I Watched All Seven ‘Saw’ Movies In A Row And Don’t
I want to play a game.
I want to play a game.
The rules are simple. Before you sits a television, a Blu-Ray player, seven Saw movies and a timer set to 666 minutes: the total runtime of the Saw franchise.
Watch all seven movies before the timer runs out, and you’ll be prepared for the upcoming reboot of the franchise, Jigsaw. Fail, and you’ll be subject to the most gratuitous, elaborate torture devices our team of underpaid Hollywood screenwriters can come up with.
Somehow, the Saw phenomenon passed me by. As a fan of horror movies with the kind of addictive personality that’s led me to watch the most mediocre sequels out of a sense of obligation, I’m not sure how this happened. I saw the first film when it came out — who didn’t? — but never got around to its six sequels, assuming the law of diminishing returns would hold true.
But with the Spierig Brothers’ reboot of the franchise, Jigsaw, now hitting cinemas, I couldn’t resist the siren song of Saw any longer. I educated myself on the franchise with a good old-fashioned movie marathon.
Fair warning: it’s pretty much impossible to talk in any detail about the Saw franchise without revealing the movies’ many twists and turns. If you’ve seen the films before — or haven’t, but want to get up to speed on the intricacies of the tangled narrative — great, keep reading! If you’d prefer to watch the films yourself unspoiled, I’d tap out now.
Still with me? Alright.
Saw: The Good One
13 years later, the first film in the franchise still fucking bangs. There’s a reason that Aussie director/co-writer James Wan’s career was launched to stratospheric heights by Saw: it’s an incredibly well-crafted piece of genre cinema; a perfectly-oiled, fiendishly sharp steel trap of a thing.
Whether you’ve seen Saw or not, you’re probably aware of the premise: two men awaken in a grimy bathroom, each chained to the wall by their ankles. A corpse lies in a pool of blood between them. The subsequent storyline is woven through a fraught tapestry of interconnected flashbacks and revelations: a sadistic serial killer who imparts gruesome ‘life lessons’, a police investigation, and mostly just a fucktonne of twists and misdirection. The genius of Saw is how, even remembering all its surprises and recognising the limitations of its tiny budget, it remains legitimately gripping throughout.
Saw set the benchmark for the franchise with a straightforward formula: torture and twists. Its cultural imprint is definitely more the former: you think Saw films, you think intricate industrial torture chambers and a hefty helping of blood and gore. But the biggest twist re-watching the first film was how these horror (or ‘torture porn’, if you’re a fan of that horrendously overused and misused term) elements were overshadowed by all the twists.
Honestly, Saw’s more a hyperbolic example of ‘90s-era serial killer films (especially Se7en, natch) than it is horror. Wan and Leigh Whannell’s screenplay throws twist after twist after twist at you, all tied together with a villain defined by the sort of implausible psychology and unbelievable omniscience that even Hannibal Lecter would be jealous of.
John “Jigsaw” Kramer (Tobin Bell) barely appears here — the script is more interested in laying on layers of misdirection — but the moment that he does, rising up from the floor as the supposed corpse, is iconic. It’s perfect cinematic sleight of hand and it sets an impossibly high standard to live up to for the sequels that follow.
Saw II: The Obligatory Sequel
Every one of the Saw sequels follows the same formula, mentioned above: a torturous trap (often doubling as a kind of morality test) and twists. Though each film tends to spice up the recipe with a liberal sprinkling of backstory.
Trap: Eight people are trapped in a decrepit house, having been subjected to a slow-acting nerve agent. They have to solve a riddle to find the antidote, or they’ll be dead within two hours. Oh, and all but one of them used to be in jail. It’s all very Cube.
Twists: There are two big twists here! First up: One of the eight prisoners is the son of Jigsaw’s investigating officer Donnie Wahlberg. When lil’ Donnie finds Jigsaw, he frantically tries to find out the location of his son before he’s a) fatally poisoned or b) murdered by the prisoners when they realise he’s the son of the guy who put them in jail. But then — the twist! — we find out that Donnie’s son made it okay before they ever ran into Jigsaw. The intercut narrative threads weren’t actually occurring simultaneously (more cinematic sleight of hand) and Mark’s big brother ends up the new kid on the chopping block, trapped in the bathroom from the first film.
We also learn that Amanda (Shawnee Smith), Jigsaw’s sole surviving victim and one of the eight prisoners, is Jigsaw’s apprentice.
Verdict: The traps are sufficiently nasty, the twists are sufficiently clever, but I found Saw II a significant disappointment in comparison to the original (which, with another five films to go, isn’t encouraging).
Saw II could have been a good, or at least better-than-average film. The syringe pit that Amanda is thrown into is legitimately nightmarish, and when Bousman pulls the pin on the misleading chronology twist the film attains a sense of urgency it was lacking until then. Here’s my diagnosis: it needed a faster pace, an actual protagonist or — preferably — both.
The slow pace is a design flaw. For Donnie to ‘win’, he just needs to wait and, like, not beat Jigsaw up, then his son is released safe and sound at the end of the two hours. It’s clever, but it saps the film of any narrative intensity; we need our protagonists to be motivated to solve problems, not sit around twiddling their thumbs.
Saw cleverly split our sympathies between Leigh Whannell and Cary Elwes, testing our alleigances as we reconsider who might actually be the villain (until the twist, of course). Saw II doesn’t seem to have any idea who we’re supposed to sympathise with, who’s supposed to have the agency, who we’re supposed to actually invest in and care about. So it all becomes a kind of intellectual exercise.
The end result is that the real protagonist is the guy treating this all as a game: Jigsaw. But the films don’t seem to have worked that out. Yet.
Saw III: The One Where They Make Jigsaw Interesting… And Then Kill Him
Trap: Some guy whose kid was killed in a car accident finds the people ‘responsible’ for his son’s death (a witness, a judge, the driver) in death traps and is forced to either forgive them or watch them die horrible deaths. (You get one guess about what happens.) Also, a doctor is imprisoned by Jigsaw and forced to perform brain surgery on him.
Twists: The doctor and the guy turn out to be married. Yeah, not the most imaginative twist. The bigger twist is that the guy’s final test is whether or not to forgive Jigsaw; he doesn’t, and our iconic villain is murdered! (Or is he!?)
Verdict: Saw III, while a step down from the first film, is actually my favourite of the sequels. Am I just saying that because my expectations were lowered by coming right after Saw II? Or because at this point in the marathon I was pleasantly tipsy off a couple of beers? Maybe.
Unlike Saw II, Saw III understands that as a horror franchise matures, its villain naturally becomes the protagonist. The villain is the most prominent surviving character from earlier films and they have an agency that their victims are typically denied. Like it or not, we’re now invested in Jigsaw. We want to see his plans succeed, we want to see him evade capture, we want to see him survive (oops) because we want to watch more of these stupid movies.
There are problems with Saw III, sure. It luxuriates in its characters’ suffering in a way that arguably warrants the ‘torture porn’ badging. Because it’s planning to kill off its villain – a ballsy move that was, in hindsight, a mistake — there’s clumsy busywork setting up characters to carry the next few sequels too.
Like Saw II — which unapologetically equated ex-cons with ‘bad people’ — there’s some dubious politics here. Telling two people of colour in a row that “they had every possible advantage in life but chose not to advance” is problematic AF. But it still (mostly) works because it manages to make its over-complicated narrative consistently compelling.
Thing is, we’re not even halfway into the marathon here, folks, and it’s all downhill from here.
Saw IV: Oh No It’s Hoffman
Trap: Lieutenant Rigg (Lyriq Bent), introduced in Saw III, spends the film following a scavenger hunt … of doom.
Twists: Remember back in Saw II when they decided to reveal in the third act that everything we thought was happening now actually already happened? Well, that again. At the climax you learn that the events of Saw IV occur concurrently to the events of Saw III, with the remaining characters from this film busting in on the final scene of Saw III.
Also remember back in Saw II when they revealed a surprise accomplice for Jigsaw? Somewhat unsurprisingly – they have killed off John and Amanda at this point – they do the same thing here, unveiling Lt Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) as the ‘new’ Jigsaw. More on that later.
Verdict: You know that point in the middle of a binge-watch where the series or franchise just hits a slow patch and you’re okay with it because you’ve already spent hours in front of your TV and you’re happy to zone out a bit? That’s Saw IV.
I barely fucking remember this film. It is the most generic, mediocre example of a Saw sequel, featuring uninspired traps and terrible dialogue. It doubles down on the questionable politics of the last couple of films; the most egregious example is where a sex worker, imprisoned by Jigsaw in Rigg’s apartment, tries to murder him after he frees her from a trap. Why? Because he’s a police officer and he might arrest her afterwards. A really generous depiction of human nature, this film.
Saw IV only makes sense in the context of a binge-watch like this because it only really works as a transitional film, pivoting from Jigsaw and Amanda to our new antagonists/protagonists, Hoffman and, to a lesser extent, Jigsaw’s ex-wife Jill (played by ‘80s sex symbol Betsy Russell). And, sure, I get it: you want to make more films, you need new villains. But — and I can’t stress this enough — Hoffman is the fucking worst.
I mean, Hoffman’s barely in this film. Also his brief appearances are dreadful. Mandylor, an Aussie actor, can’t even manage to perform a convincing line-reading spouting police jargon. Exactly how much this poorly-written charisma vacuum drags down the series doesn’t become obvious until Saw V.
Saw V and VI: Good Traps, Terrible Plots
Traps: The traps from Saw V and VI are actually among the ‘best’ of the series. Both films move from generic ‘criminal’ victims to the rich and corrupt: in Saw V, real estate developers and journalists who cover up an arson scam that left eight dead; in Saw VI, an insurance VP who prioritises keeping coverage from his patients (including, of course, Mr John Kramer).
The traps are gory and crudely imaginative, but they also succeed as moral tests in a way that the series has strived for from the get-go, whether exploiting the selfishness of the victims or underlining the true consequences of denying insurance coverage.
Saw VI, in particular, is a savage take on the cruelty of America’s healthcare system. It’s not only the way it explicates how private insurers denying coverage to patients is essentially sentencing them to death. But think about it: there’s no better indictment of the country’s healthcare system than realising that John Kramer being able to afford to construct elaborate death traps but unable to afford to treat his cancer without insurance is actually entirely plausible.
Twists: In Saw V, Hoffman frames another detective as the new Jigsaw (in a bit of plotting that’s implausible even by the standards of this series). In Saw VI, Jigsaw’s ex-wife betrays Hoffman by trying (and failing) to kill him because apparently Jigsaw hated Hoffman all along. These aren’t earned twists; they’re barely even twists. They’re just things that happen.
Verdict: By this point in any horror franchise, it’s taken for granted that everyone — the actors, the writers, the director, the crew — have largely stopped caring. Your fourth sequel isn’t the result of artistic inspiration, it’s born of a straightforward recognition that these mid-budget films have huge profit margins.
That’s pretty clear in the fifth and sixth Saw films, each of which dutifully trot through devastatingly uninteresting detective stories that centre around the backstory of possibly the least interesting character even written: Lieutenant fucking Hoffman.
Hoffman’s personality is ‘looking grumpy and vaguely constipated’, his motivation has something to do his sister’s death but makes very little sense. Why couldn’t they have kept Amanda alive? Brought Cary Elwes back? Hell, I even would have been happy with Donnie Wahlberg.
Hoffman sucks because he’s barely even a character, especially when compared to Jigsaw himself. While the third film propped John Kramer up as this kind of twisted arbiter of justice, that’s a characterisation the films keep complicating with messy humanity. John advises Amanda to avoid getting personal, and yet so many of John’s victims are personally linked to him in some way: the doctor who diagnosed him, the cops chasing him (or the photographer working for them) or people otherwise intertwined with his life.
Jigsaw apparently wants to motivate his victims to ‘cherish their lives’ and yet he essentially commits suicide in the third film to prove a point. He’s messy and human and in that sense way more interesting than mute horror icons like Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers.
Hoffman, though? He tortures and kills people because the screenplay necessitates it.
Saw 3D: The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Film
Trap: A guy who’s become a talk show phenomenon as a Jigsaw survivor — but actually isn’t — watches his friends and loved ones tortured and killed because he dared to impugn the name of Jigsaw. Notably, this has literally nothing to do with anything else that happens in the movie, and ends on a note that’s ambiguous if you’re generous and utterly incomplete if you’re honest.
Twist: Cary Elwes’ Dr Gordon has been working for Jigsaw all along! It should be awesome to tie back in to the original film, but it’s kind of unsatisfying. Why? Probably because it’s the same twist we’ve seen three times now. It would’ve been better to make him a vigilante former-victim, to be honest, rather than yet another secret-henchman.
Verdict: From the right vantage point, pretty much all the Saw films are defensible, but this is just utter garbage. The opening scene — set in London for no apparent reason — is grossly misogynistic, and the film continues in that kind of exploitative torture-porn vein. The nadir of the series is certainly the gruesome murder of Chester Bennington’s character; it’s not even that it resonates poorly in the wake of Bennington’s death, but that’s it revels in gore and suffering in a way that’s legitimately stomach turning.
In short, Saw 3D is pointless. You could’ve ended the franchise with Hoffman’s death in the previous film; instead, he mopes around long enough to kill Jigsaw’s ex-wife before meeting his own grisly demise. The only reason for Saw 3D to exist is the 3D part, which is just kind of embarrassing.
While I can appreciate the sheer schlockiness of jagged sawn-off pipes piercing the fourth wall, the film doesn’t even have the dignity to be so-bad-it’s-good. Plus, the 3D necessitates a bright, soap-opera-esque colour scheme that’s horrendously ugly.
At least they finally killed Hoffman, who was somehow the villain for more of these things than John Kramer.
When the credits start rolling, it’s a relief.
Dave Crewe is a Brisbane-based teacher and freelance film critic who spends way too much of his time watching movies. Read his stuff at ccpopculture or pester him at @dacrewe.