Hello… I would like to rank some films
With October rolling in, my love and appreciation for horror awakens once more. It’s not my favourite genre but when it starts getting dark early and the leaves metamorphosise to a spectrum of oranges and red, I really can’t help but indulge in a little slasher or two.
To me, there’s no series dearer to me than the Saw franchise. Anyone with any sort of fondness for horror will have heard of at least one film in the franchise. While it’s often branded as simple ‘torture porn’, I like to think of the Saw franchise as the world’s greatest soap opera. You really have it all here. People narrowly avoiding death, secret accomplices, dirty cops, flashbacks within flashbacks, multiple deus ex machinas -all backdropped against a very real and valid criticism of the American healthcare system and a killer score done by the talented Charlie Clouser.
With the recent release of Saw X, the tenth film in the franchise, I thought it was about time to rank all 10 films. Because, unfortunately, not all Saw films are created equal (spoilers for every film ahead!).
10) Spiral: From the Book of Saw (2021)
Spiral feels… different. It’s not just it’s weird title or it’s hard pivot to a grimy detective story but atmospherically, it’s just not a Saw film. The traps are on brand with their gore, but they don’t fill the same narrative role as others in the series (this is due to most traps being shown as flashbacks so the suspense about the victim’s fate is lost). Introduced to us is yet another Jigsaw apprentice who’s never been alluded to before this film (it’s even more egregious this time as William is forgotten by even the most hardcore Saw fan). Without the scattered references to John Kramer and the Jigsaw killings, you’d forget entirely that this is the ninth Saw film. Personally, I consider Spiral to be another forgettable byproduct of the pandemic and a film I hopefully don’t have to watch again anytime soon.
9) Jigsaw (2017)
Jigsaw is Spiral’s less terrible but just as disappointing older brother. Jigsaw tries to do something new with the standard Saw plot (police procedural storyline juxtaposed alongside the trap B plotline) by messing with the viewer’s perception of time. I like it! What a great twist, to see that the game we have been watching occurred years ago in the past! Saw characters aren’t winning any awards in dimension or realism but the Jigsaw squad are especially forgettable. Again, Jigsaw introduces us to yet another super-secret and hidden Jigsaw apprentice, Logan, a medical examiner who’s been working with John Kramer since the beginning. Not only is this insulting to Saw fans, who have carefully managed to string together a somewhat tentative but cohesive plot line spanning the 10 films, but it highlights the franchise’s weakest point- its ability to introduce unknown characters as secret masterminds who have been working behind the scenes the whole time. Alongside it’s lacklustre and borderline idiotic traps (I’m looking at you, Grain Silo Trap), Jigsaw is yet another Saw film I will (hopefully) never rewatch.
8) Saw 3D (2010)
Saw 3D (or Saw: The Final Chapter depending on who you speak to) is the 7th film of the series and for a while, was the final instalment. Released during that… interesting period of the early 2010’s where every film needed a cheesy 3D element, Saw 3D is certainly a product of its time. The fake blood is neon red, the CGI is dated and it’s surprisingly sexual compared to the distinct asexuality of the rest of the series, with the opening Triangle trap (widely considered by fans to be the worst in the franchise) and Hoffman’s dream sequence with Jill Tuck particularly exploitative. It’s not all terrible, however- the traps are top notch, with a great see no evil/hear no evil/speak no evil motive with the main game as well as the fan favourite Horsepower trap, which features the late great Chester Bennington of Linkin Park fame as a Neo Nazi who skins his back before inadvertently causing the deaths of his Neo Nazi friends. We also finally get to see the series’ iconic Reverse Bear Trap in action, which is worth the 6 film wait in my opinion. Saw 3D’s ending reveals Dr Gordon, from the first film, to be working for Jigsaw (yes, this whole time), prosthetic leg and cane and all. It’s Dr Gordon who gets to say the iconic ‘game over’ line as he seemingly locks Hoffman away for all eternity in the very same bathroom from the first film. Nostalgia aside, the ending is unsatisfying and leaves more questions than it answers. It’s unsure if Saw will ever return to what Saw 3D left on, to follow Dr Gordon or finish Hoffman’s story, or if the franchise will continue adding prequels until the timeline swells into a monstrous thing.
7) Saw X (2023)
Saw fanatics will be disappointed to hear that the tenth film in the franchise, despite its title, lacks the magic and charisma of early iterations. Tobin Bell returns as the John Kramer as well as fan favourite Shawnee Smith as Amanda, the original Jigsaw apprentice, but the nostalgia isn’t enough to drive the lacking story. Saw X boasts itself as a prequel, set between the first and second films, in a way to draw in new fans. However, it’s lacking anything previous films had to draw new fans of the series in. In traditional Saw fashion, we’re treated to one-dimensional villains, whose motivations flip and flop like a dying fish whenever the plot needs to. This time, the focus is on John Kramer, still played by Tobin Bell who looks well for 81, and his incurable cancer. Not only is the American healthcare system on trial but also charlatan doctors who claim to work miracles on their patients. The traps are Saw X’s saving grace, with special mention to the Brain Surgery Trap (it’s as brilliant and disgusting as it sounds) which has quickly cemented itself in my top 3 favourite traps, with a level of gore and violence that the previous 2 films had been lacking. In the same vein though, however, Saw X suffers from a similar affliction as Spiral- taking away the narrative importance of the traps (most egregiously, the Eye Suction Trap). Saw X also includes a little nugget of an end credit scene, featuring both the iconic bathroom from the first film and other fan favourite apprentice, Detective Mark Hoffman but even this scene let me down. My hype for Saw X was immense and so is my disappointment. At least I got to hear the iconic ‘Hello Zepp’ theme in a cinema.
6) Saw V (2008)
Saw V is the real heart of Saw’s cop soap opera. In Saw V, the trap plotline is completely secondary to the game of cat and mouse Detective Mark Hoffman (cop turned Jigsaw apprentice) and Special Agent Peter Strahm play. We learn more about Hoffman’s past, including how he got involved with John Kramer all while Strahm moodily stalks both Jill Tuck (Kramer’s ex-wife) and Jigsaw. Speaking of Strahm, he does win the ‘Smartest Saw Character’ award for his tracheotomy work in the Water Box Trap, a brilliant trap to open on to set the mood. Our trap plot line follows 5 strangers (or at least, that’s what we’re led to believe) as they work their way through traps, slowly but surely killing off each other until only 2 remain and they realise all 5 were supposed to survive (I won’t spoil it for you because it’s a scene that deserves to be watched in all it’s gory glory but all I’ll say is this- would you rather donate 10 pints of blood split between 2 or 5 people?) Hoffman and Strahm play a little dance, the ‘will they-won’t they figure it out’ of their story really is my Hollyoaks. Eventually, Hoffman frames Strahm as Jigsaw (by leaving his coffee order at the scene of a crime, yes really) and the two confront each other in the Glass Coffin trap, where their mind games materialise as a very real Jigsaw game. Smart characters don’t live very long in Saw so it’s no surprise that Strahm meets his end here, all while Hoffman watches with a satisfied smirk on his face.
5) Saw VI (2009)
If you thought the rest of the Saw franchise was critical of the American healthcare system, Saw VI really lays it on thick. Our trap plot line follows health insurance executive William Easton (revealed in flashbacks to have denied John Kramer insurance when he was still alive) as he navigates a game involving his co-workers and staff, being confronted with his own belief system of who gets to live and who gets to die. This results in the brilliant Merry Go Round trap, where William can only save 50% of the victims involved due to 50% being the number of cases his company approves for insurance. Meanwhile, we follow Hoffman in the police storyline as he both tries to feign ignorance of Strahm’s fate as well as outwit the man sent to follow up Strahm’s investigation. We also learn of Amanda’s origins, how she unknowingly helped to kill Jill Tuck’s (and subsequently, John Kramer’s) unborn child and how Hoffman used this as blackmail against her. Saw VI changes things up, though, with the end reveal for its trap plot line- this wasn’t William’s game but the game of Tara and Brent, the widow and son of recently deceased Harold Abbott, who died after William denied him insurance. As we watch William dissolve into little pieces as he’s injected with countless needles filled with hydrofluoric acid, we watch Jill Tuck and Hoffman struggle, with both out for blood. They confront one another after a game of stalking and bureaucratic red tape, the former winning their struggle and forcing the other into a Reverse Bear Trap. The film ends as we see Hoffman survive the trap, losing a chunk of his cheek in the process.
4) Saw III (2006)
Saw III is the finale in what was originally just supposed to be a trilogy. Nothing makes this fact more apparent than the fact that both John Kramer and Amanda die in this one. Yeah, John Kramer dies in the third film, and they still managed to pump out 7 other films after this one (in true soap opera fashion, they just moved onto a new character- Hoffman). Saw III has it all- some of the best traps (including the Rack Trap and Angel of Death Trap), a fantastic interwoven plot line that neatly ties together both our A and B plotlines, a wickedly charged relationship between Amanda and Lynn, the doctor who’s been kidnapped to operate on John as well as a somewhat heavy-handed commentary on justice and revenge. Saw III’s real crime is its protagonist- named by fans as Slow Ass Motherfuckin’ Jeff for his… almost cartoonishly slow reaction time (seriously, he’s one of horror’s worst protagonists). We follow Jeff, a grieving father, through his game, where he is tested on letting people who inadvertently caused his son’s death to live or die. This includes a witness who refused to testify, the judge who passed a lenient sentence and the drunk driver who killed Jeff’s son personally. However, Jeff’s inability to act like a normal person in his scenario makes any scene with him in it a drag (why are you shouting at people in traps, Jeff, they literally can’t do anything at this moment in time) which makes any scene with Amanda, Lynn, and the dying John Kramer a blessing. Here, we get a terrifically gory surgery scene (definitely not for the faint of heart) as well as a killer reveal and bittersweet ending. I love Saw III for all its grime and gore and grit- it’s just a shame that Slow Ass Motherfuckin’ Jeff is the emotional centre of it all.
3) Saw II (2005)
The direct sequel to the first film, Saw II has big shoes to fill. Here, we follow Detective Eric Matthews (our unknowing do-gooder) who actually catches John Kramer at the beginning of the film. However, it’s clear that Kramer had planned for this and reveals that a game- one including Matthews’ own son- has begun. Our trap storyline is set in the iconic and aptly named ‘Trap House’- where 8 (yes, 8!) people wake up and learn they must find a combination before a nerve gas fills the house. Among the group is Matthew’s teenaged son, Daniel, and Jigsaw apprentice Amanda (who is in on the trap). As the film cuts between Matthews’ nearly assaulting Kramer to find out where his son is and the Trap House 8 exploring and falling into cartoon-like traps (Obi and the incinerator is especially goofy), we learn the connection between the 6 strangers in the house- all suspects that Matthews had personally framed. Xavier, one of Trap House 8 and more aggressive than the others, tries to cheat the game- this includes making Amanda, a former drug addict, do his trap- the horrifying Needle Pit (it’s as awful as it sounds) as well as learning how to escape, though his inability to cooperate means he dies at the frightened hands of Daniel, who slashes his throat in self-defence. Eventually, Eric Matthews decides enough is enough and strong-arms John Kramer into revealing the location of the house. Matthew and Kramer go alone to the house as a backup team finds a large safe in the warehouse where they found Kramer. It opens and inside is a dishevelled and scared looking Daniel Matthews, with an oxygen tank. It’s revealed that the Trap House game took place several days before Matthews had captured Kramer- meaning his son was safe the entire time. It also means that Matthews, unaware of his son’s safety, goes to investigate the Trap House himself and is attacked by Amanda who locks him in the first film’s bathroom for seemingly all of eternity. Saw II is a successful and satisfying sequel to the original film while sprinkling in some of that Saw madness that later sequels will add in truckloads.
2) Saw IV (2007)
Saw VI was in a tricky situation, stuck between a rock and a hard place. How could Saw continue with Kramer and his apprentice dead? Easily- enter Detective Mark Hoffman, our do-gooder, who finds a tape after Kramer’s autopsy claiming his game has begun. Saw VI is truly the beginning of Saw’s melodrama, with the introduction of Special Agent Strahm (who later becomes Hoffman’s foil in Saw V) as well as immediately kidnapping Hoffman, our obvious new protagonist, who is trapped in a game for most of the film. Instead, we follow Officer Rigg, a brash and clumsy police officer, who is told that Eric Matthews (of Trap House glory) is somehow still alive. Rigg’s first test involves a prostitute who is about to get scalped who he is explicitly told not to save. He tries anyway and does save her but in turn, she tries to kill him, so he has to subdue her. His test then involves a pervy motel manager (who Rigg leaves to die after he fails to poke out both of his eyes) and a couple impaled by spikes (with the cheating husband fatally injured and his wife only slightly injured). While Rigg is having the most confusing night of his life, Strahm makes a connection between John Kramer and the Gideon Meat Packing facility, where he trails who he believes to be the new Jigsaw apprentice (spoiler alert: he’s following SAMF Jeff from Saw III). Rigg, meanwhile, reaches his final test which involves Hoffman, Matthews, Jill Tuck’s sleazy lawyer who was already tested in an early trap, a timer and 2 blocks of ice. Rigg’s final test is just one of those moments that make you think ‘okay, that was really cool’- one of my favourites in the franchise- and the surprise as Hoffman rises, completely safe from any danger, with ‘Hello Zepp’ blaring out as Rigg and Strahm are (seemingly) sealed in the meat packing plant for all eternity. Saw VI is an absolute treat to watch- between its concise and satisfying traps to Hoffman and Strahm’s introductions, Saw VI noticed its tricky situation and ran with it, changing the franchise for the best.
1) Saw (2004)
The first Saw film is truly a triumph of indie horror; it’s grainy, there’s only 5 characters you’re meant to care about, production staff double up as actors, sets being dismantled as shots are being filmed. It’s disgusting and grimy and pulpy and it holds up, to this day, as the best Saw film. It’s the creative machine that started everything. What makes the first Saw so special is its simplicity. Our trap plotline is simple- a photographer named Adam and one Dr Lawrence Gordon, an oncologist, wake up, chained to other sides of a disgusting bathroom, and told they have to kill the other before 6pm. Between the two men in the middle of the floor, is the body of a man who appears to have shot himself, his blood pooling. Following clues left on a cassette tape, the men find hacksaws (too flimsy to cut through their chains and Adam’s actually breaks) as well as a box including one cigarette and a one-way phone. The other story line is not as cut and dry as other’s- sure, we follow police officers try and solve the Jigsaw killings, but we also follow Dr Gordon’s wife and young daughter, who are kidnapped and held hostage as part of the game by a hospital orderly named Zepp (the eponymous man behind Hello Zepp). Time runs out and Jigsaw informs Dr Gordon that his wife and child will be killed. Unbeknownst to him, the two are actually saved by rogue police officer Tapp who believes Zepp to be responsible for the Jigsaw killings. However, Dr Gordon does not hear the fact his wife and daughter are safe and in an act of sheer desperation, saws through his own foot as Adam pleads with him to stop. He then shoots Adam, intending to kill, but misses and the shot hits Adam’s shoulder. Zepp, after being chased by Tapp into the sewers, enters the bathroom and is bludgeoned to death by a frightened Adam via cistern lid while Lawrence crawls over to Adam, ghostly pale and covered in blood, and tells him he will return with help. Dr Gordon then slowly crawls out of the bathroom and as Adam cries, we get the best reveal in a horror film. The Hello Zepp theme swells as the dead man in the middle of the floor, the man who has been presumed to be dead since the beginning of the game, rises and reveals himself to be John Kramer, the Jigsaw killer. The film ends with Kramer locking Adam in the bathroom- Game over.
My love and sometimes hatred for the Saw franchise all started with the original (for any mega fans out there- the original short film from 2003 is also worth checking out) and so long as they keep on churning out Saw films, I’ll keep on watching them- Kramer, Amanda, Hoffman and all.