sequels, of course, is that they tend to dilute the strength of the original concept. Jigsaw’s motivation comes from his terminal illness, and then (starting in the third movie) his tragic family history. Shawnee Smith’s character made a poor substitute for John, since her motivation was entirely self-centered. Costas Mandylor’s character seems even weaker, though I suppose they can retcon that in in the next sequels, but those things always have a bolted-on feeling.

Plus, come on: Tobin Bell is one of the most distinctive character actors working, and is marvellously compelling in this role, a sort of modern “mad scientist” type. Mandylor is too conventionally good looking. (I believe they used his voice in the last tape.)

But, eh, I’ll be there next Halloween.

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