Well, it may just be the coolest "part 5" of a horror series I've ever seen, but surely that's not all that big a compliment. To say a horror flick is better than Friday the 13th Part 5: A New Beginning or Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers is sort of like saying a girl is "less ugly" than the other girls. And a comment like that will get you smacked. But for all its familiar components and story-telling stretch marks, the simple fact is that the guys who bang these movies out every year ... actually seem to TRY. At this point the Saw series is a guaranteed moneymaker every October, so it'd be pretty easy for the latest sequels to arrive as lame-duck retreads and nothing more. But while Saw 5 certainly does rely on its well-proven assets, the attentive horror fan may notice a series that's still shooting for creepiness, creativity, and even a little cleverness here and there. If you just want a "boo, icky" sort of horror flick, Saw 5 will do the job for 89 minutes, but the fun of the flick lies in its stripped-down "cat and mouse" structure and in a series of fan-friendly flashbacks that (once again) change the rules on us...
The latest chapter of the gorehound's favorite cinematic soap opera begins right where Saw 4 left off: Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) is the newly-discovered Jigsaw disciple, and the only guy who actually suspects it is an FBI agent (Scott Patterson) who (grossly but smartly) manages to escape from one of the infamous traps. From there we're off on a grisly little chase in which the killer KNOWS the fed is after him, and the fed KNOWS Hoffman is a lunatic, but can't actually prove it just yet. This basic-but-compelling enough tale of cop and killer is frequently interrupted by A) a nifty series of flashbacks in which several of the previous Saw films are revisited, and B) a group of five strangers who (all together now) have to work together if they want to survive a bunch of horrifically nasty booby traps. As is always the case in this series, the plot threads slowly come together and culminate in a finale that's as grim and gross as it is over-stuffed with much-needed exposition regarding who killed whom and why and such. Honest, the series DOES make a decent amount of sense, provided you're enough of a horror fan to pay attention through all five films (and let's hear it for the rare sequel that actually requires you to be familiar with the earlier films) -- but yeah, there are only so many alternate flashbacks and massive explanations that a horror freak can take.
And yet ... it's pretty obvious that first-time director David Hackl (taking over from Darren Bousman) and screenwriters Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan are doing all they can to contradict the "churn 'em out" criticisms. So while it's true that you have to work FAST to get a new sequel into theaters every darn October, I still don't get the feeling that the producers are cynical about this series. That the actual attempt to make something a bit better than a generic horror sequel is present, and that sort of intent makes a lot of difference to me. It doesn't make the flaws in Saw 5 invisible (the "revisionist flashbacks," for example, are starting to feel like a cheat), but the Saw series is starting to feel a lot like that LOST show that everyone loves talking about: You can't END the series, because who wants to kill a golden goose, and so you have to actively AVOID ending the story, which means your writers are required to do a lot of creative wheel-spinning. This might explain why each Saw movie poses a few more questions than it gives answers for, and also why each movie -- although each filled with their own unique components -- starts to blur into the other one. You don't want to tell the same damn story each time, but you also don't want to devaite too far from the proven formula. It's a difficult balance, but take it from a guy who's seen pretty much every "part 5" ever to hit the horror shelf: Saw 5 is quite a bit better than it has any reason to be. It covers the basics with style and squirms, and it gives the fans just enough new stuff to keep them buzzing until Saw 6.
In other words: It's just another October for one of horrordom's most unexpectedly consistent horror franchises.