The nature of the horror movie is that the villain is never dead when you think he is. He can be shot and stabbed and he'll just rise up to continue chasing after the hero. And even if he's 'killed' when the film is over, he'll probably somehow come back to life for a sequel.
After the last two installments of the "Saw" series I pronounced the franchise dead in my review of "Saw IV." The filmmakers had chosen to kill off Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) in "Saw III" and had decided to take the series in an unsatisfying direction. They'd taken the fun twists and cleverness of "Saw" and "Saw II" and ratcheted them up to such a degree where by "Saw IV" it was almost incomprehensible what was going on at times.
It wasn't until I went home after "Saw IV" and read the explanation on wikipedia that I understood what I had seen. Filmmakers should know they've failed when they've made a gore film that needs cliffs notes. Come on, this isn't The Canterbury Tales.
What I was hoping for with "Saw V" was a horror villain-style resurrection. The series learns from its mistakes and bursts out of the grave. The film before us perhaps yields a different metaphor, though.
"Saw IV" was not the series' death but its coma. It became infected with a disease in "Saw III" that progressed to the point in "Saw IV" in which it was nearly destroyed. Now, with "Saw V," the series has awoken from its sleep without too much brain damage. The series is still sick " and that's not meant in the typical horror film sense. It doesn't have the clean bill of health of "Saw" and "Saw II" but it's well on the road to recovery.
In summarizing the plot it should go without saying that those who have not seen the first four films will find the endings spoiled.
Jigsaw may be dead but his ideas are very much alive. Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith,) his protégé from "Saw II" and "Saw III" may have let her emotions impede her execution of his mission but his remaining disciple, revealed to be Detective Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) at the end of "Saw IV," will not repeat her mistakes.
The film starts off with a bang with a death trap reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe. It's one of the series' most gruesome traps and best openings. It's the first sign that things are off to a good start.
Two plots will intertwine over the course of the film. The first follows Agent Peter Strahm (Scott Patterson) as he independently investigates Hoffman and Jigsaw, trying to figure out if and how the detective was an accomplice of the notorious serial killer. We're treated to numerous flashbacks in which we get additional back story on how Hoffman became Jigsaw's heir and helped set up the various games and death traps of the previous four films.
The second element of the story involves the newest Jigsaw test. Five mysteriously linked strangers awaken on metal leashes with the keys encased in boxes in front of them. However behind them lie sharp blades ready to decapitate them when the leashes retract at the end of the timer. Each room will present a different challenge they will have to figure out and complete in order to survive. This is something of a throwback to "Saw II" in its testing of a whole group.
A third plot thread lurks in the background as Hoffman figures out how to deal with the threat presented by Strahm.
I left the previous two "Saw" films somewhat confused and disappointed. This one was much more satisfying, though. The death traps and Jigsaw tests were clever, cringe-inducing, and exciting. It still has some of the more problematic elements of "Saw III" and "Saw IV." There were numerous moments of confusion. "Wait a second. Who's this guy? What's he doing?" One of the problems of the "Saw" series has always been that it doesn't establish its characters very well. With the exception of Jigsaw none of the character are particularly memorable. Hence it's sometimes hard to remember who's who when the plots started getting more and more confusing. The cops are all pretty similar as are Jigsaw's victims.
There are a few other characteristic problems of the series that are a bit more tolerable. The acting remains pretty atrocious at times. Scenes between cops and detectives who argue with one another generate eye rolls instead of dramatic tension. The sequences of the Jigsaw victims stuck in the testing rooms yelling at one another are similarly irritating at times. The first "Saw" film featured such solid actors as Cary Elwes and Danny Glover. The series' makers have come to realize that they don't need the expense of A-list or even B-list talent to keep the film profitable and that's unfortunate.
The nature of the jigsaw traps and tests also tend to stretch the suspension of disbelief a bit but that's acceptable since the film manages to remain entertaining.
In the years since its creation the "Saw" series has assumed a position in the horror genre comparable to "Friday the 13th," "A Nightmare on Elm Street," "Halloween," and "Child's Play." It's become a popular, profitable franchise with an iconic villain. The problem of "Saw" in relation to its predecessors has been that it chooses to eschew the supernatural. Those other films were able to perpetuate themselves easily since the personality of the villain could always just be resurrected. "Saw" doesn't have that advantage. The series started with a dying villain, killed him off in the third film, and has been struggling ever since to figure out how to continue the series without resorting to magic to reanimate Jigsaw.
It's an opinion so obvious that it borders on being a fact: the "Saw" series simply cannot exist without the character and personality of Jigsaw. The idea of Jigsaw can certainly live on in Hoffman who I imagine will probably find his own apprentices and start some sort of cult that kidnaps people and tests them with death traps.
The filmmakers cannot simply keep doing more flashbacks of Jigsaw that offer further back-story and re-inventions of the events of the previous films. "Saw V" ends much as "Saw II" did in pointing to the series' future in a positive way. My hope is that Jigsaw will appear more in narrator fashion, perhaps as a figure that speaks directly to the audience or maybe as character that shows up within Hoffman's mind. Whatever the "Saw" team decides to do with this new challenge, though, let's hope they don't repeat history and leave us with a mediocre "Saw VI" and even worse "Saw VII" before getting back on track with "Saw VIII." A fan's patience and forgiveness does have its limits.