Having only previously seen two of the Saw films, Saw and Saw III weirdly, and with Spiral: From The Book Of Saw now available to buy – now seemed like as good a time as any to finally sit down and watch the entire franchise. What surprised me most, was how interconnected they all are and how well this plays out. Of course, there is plenty of violence, but there is also plenty of morality at play and through Tobin Bell’s Jigsaw Killer a sense of a grandiose facade is brought to the films and their victims.
Now my boring introduction is out of the way, I will warn you that the below rankings do contain spoilers for each of the Saw films, both minor and major. So if you haven’t seen the films then please do so before reading. Live or die, make your choice.
Also, somewhat ironically, known as Saw: The Final Chapter, the seventh film in the franchise brings to an end Mark Hoffman’s reign as Jigsaw’s successor and reintroduces Dr. Lawrence Gordon – Cary Elwes’ doctor was last seen crawling out of the industrial bathroom at the end of Saw. Here, the good doctor is revealed to be yet another accomplice to Tobin Bell’s infamous killer. All the while, Bobby Dagen has found fame by selling a book which talks about his escape from one of Jigsaw’s traps – only he is lying and soon finds himself having to survive a real game for his sin of being a charlatan. The kills are largely vanilla, but the stand-outs are a brazen-bull capsule and an inventive scene where the late Chester Bennington finds himself glued to a car seat he must remove himself from, in order to save himself and his other supremacists. But other than that, there is little to stop this being the poorest film in the franchise.
It’s clear now that Saw IV was setting up a new trilogy of films. After killing off Jigsaw in Saw III, director Darren Lynn Bousman returns and sets up the series’ new antagonist in Detective Mark Hoffman. While Hoffman lacks the charm and nous of Jigsaw, he does make up for it in an ice cold approach, all being carried off on the handsome shoulders of Costas Mandylor. There is a lot going on here as Bousman attempts to link the next three films into the previous three, and the fact that Saw IV plays out concurrently with Saw III only makes things more convoluted – and this is where the films feel more like an ongoing TV series rather than a series of films that you should be able to enjoy on their own. Some of the kills also beg various questions, and step away from the moral plays that Jigsaw would put his victims through.
The first attempt at rebooting the series arrived with 2017’s Jigsaw, the film also gives us a look into John Kramer’s early outings before becoming the Jigsaw Killer. Again, the film only muddies the waters in terms of continuity and even for a soft reboot – it will likely still take an encyclopaedic knowledge of the previous films to really piece things together. However, the traps are fun and the series continues the trend set out in Saw II of a group of people running a gauntlet to see who will survive. There is another cat and mouse game between the police and the suspected killer, but the film does enough to swerve the audience without making the ending completely predictable.
The middle act of the second trilogy if you will, Saw V sees Agent Strahm (a Twinkie HQ favourite) tracking down Mark Hoffman as he attempts to prove he has taken on the Jigsaw mantle after John Kramer’s death. The cat and mouse game between the two ups the ante for the film, but it has to be said that despite the complications of Saw IV – Saw V serves mostly as a device to get to the superior Saw VI. There is still fun to be had though. An early game sets the tone, as Hoffman dispenses his own brand of justice with a pendulum device which will tear through its victim unless they pass their own test. This harks back to Saw III as Hoffman is intent on building traps that people cannot escape, and highlights the conflict between John Kramer and the ever sassy Amanda Young. By the end though, Hoffman has become the kind of villain you almost want to win – even if that does mean seeing off Agent Strahm in one the series’ most iconic traps, as the dogged FBI agent is crushed trash-compactor style and then framed as the new Jigsaw Killer.
A highlight of the franchise, and a natural end point when you look back on things. Saw III sees the death of John Kramer, we see his first (apparently) accomplice – Amanda Young – willing to take the reigns but unwilling to play by John’s rules, and an entirely sympathetic turn in Jeff Denlon – a man whose major sin is not forgiving those who had a hand in the drunk drive killing of his young son. The relationship between Amanda and John is at its best here, and even though it was perhaps a natural point to end things – it’s still a shame we didn’t get to see more of them together like this. It’s one of the best sequels, and the moment Jeff finds his son’s killer on a crucifix like device that will twist his limbs to inexplicable degrees is one of the films finest moments – not just cause it’s a great kill, but because Jeff finally forgives the man who killed his son, but cannot save him from a torturous demise.
Yes, you’re reading that right, the original Saw and the one that began it all is not the best in the series. Despite several iconic moments and an ending that will live forever in the minds of horror fans, there are several things that let it down. It’s hard though to criticise the film that started James Wan’s career, so perhaps we won’t go into that now and let’s instead focus on the good. Despite the films low budget, you can already see the skills Wan has as a director as he brings his unique style to the film. The twist ending is as good as any horror franchise before it, and arguably sits up there with the original Halloween when Dr. Loomis peers out the window only to find that Michael Myers has evaded him again, despite being shot several times. The traps are relatively tame compared to what comes later in the Saw films, but the idea of having to literally saw through your own foot to escape alive is as simple as it is brilliant. It’s genuinely scary, and the games on offer provide a real sense of what the fuck would you do if this actually ever happened? There’s a dark mystery at play as well, as the film feels like a spiritual cousin to David Fincher’s Seven, and as the game plays out you get the sense that you are watching horror history being made.
The sixth film in the series is one the most entertaining, and one of the most interesting. The story provides a sideways look at the American healthcare system, and paints big insurance companies as the real villains – as they ultimately decide who lives and who dies. Their biggest mistake was likely the fact that they denied John Kramer a revolutionary treatment that may have prevented him from dying, and in turn perhaps prevented his city-wide killing spree. It is William Easton’s slimy, but not quite corrupt, executive who must take part in the latest game carried out by Hoffman – but apparently set in motion before Jigsaw’s death. To see Easton play this game, he becomes on of the more sympathetic characters in the franchise. As he progresses, he goes from being a careless prick, and actually begins to put his body on the line as it is his staff who are also victims here – and he must decide which of them lives or dies. The toll it takes is clear, but the trick is that it wasn’t his game at all, and was that of Tara & Brent Abbott. The two are revealed to be the wife and son of another chracter seen earlier in the film who, like Kramer, was denied healthcare on the basis of a false insurance claim and ultimately died. It’s a hard watch by the end as Brent ends Easton’s life by pulling a lever which injects him with hydrofluoric acid. Another test also befalls Hoffman, who is now being hunted by the FBI as they suspect he is indeed the new Jigsaw Killer. The chase between them fuels the film further, and there is an ice-cold moment where Hoffman’s identity is revealed and he coolly dispatches the technician and two FBI agents who have found him out.
In true sequel fashion, Saw II ups the ante in every imaginable way. There are more victims, the set-pieces are bigger, the acting is better, we see more of Dina Meyer and Shawnee Smith and we get to explore more of John Kramer. Saw II works so well as a sequel, and it builds on what came in the first film before audiences had to become so deeply invested in the films to know what was going on. The scenes between Donnie Wahlberg’s old school detective and Kramer work really well, and emphasise a point that becomes apparent the longer the series lasts, that even though Kramer/Jigsaw is playing a truly terrible game – there is a chance to win if you pay clear attention to his words and the rules he puts into place. There are some marvellous traps in this film, but none are more memorable than poor Amanda being thrown into a pit of needles – which genuinely gave me chills the first time I watched it. Often, sequels don’t work because they are just by-the-numbers excuses to make money, and often go for the bigger is better approach. But, sometimes bigger is better, and the way Saw II links to Saw and the other films in the series is commendable. And with some series defining moments, Saw II remains the best film in the series to date.