Sunday, October 18, 2009

Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966)

The phrase "worst movie ever" gets thrown around quite a bit. Some will tell you that the worst movie ever is Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever or Superbabies: Baby Geniuses 2. Others will argue that the title belongs to Troll 2 or the American Idol movie, From Justin to Kelly. And the most popular answer to the "worst movie ever" question is the Ed Wood masterpiece Plan 9 from Outer Space.

But folks, I can certainly tell you a tale about what could truly be the worst movie I have ever had the misfortune to watch. It's worse than Catwoman, It's Pat: The Movie, and Showgirls combined. It's my pick for the worst movie ever made, simply because it is a complete failure on every conceivable level. It is a movie so bad that it could possibly drive lesser people absolutely insane. That waste of celluloid is the one and only Manos: The Hands of Fate.

This is normally the portion of the review where I attempt to write a plot synopsis. But Manos doesn't have anything that even remotely resembles a plot or a story or even a coherent sequence of events. It's just one random nonsensical scene after another. There's no rhyme or reason to any of it. So I'll just try to describe this mess somehow so you'll know what to expect if you ever want to see it for yourself.

The movie focuses on a family of three — Michael (Hal Warren), Margaret (Diane Mahree), and their daughter Debbie (Jackie Neyman) — as they take a road trip to an unknown destination. They're searching for a motel called "the Valley Lodge," but Michael has gotten them really, really lost. The family ends up arriving at a house in the middle of nowhere, tended to by a really odd fellow by the name of Torgo (John Reynolds). Michael asks for directions to the Valley Lodge, but Torgo only tells him, "There is no way out of here. It'll be dark soon. There is no way out of here."

And since he's apparently as dumb as a sack of hammers, Michael more or less forces Torgo into letting his family stay the night despite protests from both Torgo and Margaret. As night falls, things start going straight to hell. It turns out that the poor lost family has stumbled upon the domain of the Master (Tom Neyman), the leader of an underground cult that worships an evil deity named Manos. And folks, the Master doesn't particularly care for trespassers. Will the family be able to survive the night? Will Torgo be able to successfully make a pass on Margaret? Will anybody who has seen this movie retain their sanity?

Where do I even begin? Most bad movies have at least one or two particular mistakes that you can blame for causing the movie to fail. But with Manos: The Hands of Fate, everything is the mistake. Every single thing about Manos is awful beyond comprehension. The movie cannot go thirty seconds without something stupid happening. Even the movie's title is ludicrous. As many other online reviewers have pointed out, "manos" is the Spanish word for "hands." So fully translated into English, the movie is named "Hands: The Hands of Fate." I'm just going to let that speak for itself.

Manos was even featured on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 1993. It's become one of the show's most beloved episodes, and MST3K's creators even labeled it the worst movie to have appeared on the show. They watched a hell of a lot of bad movies over the course of the show's run, so for it to be called the worst they'd ever seen is really saying something. But seriously, how can someone make a movie where so many things go wrong and not care about it?

There is, actually, an answer to that question. But to find it, we'll have to go to El Paso, Texas, circa 1966. The story goes that local fertilizer salesman Hal Warren had become friends with screenwriter Sterling Silliphant (who would go on to win an Oscar for writing In the Heat of the Night), and bet him that he could easily produce, write, and direct a movie by himself. Silliphant accepted the bet, and Warren armed himself with a budget of 19,000 dollars and the crappiest camera he could find. The camera was a 16mm Bell & Howell camera that had to be wound by hand, could only record for 32 seconds at a time, and didn't record sound. And thanks to the lack of sound, all of the sound effects and dialogue had to be added in post-production (with the dialogue supposedly done by the same three or four people). The final result of this whole thing is the movie I'm reviewing now. Warren might have won the bet, but at what cost? At what cost?!

When it comes right down to it, Warren had absolutely no idea what he was doing. As a director, his choices are frustratingly bad. Pretty much every shot of the movie is either poorly framed or out of focus, and a lot of them go on too long to boot. It's not uncommon for a scene from Manos to start with an actor waiting several seconds to get their cue from behind the camera, then waiting several seconds for Warren to cut after they've delivered their line. It happens more a few times, too.

Any competent director would have used a take where the actor didn't look at the camera, and chopped any excess time off in order for things to have some kind of flow. But not Hal Warren! Our dimwitted director supposedly even forgot to put any opening credits (beyond the name of the movie) at the beginning, so we're stuck with a useless sequence where we needlessly drive around the outskirts of El Paso for what feels like several days. Several long, boring days.

There are also scenes that contribute absolutely nothing to the movie, like the bit where Mike gets a ticket for his car's busted taillight, and the multiple instances of a young couple whose make-out sessions keep getting busted up by the cops. Were these scenes absolutely necessary? And then there are the scenes that wear out their welcome way too fast, like the giant brawl with the Master's many wives. I know the movie is barely an hour long as it is, but did that scene need to take up at least three minutes? Ugh... this whole movie is stupid and it makes my head hurt.

And there are so many glaring errors and flubs that there's no way that a director who knew what he was doing would have let them stay in the finished movie. The actors repeatedly stare directly at the camera. Actors and props occasionally change positions (or outright disappear) from shot to shot in the same scene. One shot that is supposed to be of three people ends up being an extended close-up of the back of Diane Mahree's head. Sound effects are often mistimed or simply nonexistent. Moths swarm around the camera, having been drawn by the lights used for outdoor night scenes.

Perhaps the silliest one of all is the brief appearance of a clapboard at the beginning of one early scene. While clapboards are often used to identify a particular take during editing, their most common, traditional usage is to synchronize the video with the audio recorded with it. But since Warren didn't record any of the dialogue during filming, why would he need a clapboard in the first place?

You would think that most directors would either edit around the bloopers or simply not use those takes at all. But not Hal Warren! He just leaves them in there for God and everybody to see. It's like he just didn't care.

I can say the same thing about his script, a god-awful mess that doesn't know what to do with itself. The dialogue is nonsensical and repetitive, and the fact that Warren couldn't even be bothered to give the movie a coherent story is maddening. Nothing goes anywhere, and if it does, you can't tell, because none of it makes any sense whatsoever. It's like Warren just pounded his fist against his typewriter a few times, and he called whatever random crap that ended up on paper a script.

But really, the problem with the script is that nothing of note actually happens. The movie is so unbelievably tedious that it feels like it drags on forever, despite lasting just barely over an hour. It takes so much blasted time for something — anything — to happen, and then what does happen varies from banal to insulting to just plain random. I've said it once or twice already, but it's just the most pathetic mess ever. The fact that somebody actually wrote all this and had hired actors and a crew with the intent of committing the material to film makes me want to weep and then die.

I actually pity the poor actors who had to appear in this piece of crap movie, especially since none of them got paid. The only one who got any sort of compensation was Jackey Neyman, who (according to stuff I've read online) was given a bicycle for her work. Everyone else ended up doing it for free, because Warren couldn't afford to pay them. I can understand when an actor agrees to be in a movie that they know will suck, because they'll at least be able to get a paycheck for it. You've got to pay your bills somehow. But the fact that nobody got paid for appearing in this makes me feel so sorry for them.

Then again, the actors don't really do all that great of a job either. They're certainly not convincing, and it doesn't help anything they keep looking at the camera or just plain don't seem to care. And if I were in this movie, I wouldn't bother trying either. And the dubbing hurts the acting an awful lot too, especially with whoever was hired to dub Jackey Neyman's dialogue. The character's voice is practically indecipherable. It's all just gibberish and noise, with the occasional word slipping through once in a blue moon. Debbie's dubbed voice is so terrible that I heard it actually made the poor girl cry the first time she saw the movie.

But the only member of the cast that truly stands out is John Reynolds as Torgo. Combine his twitchy mannerisms, how greasy and unkempt he looks, his odd gait, the repetitive dialogue, his staccato dubbed voice, and the weird music that MST3K called "the haunting Torgo theme," and you have a character that very nearly makes the movie watchable. I've heard that Reynolds may have been whacked out of his mind on drugs during filming, which I'd definitely believe. He died not too long after the movie's release, but at least he had the chance to give us Torgo before he passed away.

Any hopes Hal Warren had of being a Hollywood star were quickly dashed away by the movie's disastrous release, and the movie itself fell into complete obscurity before Mystery Science Theater 3000 made it a cult classic. Each second of Manos: The Hands of Fate proves that any random idiot can take a camera, film a bunch of stuff, and call their footage a movie. There is nothing good that I can say about the movie. Every last detail in regards to the movie — the direction, the writing, the acting, the dubbing, the annoying jazz music, the set design, the costumes — is utter garbage.

The first time I ever tried to watch Manos without the MST3K commentary, I literally made it five minutes before pulling the DVD out of the player and throwing it at the wall. I am not making that up to be funny. It really happened. That right there is a testament to just how awful Manos is. I know I've badmouthed Uwe Boll more than once in the past, but at least I can make it through his movies in one sitting. But this... this is just torture. I'm just going to let that speak for itself. I cannot give the movie anything more than one star, but in all honesty, it probably doesn't even deserve that.

Final Rating: *

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Zombieland (2009)

This might sound like an exaggeration, but I'd wager to bet that it doesn't take a whole lot of effort to make a zombie movie. Where the real effort lies is in making a zombie movie that's doesn't suck. There's a lot of awful ones and a lot of ones that were simply "okay," but the list of ones that are truly awesome isn't as long as you might think.

There haven't been a whole lot of additions to that list over the last decade or so, so the ones that make it have to be pretty darn awesome. England has contributed Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later, Spain gave us [·REC], and I'd make the argument that Zack Snyder's remake of Dawn of the Dead could make the list too. But those three recently got some company with the release of Zombieland. A horror/comedy that's leaning most decidedly on the comedy side of the fence, Zombieland is a downright awesome movie that I'd definitely put on my list of the best zombie flicks ever made.

Two months have passed since a virulent mutation of mad cow disease caused the zombie apocalypse. And in the wake of the rise of the undead, America has ceased to be. All that remains is "the United States of Zombieland." Survivors no longer use the names on their birth certificates, but instead answer to the names of cities. It makes it easier to cope with the death of your riding buddy if you keep them at arm's length.

As the movie begins, we're introduced to Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), a neurotic college student who has managed to survive with brains instead of brawn. He lives by a strict set of rules he's created, with each one applying to every possible situation he could think of. He is making his way to his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, when he encounters Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a bad-to-the-bone zombie killer on a journey to find every last Twinkie he can. They're both heading east, so the mismatched duo decides to ride together for a few miles until they hit the eventual fork in the road.

Tallahassee's Twinkie obsession eventually leads them to an abandoned supermarket, where they run into Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), a pair of sneaky sisters who run a scam that ends with them stealing Tallahassee's car. Columbus and Tallahassee are lucky enough to find a Hummer full of guns and with the keys in the ignition, but they eventually encounter Wichita and Little Rock stranded on the side of the road, their stolen car having broken down.

Any temptation Columbus and Tallahassee have to leave them behind is quickly dashed away when the sisters hold them at gunpoint and make them give them a ride. Now stuck with each other, the four survivors decide to head to Pacific Playland, a California amusement park that's rumored to be zombie-free. But their ride won't be an easy one, since there's those pesky trust issues between them, as well as the carnivorous zombies that are still out there.

The simple truth is that Zombieland is an awesome movie. There's no two ways about it. The movie is a blast from start to finish, never becoming tedious or disappointing. I'd definitely call it one of the most fun and entertaining movies of 2009. Everything about it — the cast, the jokes, the overall feel of the movie — perfectly gels together into the great big bucket of awesome that is Zombieland.

First up is the direction, handled by Ruben Fleischer. I'll confess that I'd never heard of Fleisher before Zombieland, and judging by his IMDB profile, there's a reason for that. But to his credit, he does a great job. Though he's guilty of a few excesses (the animated text that pops up whenever one of Columbus's rules are applied gets a little old after a while), he ultimately puts together a movie that is fun to look at. Whether the setting is a supermarket, a Beverly Hills mansion, or an amusement park, Fleischer and cinematographer Michael Bonvillain never let things get boring.

And not only is the director an unknown, but the writers are too. Zombieland was written by Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese, whose only previous work of note was Spike TV's reality show parody The Joe Schmo Show. Their work on Zombieland is here to discuss, though, and I'll go ahead and let you know that they've done some fantastic work. Wernick and Reese have come up with a script full of witty black humor and a snarky attitude that makes the movie that much funnier.

I've seen a few people call the movie an American version of Shaun of the Dead, but I don't know if I'd go that far. Because while Shaun of the Dead is something of a satire of the zombie genre, Wernick and Reese have written Zombieland as a borderline parody. The use of Columbus's list makes it seem self-aware at times, and the fact that its legitimate horror elements are almost negligible helps it stand apart from Shaun of the Dead. They do share a few elements, so the comparisons could be justified. But Zombieland is good enough that it can stand alone.

But let's not forget the cast, which is perhaps the movie's strongest element. Of the four primary cast members, my favorite performance comes from Woody Harrelson. He's hilarious as Tallahassee, a no-nonsense zombie killer whose enthusiasm is infectious. You can't help but like Tallahassee, and it's hard not to enjoy Harrelson. He's a lot of fun, and if there were ever a sequel or spin-off starring just Tallahassee, I'd be fine with that.

The rest of the cast may be overshadowed by Harrelson, but they're all fine. Jesse Eisenberg does a respectable job in a role that probably would have gone to Michael Cera any other time. Eisenberg's character is a bundle of nerves who uses his own fear to stay alive, and he pulls it off believably. I also liked Emma Stone, whose turn as the cynical, thick-skinned Wichita is quite good. And bringing up the rear is Abigail Breslin. You don't see too many kids in zombie movies, so having Breslin play a 12-year-old survivor who has no problem using guns or scamming adults was a neat twist. She is entertaining in the role, so I can't complain.

I'm probably going to sound like a broken record, but Zombieland is an awesome movie. There's really nothing bad I can say about it, and any negatives I can find are minor at worst. I'd be more than willing to put it up against other classic zombie comedies like Shaun of the Dead or The Return of the Living Dead, that's how good it is. Zombieland is definitely worth seeing if you're a fan of either horror movies or comedies. So on the patent-pending Five-Star Sutton Scale, I'll give it four stars and a big stamp of approval. And if the zombie apocalypse ever happens, I'd crash at Bill Murray's house too.

Final Rating: ****

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Cloverfield (2008)

If I know my regular reading audience like I think I do, then I'm pretty sure you guys may have heard of an ultra-lame, ultra-forgettable movie known as The Blair Witch Project. I'm surprised I'm even bringing it up, considering how obscure it is. Okay, seriously, all kidding aside, The Blair Witch Project was a huge blockbuster when it was released back in the summer of 1999. It had the kind of outrageous mainstream success that most horror movies can only dream of achieving. And with the popularity of the movie came hundreds of parodies that surfaced on video store shelves and across the Internet. And I'm sure the presence of Internet parodies would have been more widespread, had it not taken six more years for YouTube to pop up.

But it would be nearly a decade before any serious attempts to replicate the movie's style were made. However, as the world neared ever closer to the tenth anniversary of the little low-budget horror flick that could, the world saw the release of very similar movies. Among them were George Romero's Diary of the Dead, the Spanish zombie movie [·REC] and its American remake, Quarantine, and perhaps the most significant example of this new crop of Blair Witch-like cinema vérité horror movies, Cloverfield. Conceived by Lost creator J.J. Abrams, Cloverfield didn't quite match the runaway financial success that The Blair Witch Project had, though it still proved quite popular and got people talking. So let's talk about it, shall we?

Rob Hawkins (Michael Stahl-David) is in for the night of his life. On the eve of his departure for Japan in order to accept a swanky new job with a soft drink company, his brother Jason (Mike Vogel) and Jason's girlfriend Lily (Jessica Lucas) have thrown him a surprise farewell party. Jason and Lily have also entrusted Rob's best friend Hud (T.J. Miller) with a camcorder so that he can record everyone's final goodbyes for their leaving friend, but ends up spending the better part of the evening chatting up pretty partygoer Marlena (Lizzy Caplan).

But just as the party gets into full swing, things get a little bit awkward when Rob's longtime friend Beth (Odette Yustman) arrives with a date. See, Rob and Beth had a romantic liaison a month earlier, but things have been uncomfortable between them ever since. An argument ensues, and Beth storms out.

However, an argument between friends and would-be lovers will be the least of anyone's worries on this evening. Manhattan is rattled by what initially feels like an earthquake, and an ensuing explosion leads some of the partygoers to wonder if it could be another terrorist attack. But the true cause is much more frightening than anything al-Qaeda could have possibly dreamed up. It's not an earthquake, or terrorists, or even Superman on a bender. Instead, a really big, really ugly monster is roaming the streets of Manhattan, and he's sporting a bad attitude.

As the beast rampages through the city and battles the military, Rob receives a frantic cell phone message from an injured and terrified Beth. Determined to rescue her, Rob leads his friends through Manhattan, which has now become a dangerous war zone.

Thanks to the proliferation of the Internet, you can find out news about movies months before they even enter production. But what made Cloverfield unique was how it took everyone by surprise. There had been absolutely no news about it at all prior to the first teaser's appearance in front of Michael Bay's Transformers in the summer of 2007. The teaser only featured a release date and some vague footage that culminated in the decapitated head of the Statue of Liberty crash landing in the middle of a Manhattan neighborhood. The truly insane thing about it was that this teaser didn't even give the movie a name! But it got people talking, most definitely.

People had all kinds of theories regarding what the monster was. Some thought it might have been Cthulhu, the terrifying beast created by horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. Others thought that Toho had forgiven Hollywood for that disastrous Godzilla movie from 1998 and had allowed America to make another movie starring the king of the monsters. There was also a rumor that it could have been a live-action Voltron movie. And some people even thought that — due to the teaser's failure to give the movie a name — the monster might have been the logo for J.J. Abrams's production company, Bad Robot. But no, it's an original monster starring in a movie that just couldn't live up to what was expected of it. Through all the rumors and all the speculation and all the nonsensical viral marketing that popped up online, Cloverfield ended up being an utterly mediocre movie that nearly collapses under the weight of its own hype.

Though Abrams has taken pretty much all the credit for the movie, he didn't write it or direct it. So let's begin the actual critiquing by discussing those who were working under Abrams's shadow. Cloverfield was directed by Matt Reeves, a longtime associate of Abrams who co-created the TV show Felicity. He's not the most experienced director when it comes to feature films, as his only real credit is one movie twelve years prior to Cloverfield. However, I must give him credit for actually holding the movie together. I assume that making a movie like this is very hard if you're not just giving the actors a camera and letting them run wild with it. But Reeves manages to keep things trucking along at a relatively steady pace, doing his best to make sure the audience stays interested.

He does throw in a lot of intriguing visuals, some of which work better because of the "man on the street" handheld camera style. It especially works in the scene in the subway tunnel where the crew has a night-vision encounter with a gang of little monsters the primary one has spawned, is pretty darn scary. And because Cloverfield exists in a post-9/11 world, Reeves also gives us a scene with a lingering dust cloud that invokes memories of one of 9/11's most sadly unforgettable images. This scene might rub some people the wrong way, and it does feels a little cheap, but it's a powerful moment.

Unfortunately, the movie feels artificial to a degree. You never get the sense that this could be actual found footage, because everything seems too polished. Maybe this is just me, but I always felt like this wasn't a movie about a guy with a consumer-grade camcorder roaming a monster-devastated city, but a guy with a professional camera being followed by a sound crew while walking around Paramount's studio backlot. The Blair Witch Project worked because the actors were handed a camera and left to their own devices. But with Cloverfield, the big budget and the studio backing just leads to a movie that feels fake.

Any positive things I may have had to say about the direction are pretty much negated by the less-than-stellar screenplay. The movie was written by Drew Goddard, another past Abrams collaborator who'd written episodes of Alias and Lost. He's also worked with Joss Whedon on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Cloverfield is his first feature film, and I felt that he could have done a lot better. One of the big problems I have with the script is that the characters are either incredibly stupid of just plain unlikable. They're all a bunch of way-too-cool hipsters that are written in such a way that I had a hard time relating to them.

And call me crazy, but when I go see a monster movie, I don't want to waste any time getting to the monster. I don't want to spend twenty minutes watching characters I don't like partying at some apartment I could never afford. I was bored out of my head by the time the monster arrived, and that could have been fixed if Goddard had either written better characters or gotten to the point faster, or if Reeves had stayed in the editing room longer.

Goddard's script also raises questions, mainly only due to the logic of movies like this. For example, why do they run towards the giant killer monster from Hell to save that girl that's probably dead? Yes, I understand it's a primal instinct, but it's also incredibly stupid and will probably result in their painful and messy deaths. And why would Hud keep filming? Wouldn't your survival instinct be screaming to drop the camera and run for it? If he were a TV cameraman by trade, or even if there were some throwaway line where Hud said he wanted to make a ton of money by selling the footage to whichever news network was the highest bidder, I could be cool with that. It would at least be somewhat plausible. But he's just some random schmuck who had a camcorder thrust upon him for no reason other than the intended cameraman didn't want to do it himself. At least the style has a point in other movies, because the characters are making a movie or are part of a TV camera crew. But in Cloverfield, there's no reason beyond needing the movie to keep going until they reach the end.

But what about the acting? Hopefully that could help the movie, right? Believe it or not, I actually didn't think the actors did all that bad a job, for the most part. They're a little week in places, but more often than not, they do decent enough work in spite of the crappy roles they're stuck playing. As the de facto leading man among the ensemble, Michael Stahl-David is endearing despite his character repeatedly making so many unbelievably stupid decisions. He's earnest in the role, to the point of making the character almost believable. I also thought Jessica Lucas and Lizzy Caplan were good, though I didn't find them too particularly memorable. And Mike Vogel and Odette Yustman aren't around long enough to really make any lasting impression. But what I saw of them wasn't awful.

If there's a bad performance, it comes from T.J. Miller. He's supposed to be Cloverfield's comic relief, but he isn't really all that funny. Only a few of his jokes work, and he doesn't even really deliver those well. The character is pretty much an annoying jackass for the whole movie, and I kept waiting for somebody to snatch that camera from him and beat him over the head with it. Miller doesn't do anything to overcome any of the flaws in the material, and the bad part is that we're stuck with him for the whole movie.

And I know there's no real reason to bring it up here, but I wanted I wanted to punch its viral marketing in the face. None of it had any sort of bearing or impact on the actual movie itself. It was pointless! I can forgive the movie for not explaining the origins of the monster, since doing so while using the Blair Witch style would have seemed forced and tacked on. But going by the viral marketing, I felt like I had to do tons of reading about crap I didn't give a damn about in order to get the big picture. It all ends up raising more questions than it answers, so I generally just try to pretend the viral marketing didn't exist.

But on the whole, Cloverfield is a movie that is, at its best, just okay. For all the hype and speculation that surrounded it, it wasn't either good or bad. It was just kinda there. But assuming it had better writing, I actually wouldn't mind seeing it remade as a conventional movie. Even if the Blair Witch style does lend itself to some cool scenes, it ends up feeling like just a gimmick. And when it's all said and done, Cloverfield is just plain mediocre. So I guess I'll give it two and a half stars on the Sutton Scale. It could have been better, so let's hope J.J. Abrams has learned his lesson if he ever chooses to make Cloverfield 2.

Final Rating: **½

Friday, October 2, 2009

Saw V (2008)

If there is one constant in the horror genre, it's that you can't keep a good villain down. Whether it be the classic creatures like Dracula and Frankenstein, or modern monsters like Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger, any horror villain worth his salt will be able to find his way back through as many sequels and remakes as Hollywood sees fit.

Perhaps the most recent example of this has been Jigsaw, the primary antagonist of the Saw franchise. Despite the first movie originally being intended for a direct-to-video release, its theatrical release was so successful that Lions Gate Films and Twisted Pictures started churning out sequels on an annual basis.

And even after Jigsaw's apparent demise in the climax of Saw III, the continuing popularity of the franchise shows that not even death can stop a truly committed horror villain. This is what leads us to Saw IV. The continuing saga of Jigsaw's bloody quest to challenge people and make them appreciate life's blessings, Saw V ultimately gives us more of what you'd expect out of the franchise. But whether or not that's a good thing is what we're here to discuss.

Detective Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) believed that he was the last man standing after the events of Saw IV, free to continue the series of deadly games started by the now deceased Jigsaw (Tobin Bell). But he soon learns that Peter Strahm (Scott Patterson), the FBI agent most dedicated to catching Jigsaw, survived the trap that Hoffman had set for him.

With Agent Strahm growing more suspicious of Hoffman's activities and becoming obsessed with stopping Jigsaw's legacy after the death of his partner, Hoffman must cover his tracks and tie up all the necessary loose ends to make sure nobody discovers that he is the successor to the Jigsaw mantle.

And while he tries evading Agent Strahm, Hoffman must still go about business as usual. A group of five people — spoiled rich kid Mallick (Greg Bryk), newspaper reporter Charles (Carlo Rota), fire marshal Ashley (Laura Gordon), city planner Luba (Meagan Good), and real estate agent Brit (Julie Benz) — awaken to find that they've been chosen to participate in Hoffman's first game as the new Jigsaw. All of them connected in some way to a fatal house fire, the five have been put in this situation to force them to go against their own self-serving nature and work together if they hope to survive the grueling series of tests they'll have to endure.

Over the years, the Saw franchise has become less about telling coherent, flowing narratives, and more about having a twist ending, using flashbacks to build upon the previous movies, and emphasizing the bigger, bolder, bloodier deathtraps. And there is some evidence of that in this, the fifth entry into the saga. The movie feels cramped, adding little details here and there to build upon the franchise's past while still attempting to move forward with its own stories.

And it feels weaker, too. There's not enough actual story here to really sustain a full movie, so by the end, everything is stretched out to the point that it concludes with a whimper instead of a bang. Saw V seems to exist only to bridge the gap between the previous movies and Saw VI. I respect it for trying to fill in plot holes, answer old questions while setting up new ones for the future, and actually trying to tell a focused story along the way. But it ultimately gives the impression of being an explanation for the past instead of a full-fledged movie in its own right.

At the helm is David Hackl, taking over the reigns from Darren Lynn Bousman. Hackl worked as the production designer on the second, third, and fourth Saw movies, and served as second unit director for Saw III and Saw IV. So Hackl is no stranger to the world of Jigsaw. This is first actual time working as the primary director of a movie, and I thought he did a solid job. While Hackl does little to distinguish himself from previous Saw directors Bousman and James Wan, he at least manages to do an adequate job of things. He keeps things rolling at a brisk pace, and tries his best to make sure the audience is never bored.

Up next is the screenplay, written by Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan. Having previously written Saw IV, this gives them the chance to follow up on some dangling plot threads while creating some new ones for future sequels. They also manage to once again balance three storylines: the cat-and-mouse game between Hoffman and Agent Strahm, the five victims in need of an exit, and a series of flashbacks that show Jigsaw training Hoffman to be his successor.

Melton and Dunstan have definitely stepped up their game here, as they seem to have improved upon the mistakes they made during Saw IV's writing process. The two primary stories are much more linear, making the movie easier to follow. It's kinda hard to get into a movie if you have a hard time keeping track of what's happening, so this helped a lot. And in regards to the flashbacks, taking these looks back really feels like it's building upon what the previous movies have all established. It might feel like it's pulling a retcon in some instances, but it never feels cheap.

But in spite of those positives, Melton and Dunstan haven't really written the most memorable movie they could have. There's not much that stands out beyond the traps. The storyline with the five victims running the gauntlet of traps is almost a repeat of Saw II, and ultimately ends up feels like it's just filling in the gaps in the running time that the other storylines couldn't take care of. The movie seems to put more emphasis on Agent Strahm's investigation, which itself seems seems contrived at times (though it does get progressively better).

The worst part, though, is the ending. Look at the poster at the top of this review, and you'll see that it carries the tagline, "You won't believe how it ends." And the tagline is right. I couldn't believe how it ended. As I said earlier in the review, Saw V concludes not with a bang, but with a whimper. It reaches the climax and just limps along to the credits. The Saw movies usually conclude with some kind of twist, but the ending of Saw V isn't that much of a twist. That is, if you can even call it one. I don't want to spoil it, but the ending is kind of a disappointment.

Last on my list is the acting, which is give or take. Jigsaw is the backbone of the franchise, and Tobin Bell once again puts forth a top-notch performance. He's consistently contributed some of the best acting in the Saw franchise, and this entry is no exception. Unfortunately, due to plot-related circumstances, the cast has to be led by Costas Mandylor and Scott Patterson. Mandylor is very good as a character that had spent the better part of the franchise being a shady part of the background. He may be unfairly compared to Bell or Shawnee Smith by some fans of the series, but Mandylor does a really good job, and I can't complain.

Patterson, though, seems like he's forcing it. He doesn't stray into "over the top" territory, but it feels as if he's trying too hard. That's kind of a shame, too. It doesn't help anything that he has to speak in a raspy voice due to his character suffering a throat injury early in the movie, and Patterson's use of the voice is inconsistent. It fades in and out, and it hurts his performance.

And of the five victims stuck in Jigsaw's series of traps, only two of them stand out. One of them is Julie Benz. She's good in pretty much everything she's in, and Saw V is no exception. The other is Carlo Rota, who I thought was fun in a sardonic kind of way. The other three are utterly forgettable, though, which is kinda sad, really.

The thing about Saw V is that it runs out of steam after a while. It's a solid enough movie, but by the end, it's nearly worn itself out. It quite frankly doesn't make the same kind of impression as the others did. While it does have some cool traps and builds towards Saw VI, it is an ultimately mediocre movie that is only slightly above average at its best.

And although I said the same thing about the previous movie, Saw V is the weakest entry in the series. It's still worth a watch if you go in with lowered expectations, but it's just... adequate, I guess is the word I'm looking for. Yeah, "adequate" works. So I'll give Saw V a "thumbs in the middle" with three stars, since it's a decent enough movie to earn that in spite of my complaints. And in the movie's defense, it did leave me anxious to see how Saw VI will follow up on it. That's a plus, right?

Final Rating: ***