"If it's Halloween, it must be Saw"...
Anyone else remember hearing that every year? I'm not ashamed to say I'm a huge Saw fan and I thought for this list I would take a look at the franchise and talk about the good and the bad.
Saw hit surprisingly strong in 2004 after it was developed from a short film made by Australian filmmakers Leigh Whannell and James Wan. Watch it below if you're curious...
The indie film financed by Lionsgate and Twisted Pictures went on to produce six more films and it became the most financially successful horror franchise in film history. But were they all good movies?
Even coming from a fan the simple answer is no, they weren't all good movies.
For this list we will reflect on all seven of the Saw films in terms of what went right and what went wrong and why they are where they are on the list. Oh yes, there will be spoilers.
Let's play a game!
07. Saw 3D: The Final Chapter (2010)
Let's face it... Saw 3D (aka, Saw VII) was the absolute worst. This was the fourth film of the franchise absent of both Whannell and Wan and the third without director Darren Lynn Bousman.
The studios brought in screenwriters Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton and they essentially took Saw fan fiction that had hit the internet way back in 2005-2006 and made that the ending of this mega franchise. They also felt the need to destroy longstanding character arcs for the sake of this ending and destroy the groundwork set by the previous films.
Saw 3D followed a Jigsaw survivor named Bobby Dagen (Sean Patrick Flanery) as he goes on his book tour accounting the events of his miraculous escape from the Jigsaw killer only to reveal later that he was a fraud and had faked his story to get famous. Strike #1
Not only do we have the Dagen scenario, but we are still following Detective Hoffman in his downward spiral of murder and throat stabs in his desire to kill Jill Tuck after she left him for dead in Saw VI. Strike #2
Strike # 3 is easy... Jill Tuck having the reverse bear trap placed on her. Not the re-visioned RBT, but the original that is iconic to the franchise as it was the device placed on Amanda (Shawnee Smith) and we never got to see it work. Other strikes included the horribly unnecessary 3D, the awkward pink hue of the blood, Chester Bennington's cameo, the bullshit role given to Gabby West as a prize for winning the VH1 series Scream Queens, Dr. Gordon's reveal, the film poster, and opening credits roll. There is literally nothing positive to say about this movie. Myself and just about every true Saw fan out there felt like we'd been slapped in the face.
06. Saw V (2008)
We can mark Saw V to plain irrelevance in the bigger scheme of things. It was the only film directed by former Saw production designer, David Hackl, and there is a reason for that. Saw V overall was fast-paced and offered no real relevance to the previous films or VI and VII, for that matter.
The fifth installment followed the "fatal five" group of victims trapped in a house maze and given the task to work together in order to survive. The plot was somewhat similar in principle to Saw II but not executed nearly as well. The characters bore no basic relevance to the plot other than a small arson tie into Obi from Saw II. It was just a bunch of random, annoying characters getting picked off one by one.
The subplot of Detective Hoffman finally being caught by Agent Peter Strahm was the only semi-interesting bit of material but even then it came down to the Hoffman "God complex" by allowing him to be everywhere at once and able to set everything up exactly how he wanted. Many people chalked it up to the whole mantra of John Kramer being able to predict people's actions through human nature, but I didn't buy it in this case because at this point in the timeline Hoffman was essentially working alone. It's not believable in any way. Not to mention the fact that Strahm's death was for nothing and Agent Erickson ate up the bread crumbs left by Hoffman to frame Strahm for the Jigsaw murders. I mean, really? Are you serious?
05. Saw IV (2007)
"I'm bleedin', maaaaaan."
Saw IV was when the franchise went way downhill. While it's not a complete loss it became apparent that those involved in this franchise for the first trilogy were just over it. This was the first Saw film to not be written by Leigh Whannell although it was still directed by Darren Lynn Bousman. However, Bousman has previously stated that he only directed Saw IV to get the financing from Lionsgate/Twisted Pictures for his rock opera, Repo! The Genetic Opera and that the film was rushed and wasn't as good as it could have been. We noticed.
This time both John Kramer and Amanda are dead and we find Detective Rigg in his own Jigsaw game as he is confronted for his need to constantly save everyone, regardless of the danger it puts him or his crew in. We see into Rigg's past as a patrol officer, but it was basically just his turn to have his own movie as we saw Detective Kerry, Detective Matthews, and Detectives Sing and Tapp all go by the wayside in the first trilogy (though Tapp does later resurface in the Saw video game).
We also find out that Detective Matthews has been alive since the end of Saw II, despite being presumed dead in Saw III, and it was the first time we see Detective Hoffman as the second direct accomplice to Jigsaw. This also introduced the new agent team of Peter Strahm and Lindsey Perez.
Saw IV probably gave us the most insight to John Kramer's past with the flashbacks of him married to Jill Tuck and expecting a son, Gideon. Jill tragically miscarries the child and the event kickstarts John's descent into becoming the Jigsaw killer, even prior to his cancer diagnosis. It also introduces what John actually did for a living, why he had all of these random buildings and warehouses at his disposal, and how he had such seemingly endless wealth.
04. Saw VI (2009)
Saw VI was definitely the best of the second trilogy and after lackluster attempts from Saw IV and V, it was a small but welcome gem in the pile of rocks. This time the director's chair was given to former Saw editor, Kevin Greutert, and although the script still had Melton and Dunstan responsible it did manage to be a decent story with some good characters.
Saw VI picked up literally right where Saw V left off. Agent Strahm is dead and Hoffman is on his way to leading a stress free secret life as the Jigsaw killer. So he thought! Little did he know, Strahm's partner Agent Perez didn't die in Saw IV after all and she begins to unravel the mystery of who the post-Kramer killer is and all signs were pointing to Hoffman. However, this was the epitome of Hoffman's mindless killing as he decides to kill Perez, Agent Erickson, and an innocent sound tech by setting them all on fire after he's revealed.
What made Saw VI so great was the game subplot of William Easton, an insurance agent linked to John Kramer. The flashbacks involving William included him dealing with John during his cancer treatments. He basically refuses coverage beyond the basic chemotherapy seeing that John's cancer was inoperable and terminal. William finds himself in a game involving his Umbrella Health colleagues and he is given the choices of who lives and dies based upon his life/death formula used for choosing coverage for patients. BUT PLOT TWIST... you basically find out William is a pawn for another game in the end. A woman and her teenage son are given William on a platter to decide if he deserves to die because he denied her husband's coverage after he was diagnosed with heart disease. It is easily one of the deeper and more political plots of the franchise, but it was also very well thought out. The game was near flawless.
Aside from all of that, we saw a long-awaited cameo from Amanda as she is introduced as a patient of Jill's drug rehab clinic as well as showing her pointing out the flaws in Hoffman's trap setup. She's also seen as the reason Jill and John's son Gideon was a stillborn as she coerced Cecil to rob the clinic for methadone. It also gave proof, in my opinion, that Amanda was not the one setting up the traps to be fatal regardless but that Hoffman was and then framed Amanda for it.
03. Saw III (2006)
It's difficult for me to actually pick a favorite between Saw III and Saw II, but for this I looked at which one is the most re-watchable for me and sadly that is Saw II. This was the last film of the franchise written by Leigh Whannell and was the second to be directed by Darren Lynn Bousman. It once again showcased Shawnee Smith as a main character, but this time it was in the full reveal of being a Jigsaw accomplice. An accomplice very loving and protective of her teacher. It also featured some of the more brutal traps out of all the films including a mock-crucifixion, ripping someone apart by their ribs, and freezing someone alive. I love Saw III and I truly think this is where the franchise should have ended.
Saw III brought us to John Kramer on his deathbed where Amanda was his primary caregiver and had been running his games for him. Brought in is a kidnapped brain surgeon, Lynn Denlon, who had previously seen John but was essentially no help to him. She is brought in to keep John alive by any means necessary until a game currently in motion is completed. To ensure she stays where she's supposed to she is outfitted with a shotgun collar that's wired to John's heart rate. If he dies she is blown to bits, so the stakes from the beginning were pretty high.
The secondary plot featured a man named Jeff who was put through a maze where he encountered people attached to the death of his 8-year old son. Jeff had been consumed by vengeance and his rage that it was destroying himself and his family. The goal of his game was forgiveness and whether he could save the people who he felt had wronged him and his late son. In the end Jeff succumbed to his rage, only saved one person out of four, and PLOT TWIST... Lynn was Jeff's wife. His rage and vengeance caused him to kill his wife because he couldn't find it in himself to not leave John without slicing his throat open with a power saw. Remember when I said if John dies, Lynn dies?
Even with these two games in place, Amanda was probably the most important character in this film. She was seen in flashbacks to Saw II regarding Detective Matthews and a rather brutal confrontation between them brings it all to light. After it's revealed in Saw II that she was framed for her drug charges that sent her to prison, she is the one who locks Matthews in the bathroom and leaves him for dead. After he escapes, she manages to trump him once more and it's assumed she kills him. However, him being alive in Saw IV kind of ruined that theory. Aside from that, we see her involvement traced all the way back to the events of the first film with her helping John set up the bathroom game between Adam and Dr. Gordon.
The true beauty of Saw III was the relationship built between John and Amanda. In the first two Saw films, Amanda credits John with saving her life and we find out that by saving her he also had recruited her. Shawnee Smith and Tobin Bell spent almost all of pre-production hanging out to make the relationship between their characters believable and meaningful. When you get the major reveal of John testing Amanda in the end, you can see that his heart was breaking and he did want her to succeed. It's probably the most heartbreaking moment of the franchise... especially as she reaches for him while gasping for her final breaths. You see what a damaged person she is and how much of a struggle her journey was.
02. Saw II (2005)
Like I said, this all came down to how re-watchable these are. Saw II was the direct sequel to Saw and was the second film co-written by Leigh Whannell. This served as Darren Lynn Bousman's debut to the franchise where he brought to life a group of 8 people locked in a house infiltrated with a deadly nerve gas. The goal for the group was to search the house for traps so they could obtain the antidotes by winning the games.
You have to remember that this being the second film meant there wasn't as much depth as the following films and the premise still was quite simple. The main thing that Saw II accomplished was something not many horror films do; it put us face to face with our villain for almost the entire duration. After receiving a tip, the police department along with Detectives Matthews, Kerry, and Rigg bust in on a location and find a feeble, middle-aged cancer patient. By confronting us head on we learn John's predicament and why exactly he places his subjects in the tests.
After learning one victim in the house is Detective Eric Matthews' son Daniel, John challenges Detective Matthews to sit out a time clock to find his son in a safe and secure state. This was a main test to continue to push Eric to the limit and test his patience as he has gotten in trouble due to his temper before. In the end, and after learning the victims in the house were all wrongfully imprisoned and framed by Eric, loses his cool and John willingly takes him to the location of the game where, PLOT TWIST, the game has already taken place hours before and the video feed played in John's lair was not live. As Eric searches through the house, John's soon to be revealed accomplice is waiting to trap him there.
The twist that Saw contained was not going to be beaten, but I thought even back in the day that Saw II did a decent job with delivering a lot of surprises. The main surprise being that Amanda was a Jigsaw accomplice and was placed in the house on purpose to ensure Daniel's safety. I didn't expect that one bit because they made it incredibly believable that she had just fallen off the wagon and had been captured by Jigsaw again. Supporting twists included the video feed not being live and Daniel being in a locked safe right next to his father the entire time.
As far as the traps go, this one also featured some of the most squeamish and brutal including Amanda being thrown into a pit of dirty hypodermic needles, an inescapable razor box, a venus fly trap mask full of nails, and the overall trap of being locked in a house full of nerve gas.
01. Saw (2004)
You can't beat the original.
Saw brought us to a small underground bathroom where an oncology surgeon, Dr. Lawrence Gordon, and a photographer named Adam were chained by the ankle to pipes. The plot seems simple at first as you are led to believe they are just victims of a sick game played by a serial killer named Jigsaw. WRONG! As the plot goes on, you learn how Dr. Gordon and Adam are connected as well as what they've been hiding from each other.
The subplot surrounding Jigsaw introduced us to Dr. Gordon's wife, Alison, and is daughter, Diana, as they are held captive by a hospital colleague named Zep. We're also introduced to Detectives Tapp and Sing as they are seen investigating the serial murders of the Jigsaw killer so far and eventually brings us directly to a confrontation with Jigsaw himself.
Back in the bathroom, Adam and Dr. Gordon begin to discover more clues and information about the overall game and each other. The plot doesn't take a major shift until a cell phone found in the wall rings when the clock runs out. The first of many twists comes when you find out that Zep had been mediating the bathroom game the entire time. The second big twist was finding out that Detective Tapp had gone crazy after Sing was killed and had been stalking Dr. Gordon convinced he was the Jigsaw killer. You don't learn until the end that the robed killer confronted in the warehouse by Tapp and Sing was a cancer patient named John Kramer.
The final climax of the film remains to be the most tense, stressful moment in the entire franchise. After thinking his wife and daughter have been killed, Dr. Gordon decides to free himself by sawing off his foot and then shoots Adam in the shoulder with the one bullet found in a previous clue. Once Zep enters the room, he is jumped and killed by Adam and Dr. Gordon leaves Adam chained in the bathroom alone while he goes to find help. Adam makes the horrifying discovery that Zep was yet another pawn in a bigger game and the game of mediating the bathroom was actually one to give him the antidote to an injected poison. THEN THE TWIST NO ONE SAW COMING! No pun intended...
This whole time there was a dead man on the floor in between Adam and Dr. Gordon. Well, the guy wasn't dead. As Zep's tape recorder finishes, you see the "dead" man stand up next to Adam and in Adam's horror, he is told the key to his shackle was in the bathtub. Little did Jigsaw know the key went down the drain along with all the water at the very beginning of the movie. This twist is easily one of the best in film history and no one knew it was coming. Anyone who says they guessed the guy on the floor was Jigsaw is lying. I remember seeing Saw in theaters and when John stands up off the floor there were some people who started screaming. To this day I can watch Saw and remember what it was like to see the twist unfold for the first time. I love watching it with people who have never seen it before so I can live the surprise vicariously through them.
The reason why the first film was never beaten isn't just the concept. It was the simplicity and beauty that James Wan brought to the actual picture along with the way the script was shaped by Whannell. The twists were there and were unpredictable and there wasn't a moment during the film where you felt bored or like you knew what was going to happen. There were moments in following films that I guessed almost exactly. The concept was new, fresh, and executed in a way that was never able to be fully recreated.