The Saw franchise movies offer a perfect example of the indie horror dream. Two young men straight out of film school have a dream and a story to tell, and despite all the odds stacked against them, they’re able to turn their shoe-string budget into a film that will go on to earn 103 million dollars at the box office and spawn eight sequels. Now, the franchise has become one of the most successful horror franchises of all time, and with a new movie set to release in October of this year, it seems like the perfect time to step back and look at all the series has to offer.
A Not-So-Noobish Journey
Not too long ago, a few of you may have read this article by our very own Malevolent Dave. While it was incredibly intriguing to see the series through the eyes of someone who had somehow managed to avoid it for so long, I have to admit that I did a fair amount of pearl-clutching as I made my way through the list. I’ve been a dedicated fan of the Saw series for quite some time, and I just couldn’t resist the opportunity to talk way too much about a series I adore.
Now it’s important to note that I’m not saying Dave’s opinions are wrong or bad, I’m just giving you the perspective of someone who has spent way more time thinking about the Saw franchise movies more than any normal person should.
9. Saw IV (2007)
The third film in the series to be directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, this is by far the worst the franchise ever gets. In the film’s commentary, Bousman stated that a large part of the reason he agreed to direct the film was to honor the memory of Gregg Hoffman, a dear friend and series producer who tragically passed away in 2005. While his intentions are incredibly endearing, there is a passion missing from this film which can be found in Bousman’s other contributions to the series.
Furthermore, the plot of the film is shaky at best. Not only does it do nothing of interest with Rigg, one of the most interesting yet under-utilized characters from Saw II (2005) and III (2006), it also ties off the Eric Matthews storyline in a way that feels unsatisfying, and at times, straight-up confusing. Don’t get me wrong, seeing Matthews get smashed to bits two blocks of ice is easily the best part of the film, but the catalyst for it leaves something to be desired.
The film wants us to believe that Jigsaw would actually want to punish Rigg for…doing his job and looking for his teammates? With the reveal that Matthews is alive and in need of rescuing, it makes a lot of Rigg’s traps and lessons feel largely pointless. Speaking of ‘largely pointless’, the twist that Saw IV is taking place at the same time as Saw III doesn’t really accomplish anything other than giving us a disappointing explanation for what happened to that film’s main character, Jeff Denlon.
To give credit where it’s due, I am a big fan of most of the traps found within the film. From the See No Evil, Speak No Evil trap to The Ties that Bind trap, this movie successfully creates compelling and gut-wrenching traps without falling prey to the over-the-top almost sci-fi traps that some later films featured. While I might not like the justification behind Matthews’ death, seeing him get smashed by two ice blocks is easily the best part of the movie, and has become an iconic scene in the series.
Additionally, the autopsy scene that opens and closes the film is jaw-droppingly incredible. The special effects featured throughout the scene are some of the most refined in the franchise, and if nothing else you should watch the film just for those scenes.
8. Jigsaw (2017)
I feel the need to preface this entry by saying I really do like this movie, and it has a special place in my heart for being the first Saw movie I was old enough to see in theaters. The film did very well when it came to bringing the series out of a 7 year remission, but there are quite a few things it just didn’t quite get right.
Starting out with what it did well, the ending scene of this film is absolutely fantastic, and it gives the audience just enough time to figure out the twist on their own before everything is spelled out for them. Additionally Logan Nelson is a terrific addition to the series and could be one of John Kramer’s most interesting apprentices if he’s ever brought back in a sequel.
Enough being nice, let’s talk about inconsistencies. Unbeknownst to the audience, part of the movie is happening about a decade earlier than the rest of the film. Not only this, but supposedly we’re watching a game that took place before all of the others. While this is a cool concept, I think the Spierig Brothers fail to sell this twist. If this game is supposedly taking place either before or during 2004, why are the TVs in the traps way nicer than anything we saw John using during that time period?
Additionally, and this is my biggest gripe with the movie, I’m expected to believe that John built a towering spiral death machine before he even built the reverse bear trap? He went straight from Cecil’s faulty knife-face chair to one of the most intricate traps the series has ever featured?
I’m willing to put logic aside pretty often when it comes to the Saw franchise, but this just felt like it completely disregarded a lot of the information the series had established up to this point. Additionally, the film gives John just a bit too much omnipotence. While certainly not the first film in the series to do this, there are some pre-recorded messages from John in this movie that call into question whether or not he’s an actual psychic. For a great example of this, just go watch that Silo trap again.
7. Saw V (2008)
I heavily debated whether or not this would end up lower than Jigsaw, and it only barely managed to squeak by.
As many fans of the series will tell you, this film doesn’t do much of note. Having just been revealed as an apprentice to Jigsaw, Hoffman spends his time playing a cat and mouse game with Special Agent Peter Strahm which ultimately ends with Strahm being crushed to death between two moving walls. While his plot line with Hoffman wasn’t too interesting, his death is pretty brutal, and director David Hackl doesn’t hold back from showing you all of the fantastically gruesome details.
What makes this film just marginally better than Jigsaw for me is the B plot revolving around five people who find themselves in a series of traps where they must work together to survive while determining how they’re all connected. I’m sorry, did I say they work together? I meant they immediately start killing each other.
While it’s not the most creative plot the series has ever done, it’s incredibly satisfying to watch these selfish and greedy characters pick each other off one by one only to realize that they all could have survived through the power of friendship. In Dave’s article he wrote that Saw V felt like filler, and I think that’s the most accurate description this movie could ever get. As long as you go into the movie expecting filler and nothing more, I think you’ll find that it’s actually quite enjoyable.
6. Spiral: From the Book of Saw (2021)
When I first heard that a new Saw film was coming out starring Chris Rock I thought I was being pranked. When I heard that Darren Lynn Bousman was back in the director’s chair, I got incredibly excited. Overall, Spiral is a new direction for the series. Where other entries focused heavily on the traps and showed brief clips of an investigation happening around them, Spiral venters itself around the investigation and mystery of the traps, rather than the traps themselves.
Detective Zeke Banks, played by Chris Rock, is one of the most animated and enthralling main characters the series has ever had, and it’s easy to root for his character. The film also features my favorite opening in the entire franchise, with a simple, small-scale trap that leaves you on the edge of your seat with anxiety and disgust.
For all the film’s achievements, there definitely are still some misses. For one, the twist is incredibly predictable, and anyone who is half paying attention to the film will be able to see it coming a mile away. A predictable twist isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it does put a damper on what would otherwise be a pretty show-stopping ending.
The film also features some questionable writing. I won’t lie, I audibly laughed out loud when Zeke said this new killer couldn’t be Jigsaw because “Jigsaw doesn’t target cops”. Not only do two Saw movies fully revolve around Jigsaw targeting a cop (II & IV), but those two movies were both directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, so I’m thoroughly surprised this line made it into the movie.
There are plenty of other small nitpicks to make about the film, but I genuinely believe that Spiral is a solid addition to the series that appeals to both long-term fans and those who have never seen any of the other films.
5. Saw 3D: The Final Chapter (2010)
This is probably a hot-take, even with those who love the series, but I thoroughly love Saw 3D. The film opens with the return of Dr. Lawrence Gordon, last seen crawling his way out of a certain disgusting bathroom in Saw after cutting his foot off. This was a fantastic reveal when the film first released, as many fans had been theorizing that Dr. Gordon was a secret Jigsaw apprentice since as early as Saw II.
The fan service doesn’t stop with this reveal, as soon after we’re introduced to a therapy group for Jigsaw survivors which is made up of familiar faces from some of the franchise’s best traps. The film also features an intricate trap starring Chester Bennington, the late and great lead singer of Linkin Park, something that fans were incredibly excited for when the film was released. The biggest piece of fan service in the film however, is finally being able to see the original reverse bear trap go off in all of its gory glory.
The main plot of the film revolves around Bobby Dagon, a man who pretends to be a trap survivor, being punished by Jigsaw for his lies. The traps laid out for Bobby and his cohorts are some of my favorites in the franchise, with the “silence” based trap being particularly gruesome despite not being overtly bloody. While this plot doesn’t tie in heavily to the other films in the series, it is very satisfying to see someone punished for exploiting the trauma of others.
Running in tandem to this plot is Detective Hoffman trying to make his last stand and get revenge against Jill Tuck. There’s no denying that at this point in the series, Hoffman has worn out his welcome, and the entire audience is pulling for him to get his comeuppance.
That’s what makes the ending of this movie so utterly fantastic. Not only does Hoffman finally get what’s coming to him, but this chapter of the franchise ends exactly where it began, with someone being chained up in that grimy bathroom while the door to their freedom is closed forever. To me this was the best possible ending for the original movies in the series to get, as it really does tie everything together in a satisfying fashion.
4. Saw VI (2009)
Any person who has had to deal with their insurance probably enjoyed Saw VI a bit more than they’re willing to admit. The first film in the series directed by Kevin Greutert (the series editor and the director of the upcoming Saw X), this movie sees Jigsaw going up against his most powerful and evil enemy: the American healthcare industry. Jokes aside, this level of social commentary is a breath of fresh air for the series, and actually gives the traps throughout the film more of a purpose than they’ve ever had.
As William Easton makes his way through the different traps, we see him go through some fantastic character development that ends with him seeing the errors of his ways, however Saw isn’t the kind of series to give a character a happy ending. Despite passing his test and becoming a better person, William still faces the consequences of his predatory policies, and he is subjected to one of the most gruesome deaths in the franchise’s history.
The cinematography featured in Saw VI comes across as far more composed and deliberate than the two films that came before. Especially in regard to the carousel trap, there is a strange beauty in some of the traps that felt noticeably lacking in Saw VI & V. The cinematography is enhanced by the film’s music, and I urge you to rewatch the film and pay attention to the poignant musical notes that accompany William’s movements through the traps.
The writing for this entry in the series is especially strong, and the monologue delivered by Josh before he dies on the carousel is fantastic, and delivers some of the most realistic dialogue in the series. Overall this film is a great watch and was a surprising increase in quality from the previous two films.
3. Saw II (2005)
If Saw (2004) is a slow and methodical mystery that unravels its plot carefully and purposefully, then Saw II is like a Nine Inch Nails music video. From the second the film starts it’s full of non-stop action, tension, and carnage. Where Saw waits until the final seconds of the film to reveal John Kramer’s identity, Saw II has the characters sitting down with him in the first ten minutes of the film.
This was a fantastic decision by director Darren Lynn Bousman, as it keeps the audience on the edge of their seats while also giving John Kramer enough screen time to truly flesh him out as a character. Tobin Bell, the man behind John Kramer, brings to life a multi-dimensional villain who many fans find themselves liking more than the series’ main protagonists.
This film also features a return for Amanda Young, the survivor of the original reverse bear trap. She’s revealed to be the series’ first Jigsaw apprentice, and the audience gets to see how surviving one of Jigsaw’s traps affects a person’s mind.
One of Saw II’s greatest strengths is its traps. The traps in this film are some of the strongest in the entire series, with iconic traps like the syringe pit still making people turn away from their screens in disgust. This film does a great job of upping the ante established by Saw without feeling like it’s treading the same water. The house full of victims is always tense and full of violence, wonderfully balancing out the slower and more methodical conversations between John and Detective Matthews.
As the mystery of the house is revealed, the audience is forced into a state of sheer panic as the threat against Eric’s son Daniel continues to rise. Every character in the house is memorable and enjoyable despite their shady backgrounds, making it all the more satisfying when some of them bite the bullet. As a first time director, Darren Lynn Bousman managed to establish both his talent and his style, securing him a successful career in the horror genre.
2. Saw III (2006)
Despite ranking it at number two, I have to admit that this is my personal favorite of the entire series. The film is bold, spanning a huge timeline and covering plenty of backstory for John, Amanda, and the many characters who find themselves within the film’s traps. The film sets itself apart from its predecessors by having one character go through several traps, something that would soon become a series staple, and by having the character hurt himself in order to save others, as opposed to himself.
While the series motto up to this point had been “How much blood will you shed stay alive?”, Saw III asks “How much blood will you shed to save others?”
More so than any other film in the series, Saw III’s cinematography is incredibly deliberate and at times outright gorgeous. Bousman seems to pride himself on his in-camera transitions, and the many in Saw III give the film a great sense of momentum and cohesion. The film’s traps are also incredibly visually striking, with the freezer room trap, pig vat trap, and the iconic Rack all standing out in terms of design and brutality.
One of the things the Saw franchise has always done well is writing interesting and complex female characters, something that can’t be said for a lot of horror movies, especially those in the “torture porn” genre. Saw III does wonders for Amanda’s character, exploring the depths of her psyche, her relationship with John, and the struggles she’s gone through since her very first trap. It doesn’t hold back on making her cold and vengeful, and her rage and sorrow in her final confrontation with John is stunning.
Shawnee Smith is supposedly making a return as Amanda in Saw X, and it will be exciting to see what else she can bring to one of the series’ best characters.
1. Saw (2004)
I don’t think anyone is surprised that this ended up placing at number one. From the methodical storytelling to the gut-wrenching performances, Saw is one of the most iconic films in the genre, and it deserves all of the praise it gets.
If there’s one thing Dave and I can agree with when it comes to this film, it’s that Saw is not “torture porn”. Even in the scenes where the film is at its goriest, much of the gore and suffering is implied rather than shown. This is simply because the film didn’t have the budget to put everything on display like its sequels, but honestly this works to the film’s benefit. The film lets the audience’s minds fill in all of the terrible blanks, leaving people terrified of what they aren’t seeing, as opposed to what they aren’t seeing.
The ending of Saw is one of the all time greats, leaving many audience members with their jaws on the floor. The build up to the reveal is fantastic, and the film gives you just enough hints to figure out what’s going on before everything is revealed in a chaotic collage of clips, all backed by the amazing “Hello Zepp” theme, composed by Charlie Clouser. This ending is what really established Saw as one of the most iconic and well-known horror films ever made.
It’s no surprise that the film was able to spawn nine sequels with a tenth on the way, and I for one am excited to see what else the series has in store.