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Seen: The Hackl/Greutert Years
Horror's longest-running cinematic soap opera continues with 'Saw V,' 'Saw VI,' and 'Saw: The Final Chapter.'
I want to play a game: In anticipation of the September 29 release date of Saw X, I’m going to take a look back at all nine previous entries in the divisive Saw franchise. Previously, I revisited the original Saw as well as Saw II, Saw III, and Saw IV; today, I’m tackling Saw V, Saw VI, and Saw VI. My characteristically-neurotic thoughts about the movie are below. Read or die: Make your choice…
Saw V found the franchise at something of a crossroads. After writing Saw III, original creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell stepped back, remaining only as executive producers, and after Saw IV, director Darren Lynn Bousman decided he needed a break from Jigsaw as well. For Saw V, the powers that be promoted David Hackl, the production designer on the three previous entries, to director, even though he’d never helmed a movie before; they also brought back Saw IV writers Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunston (Feast), who later ended up coming back to script Saw VI and Saw VII. And producers Mark Burg and Ouren Koules have always remained on the team (the series’ third producer, Gregg Hoffman, passed away in 2005, although he has still received credit on all subsequent Saws). So it wasn’t an entirely new creative team, but it was certainly a creative team in transition.
I have to imagine that this is why Saw V is the worst of all Saws to date. Because, even by Saw standards, the performances in Saw V are pretty lousy, the movie looks especially cheap and flat (which, given that Hackl was a production designer, seems like the ONE THING he would have nailed), and the script is stupid.
Speaking to the latter issue: Holy crap, SO MUCH OF THIS MOVIE IS REDUNDANT. A lot of time, we’re watching Special Agent Peter Strahm (Scott Patterson from Gilmore Girls) figure out what we learned at the end of Saw IV: That the new Jigsaw is Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor, and yes, the character is named in honor of the late producer). Being ten steps ahead of this yutz makes for a boring movie. And when we’re not doing that, we’re often watching flashbacks in which Hoffman helps John set up traps from previous movies while John spouts a lot of nonsensical cookie fortune wisdom that’s supposed to make him seem smart.
Between these two plot lines, it feels like roughly 50-60% of the movie is footage from previous entries and/or unnecessary “insights” into prior events. There’s about a paragraph’s worth of new information in the whole movie; it’s 92 minutes with credits, and it still feels padded.
Despite this, Saw V isn’t without its positive qualities. I don’t know whose idea it was for this one poor lady to start loudly hyperventilating as she realizes she’s about to be decapitated, but it’s genuinely upsetting in a way these films rarely are.
There’s also the scene where John and Hoffman first confront one another. It adds significantly to the ongoing over-the-top melodrama: We learn that Hoffman is only helping John because [inhales deeply] John is blackmailing Hoffman since Hoffman avenged his sister’s murder by killing her abusive boyfriend (who has multiple visible Nazi tattoos, which really makes you wonder what was going on with Hoffman’s sister) and making it look like a Jigsaw slaying [exhales loudly]. All of which also serves to make the timeline even nuttier, ‘cause now we’re meant to believe that Hoffman has been involved this whole time.
Furthermore, this sequence provides each actor the chance to engage in some grade-A scene scenery chewing chewing. I’m particularly fond of the way Bell breaks up the line “Killing is distasteful to me” into halves with the first part screamed and the second part whispered, so it’s “KILLING IS DISTASTEFUL! To me.” What a bizarre, Christopher Walken-esque disregard for punctuation.
But the only pertinent information conveyed in Saw V is that John’s left his widow, Dr. Jill Tuck (Betsey Russell), a literal mystery box which won’t even pay off until the next movie, and that Hoffman isn’t a true believer. Watch the scene just above this paragraph, and you’ve seen 98% of the best stuff in Saw V.
The series bounced back in a big, big way with Saw VI. The directorial debut of Kevin Greutert, who edited Saws I-V, Saw VI remains the best entry in the franchise by many, MANY miles.
That’s because not only does Saw VI advance the soap opera of John Kramer and the members of his inner circle, but because the traps have actual emotional heft to them. Which, I imagine, is borne out the movie’s very premise: Jigsaw takes revenge against the health insurance industry.
Specifically, Hoffman, acting on posthumous orders from John Kramer, abducts a scummy insurance executive (Peter Outerbridge) and makes him run one of Jigsaw’s gamuts. And because the insurance douche’s whole crime is that he has made decisions about who lives and who dies based on how it will affect his bank account, he now has to make difficult decisions in order to try and save people with whom he works, and their deaths won’t be abstract concepts, they’ll be awful and they’ll happen right in front of him.
I know some people have been unfortunate to lose someone they love to a drunk driver, and I know some people have actually been law enforcement officials on the hunt for a violent killer, but Saw VI is the first Saw movie to present an abductee where 99.9% of all American audiences could say, “Yeah, I totally get why Jigsaw would hate this motherfucker.” Especially when you find out he’s responsible for the death of the groom from the Father of the Bride movies. Unforgivable.
(P.S., I can’t find the clip online, but the scene where the insurance guy gets abducted is truly hilarious. He’s sitting in his office alone at night, watching a news story about how the Jigsaw murders are still going on even though John is dead. The newscaster literally says “Victims have included anyone associated with the life of John Kramer, however remote,” and then insurance putz has just enough time to remember he’s the guy who denied John’s attempt to get experimental cancer surgery before he gets kidnapped.)
At the same time, because Jigsaw’s tests are all based around the idea that this guy has to become an active participant in the deaths of friends and employees, they have more than a little extra bite. How do you decide between the lives of a healthy young man with no family and an older woman surrounded by people who love her?
Then there’s the infamous merry-go-round trap, in which the insurance guy can save but two of the six young men and women who work under him… brutal. That poor last son of a bitch, knowing he’s gonna die… brutal. The fact that Eddie Winslow ISN’T one of the ones who gets saved… BRUTAL!!!
Meanwhile, now that John is dead, Hoffman just wants this shit to wrap up so he can go back to being a normal police officer with no respect for the law, just like any other cop in the United States. But that means Hoffman now has to run all over the place trying to stop anyone from discovering his involvement with the Jigsaw murders. Like, remember that part in Casino where Joe Pesci talks about pre-digging holes in the desert before you whack a guy?
That’s basically what has happened to poor Hoffman: He didn’t pre-dig his hole, and now he’s gonna be in the desert all fuckin’ night.
Especially because, in an especially delicious turn of events, John has also left behind directions for Dr. Jill Tuck to administer Hoffman’s test, which ultimately involves the reverse bear trap (that’s what was in the mystery box in the last movie!). That Jill gets more screen time this go-’round is delightful, not least of all because Betsey Russell’s performance is unbelievably terrible, as she seems incapable of not smiling, even when it’s completely inappropriate (i.e., John is telling her all about his nifty plan to slaughter people).
Somehow, John roping his widow into becoming a murderer isn’t the most outrageous development in the ongoing Saw saga - that would be the revelation that back when Amanda (welcome back, Shawnee Smith!) was a drug addict, she forced her boyfriend to rob Jill’s clinic, leading to the door-in-the-belly that cost Jill and John their baby, and that Hoffman, while being blackmailed by John, blackmailed Amanda, which is why Amanda failed her test back in Saw III (got all that?).
The movie ends on something of a cliffhanger, with Hoffman narrowly surviving the test Jill conducts on John’s behalf - so you can bet that shit is gonna get real fucked up for Jill in the next movie.
Actually, that’s not quite accurate - the movie in fact ends with a post-credits scene. Saw VI was released a year after Marvel launched their cinematic universe with Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, and to the Saw team’s credit, they saw the writing on the wall and knew that post-credits scenes would soon be all the rage. And, in true Marvel fashion, the post-credit scene sets up a storyline that never actually comes to fruition.
Unfortunately for Lionsgate, Saw VI didn’t do very well at the box office, becoming the series’ lowest-grossing entry up until that point despite being vastly superior to its predecessors. This may have been because Saw V sucked, or it may have been because the first Paranormal Activity had just come out and was the hot new kid at school, or it may have been that people were just over it with John Kramer and his wacky hijinks. Whatever the reason for the failure, it was announced that the next year’s Saw 3D, a.k.a. Saw: The Final Chapter, a.k.a. Saw VII, would be the last installment in the franchise (and in case you don’t recall, this was not long after the first Avatar came out, when there was briefly a federal law requiring all movies to be in 3D). Which I think everyone knew was bullshit, but the plan worked in terms of getting butts back in seats.
Greutert returned to helm Saw 3D, seemingly against his will. But thank Jigsaw that he did, because it’s nearly as entertaining as Saw VI (and whatever the issue with Greutert was back in 2010, it’s obviously been resolved, because he’s returning to direct Saw X). The 3D is utilized in exactly the manner 3D ought to be utilized: For schlock effect, with weapons, debris, and, of course, viscera often flying out at the audience.
Greutert also managed to get these movies out of damp basements, at least for a little while: Saw 3D opens with a test conducted not only in daylight, but in public, with a crowd of onlookers. The end result is a woman gets sawed in half, leading to a hilarious shot of Jigsaw’s creepy puppet, Billy, sitting inertly while being sprayed with blood, and an equally-hilarious moment when a man yells “Somebody help her!”, as though no one else in the crowd had thought of that yet.
The filmmakers also try their best to wrap up the soap opera: Hoffman is now on the lam from the police and Jill is on the lam from Hoffman, and although John promised to keep Jill protected, he does not, and we finally get to see that reverse bear trap do its thing.
The big twist, though, is that there are yet MORE Jigsaw disciples that Hoffman didn’t know about, including… Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Carey Elwes) from the original Saw, who was so grateful John put him a situation where he had to self-amputate that he decided to devote his remaining days to helping others find the same success. So in case there was ever any doubt that this most definitely was NOT the final chapter, well, we end the movie with the knowledge that there’s at least one more trio of Jigsaw Juniors out there.
Of course, none of this makes a lick of sense; looking at the whole puzzle put together, I could not tell you what the fuck John’s endgame was, or why the fuck Gordon couldn’t intervene before Jill died a horrible death, or why the fuck Hoffman is still bothering to execute games, or why the fuck Hoffman is so dead set on killing Jill immediately when the smart move is going into hiding and getting her later (especially because by this point the cops know Hoffman is a killer, so it’s not like he’s stopping her from ratting him out). And that’s not even getting into the much smaller-scale logic questions, like how the fuck someone mistook Hoffman for a limbless corpse when Hoffman not only has limbs but also appears to weigh about three-hundred pounds.
Had it turned out that the creators of these films actually did have some larger story in mind - had they come up with a revelation that truly knocked the audience on their ass - Saw 3D might have equalled Saw VI in terms of pure, delirious goofiness. As it stands, the movie makes it seem like John Kramer, Dr. Jill Tuck, Hoffman, Amanda, and the rest of these crazy kooks are really just complete lunatics with no rhyme or reason to explain any of what they’re doing. Which is probably true to life in terms of nonfictional serial killers, but isn’t nearly as funny. Bummer.
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