Loved by many, the Saw franchise burst onto the scene in 2004. Directed by James Wan, and Leigh Whannelli, the Saw films resonate with a fanbase that faithfully followed the story for a horror eternity of 8 sequels. The first 7 installments became a annual affair and a Halloween tradition. No money making franchise goes wasted! While Saw was not Wan’s directorial debut, it clearly put him on the horror map. James Wan would eventually distance himself from the franchise by pulling together some of extremely compelling supernatural stories together like The Conjuring (2013).
A noob’s journey through the Saw franchise
A noob’s journey through the Saw franchise explores the world of Saw from the perspective of a newcomer on a Hammertime binge watching session. Truth be told, originally the franchise didn’t rouse this over-opinioned horror blogger. I watched the first Saw (2004) film around the time of its release. I found it to be quite enjoyable, but once the annual sequels began, I had a funny feeling that the corporate horror party train had just left the station. Wearing tight jeans, eating wheat-grass and waxing my handlebar mustache, I noped out of the franchise and never watch a single sequel.
However, as my relationships continue to grow in the horror community, I noticed a certain amount of reverence for the series. As any good horror blogger should and would do, I felt compelled to understand what it’s all about. With that, I am going to power watch the entire series and offer my unfiltered opinion by ranking all of John Kramer’s work. Along the way, I might offer some unsolicited opinions on the whole ‘Torture Porn‘ thing that seems to get thrown around when talking about this series. That being said, let’s play a game!
DISCLAIMER: I will be writing this on the fly as the movies roll. For those that have not seen the series, coherence might be in short-supply.
9. Saw: The Final Chapter (2010)
This one begins with alarm bells already ringing. Lionsgate released it in theaters in 3D. 3D films usually amount to a pile of rubbish because the cinematography has to almost take on an unnatural shot angle to make the effect work. Furthermore, in a film like Saw: The Final Chapter it equates to a significant increase to the gore quotient because the easiest way to go 3D involves throwing guts at the camera.
Director Kevin Greutert wastes no time getting to the guts. The film opens with with two men fighting with rip saws for the honor of a women just seconds before switching into a “bros before hos” agreement as they learn of the love triangle that she had locked them in. Having survived the reverse bear-trap in Saw VI, barely, Detective Hoffman resumes his work to complete the vision of John Kramer.
This one sank pretty rapidly down the the list of Saw films due to several factors. First off, Detective Hoffman started wearing thin two sequels ago. His character couldn’t be less interesting. Second, after the socially relevant plot of Saw VI, this film builds its foundation on John Kramer’s pride. Upset that a man named Bobby lies publicly about being victimized by Jigsaw for fame and fortune, John wants to teach him a lesson.
The retribution faced by Bobby seems pretty severe considering his transgressions. Again, it feels petty for a man that claims the moral high-ground like John Kramer. Due to the thin and uninteresting plot, it very quickly starts to grind the most uninteresting characters up in the worst and most gratuitous ways.
The fact that the series went hardcore into gore doesn’t offend. In fact, considering the films subject matter, to this point the gore really seemed rather tame. However, people love to see it, and in this case it makes up for a lame plot. To date, Saw: The Final Chapter comes the closest to the realm of “torture porn” in the series.
The biggest weakness of the film comes from the lack of cohesion with the previous films. In this ranking, I have often referenced how impressive the tight interwoven narrative felt. This felt a bit more disjointed as if it had been an after thought. While I understand the inclination to keep the cash cow alive, it might have been better to have let Detective Hoffman get his visage split by the reverse bear-trap.
Even though it felt like a bit of an aside, we’ll offer a hearty golf clap for the return of Cary Elwes as Doctor Gordon and the conclusive demise of Detective Hoffman.
8. Saw V (2008)
Having just come off a minor positive from the previous film, Saw V forges a low point for the series. This mostly comes from the big reveal that Detective Mark Hoffman (Costa Mandalor) now carries the torch for the deceased John Kramer. Once again, the producers do a fantastic job creating continuity with the previous films, but the mass of the story begins to weigh on the film like a rusty anchor. Directed this time by David Hackl, Saw V adds convolutions to the story without meaningfully adding to the mythology.
Detective Mark Hoffman’s wet mop of a personality brings very little to the table. Being entirely honest, Costa Manadlor is no Shawnee Smith and I question the decision to put her down for the dirt nap so early in the series. Saw V feels like October filler. It’s the candy corn of Saw films. Despite the downsides, fans of Kramer’s deadly implements and the gratuitous gore may enjoy the test as it pits some nasty characters against their own self-interests. Saw V Isn’t horrible, it’s just meh.
7. Saw III (2006)
Up until this point, the series maintains a pretty tight continuity. The fact that the producers and Director Darren Lynn Bousman take the time to interleave all three films together shows a commitment to build something greater than the sum its parts. They also do a great job keeping the key cast members together. Unfortunately, the series begins to suffer from a deficit of new ideas. For the most part, Saw III feels like a replay of its predecessor.
As far as machinations of death, John Kramer does unveil one of his worst and most disturbing contraptions. Described as his favorite, and named The Rack, Kramer really out does himself. Also, Saw III does win the prize for the most revolting scenes in the series so far a judge is forced to wallow in a putrid stew of rotten hog innards. Despite all if innovation among his implements of death, Jigsaw fails to add anything meaningful to the series… other than his own death. Jigsaw is dead. It’s got to be over, right?
6. Saw II (2005)
As stated before, it didn’t a rocket scientist to clue me in that the corporate horror franchise engine had already fired up. Released nary a year later and not having James Wan’s name attached in a meaningful fashion, the situation became obvious. The producers only had one choice: create more traps, waste more people and spill more gore. This is exactly what they did.
Saw II, creates an even more elaborate death game called a test. This time, John Kramer presumably locks a gaggle of former inmates in a house of horrors that slowly emits nerve gas. John intends to test their ability to work together to survive. This test involves an outlier, a young man named Matthew (Erik Knudsen), is the son of Detective Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg). At one point or another, Detective Matthews sent all of these “contestants” to jail. I can’t really go too much farther into the plot, but I assure you that it involves some wacky hijix.
One of the bigger problems with this film concerns the mistake of giving up too much too fast. First of all, they did pretty deep into the John Kramer origin story. It seems that for a franchise destined for 9 episodes, they could have released this information a bit slower. The other bit that goes too far too fast is the revelation that former victim, Amanda (Shawnee Smith) now colludes with John to catch and fry the fish.
Still, in the grand compendium of Saw franchise films, Saw 2 stands as one of the better ones.
5. Saw IV (2007)
At this point, my brain has been bludgeoned into a state of malaise. After witnessing the steady decline, sequel after sequel, something dawned on me. Darren Lynn Bousman’s creation isn’t torture porn, it’s plot porn. Clearly, with each iteration the writers not only take the plot to ridiculous new heights, but they faithfully tie in the previous installments, no matter how absurd. It strains credibility, but somehow the installments continue to intrigue audiences.
To succeed in bloating the plot to epic proportions, writer Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan needed to expand the Saw universe. They do this by showing John Kramers influence on people and his ability to get them to do his bidding, even after his death. They expand on John’s story to show his very first foray into “games”. These techniques prove to be just enough to connective tissue to glue it all together.
Overall, the cinematography seemed seemed to trail the previous two films, and character performances began to flatline. To the producers credit, they added some pretty cool techniques to facilitate action transitions from scene to scene. Ultimately, Jigsaw completes his lifelong goal of breaking up the New Kids on the Block by brutally killing Donnie Wahlberg. So it’s over… right?
4. Spiral: From the Book of Saw (2021)
I really wanted to like this one better than I did, but Spiral (2021) fails to clear the bar of excellence on several fronts. Within minutes, Detective Zeke Banks (Chris Rock) reaches out and grabs the viewer’s attention, but then quickly recedes into mediocrity. The same could be said for Samuel Jackson who plays Zeke’s father.
This time, writers Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger reinvent what they already laid out in Jigsaw. To be honest, I rather enjoyed the possibilities because I felt that the character of Logan Nelson (Matt Passmore) transcended that of Detective Hoffman from the early films. To do that, they introduce yet another killer. Albeit, this time they introduce a legitimate copy-cat rather than another direct apprentice of John Kramer.
It was nice to see a return to the more individualized traps as opposed to the massive multi-character tests. The games were brutal and nasty, but also not very compelling. I enjoyed getting a break from Billy, the silly puppet that repeatedly stands in for Kramer.
Despite the bumbling plot and uneven pacing, the film does demonstrate some of the best cinematography of the series. The universe felt much larger and the photography looks much more dynamic than much of the Saw catalog. Again, the franchise addresses a social ill by tackling police corruption, although less effectively than Saw VI did with healthcare.
It’s not so much that Spiral is a bad movie, but it fails to tread significantly new ground and overall feels like a bit of a money grab with little opportunity to carry the series into the future.
3. Jigsaw (2017)
For most of the series thus far, the cinematography and general visual quality seemed to recede with every episode. The photography increasingly seemed to get flatter as the character performances increasingly became duller. Seven years after the last installment, Lionsgate greenlighted a sequel to be directed by The Spiereg Brothers. The brothers inject a bit of life into a series that had been suffering from its own pre-ordained success and fatigue from the tight Halloween timelines.
Just to say it out loud, writers Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger cheat a bit with this one to make it all work. Famous for complex plotlines and time jumps, the Saw series does a pretty good job of obfuscating its next obnoxious twist. In this film, two timelines a decade apart play out in parallel. However, from the audiences perspective, it appears to be a single linear film. This allows them to “resurrect” John Kramer. The plot leads to John’s real first apprentice (at least until we need another reboot).
For the most part, Jigsaw completely lacks originality and fails to break any new ground for the series. To be frank, I doubt they even tried. It does however offer some decent acting, better visuals and some clever traps. Make no mistake, Jigsaw revels in gore; however, it seems that it does so with bit more of an artistic flair. Yeah, it’s a pretty deceiving plotline, but if the series needed a reboot, it worked well enough. Unfortunately Lionsgate eventually abandoned the reboot and the series for another four years.
I would like to add that this one does have one of my favorite Saw deaths of all time. For lack of a better name, I’ll call it the “sunflower”.
2. Saw VI (2009)
To have made through six iterations of this franchise, two things stand out. First, I am just beginning to understand the allure of this series. They are actually pretty fun. I am starting to feel like a boob for avoiding them so long. The second, barring the fact that the enigma of a plot strains one’s rationality, these films were designed intentionally for the explicit purpose of telling a huge conspiratorial tale. Lionsgate created a universe, and that universe refreshingly follows rules.
Once again, the ability to bring all of the key players to the table, sequel after sequel is quite astounding. Not being close to the production of the film, I suspect that required multi film deals for many of them.
Saw VI ranks this high for one reason: social commentary. While Jigsaw designed all of his tests to change the worst people in society for the better, only this time does he take on an entire industry, healthcare. Not only does he take on an industry, but he takes on an industry that sits top-of-mind for millions of Americans. The ultimate demise of the film’s villain, William Easton (Peter Outerbridge), satisfies more than any Saw trap to date.
As an interesting aside, Saw V somewhat changed the social dynamic of John Kramer. For the most part, he watches and acts as a third party on the dregs of society. In two consecutive movies, he demonstrates that he’s not above petty revenge. While it could be said that taking action on the murderer of his child, and the man that denied him healthcare, fall squarely into John’s manifesto, this episode shows that Jigsaw morals may not be as pure as he believes them to be.
He also shows this with is ridiculous claim of never having killed someone. Let’s be clear, Kramer has murdered people and the “carousel of doom” makes for a perfect example. Shame on you John. Without ethics, a man is nothing.
1. Saw (2004)
Had James Wan never unleashed this beauty on the world, I’d have nothing to talk about here. As they often do, the opening salvo in this horror phenomenon tops the charts with respect to originality, execution and overall quality. Starting at the top: Cary Elwes, Shawnee Smith, Danny Glover, Tobin Bell, Michael Emerson. James Wan assembled a fantastic list of top-shelf talent from the B-list cabinet. Considering the woefully constrained budget and setting, the performances made Saw the phenomenon it became.
Here is a point that I want to hammer home. Saw is not torture porn in the slightest. James Wan should be offended by the comparison. Considering films like SE7EN (1995) had already been released to high-regard… what exactly does Saw do so radically in the torture and gore department that it deserves a pejorative term assigned to it?
As mentioned before, the character make the story and the story falls in the same mold as a plethora of sadistic serial killer horror movies like SE7EN, Kiss the Girls (1997), The Bone Collector (1997), Silence of the Lambs (1991)… do I need to go on? Calling Saw any more or less than any of these films demonstrates a short-cut to thinking critically.
Bringing this one home, Saw is a really good movie but it didn’t exactly change the genre in any fashion. In fact, said and done, the plot felt deep enough to cover 103 minutes of run time but little more than that. Still, Saw entertained, threw a few curveballs and landed with a pretty impactful ending. GAME OVER!
The Final Test
The sky was dark, the weather cold and the journey arduous, yet I made out the other end of the Saw tunnel pleasantly surprised… if the term pleasant has any place when discussing this series. Truth be told, the series gets a bit long in the tooth and the weight of the plot feels like a lead blanket at times, I admire the effort that the producers put into the story. Quite frankly, the series proves quite conservative with the gore, although I would be fine with it had they spilled the cum bucket.
The series is unfairly described as a depraved descent into mindless violence. Calling Saw mindless requires a departure from the safe confines of critical thinking. John Kramer’s story arc seems rather simple at first, but movie after movie, character flaws and hypocrisies keep popping up. Kramer loves rules until they get in his way. He believes he’s some kind of benevolent force for change, but his actions increasingly move him towards the same missing pieces that he claims his his victims suffer from. His claims of never committing murder further exemplify his departure from reality.
Said and done, the Saw series deserves to be seen (especially if you are the editor of a large horror blog). So what’s next? Final Destination?