Reflecting on the Saw Series: A Cut Above or a Bloody Mess?

SawMy daddy, before going off to parts unknown, left me with two warnings about life. The first, as you probably could guess, was to never get involved in a land war in Asia. The second was to never trust the title “Final Chapter” when it is applied to a popular film franchise.

With news cropping up pretty much every year that an 8th Saw movie is in development, my dad’s words seem oh so true. Back in 2011, less than a year after the release of the seventh movie in the franchise – Saw 3D: The Final Chapter – original creator James Wan was quoted as saying that the franchise was too popular not to make a comeback at some point. Back then, it was thought that Wan and co-creator Leigh Wannell would not want to be involved in any future incarnations. But more reports trickling out of Hollywood suggest that the Wan/Wannell team may be actively involved in Saw VIII, possibly as early as 2016.

With that in mind, here’s a quick recap and ranking of the franchise to this point.

When they were in their mid-20s, all the way back in 2004, Wan and Wannell teamed to create the first Saw movie. It, in fact, was derived from a short they had made with the same simple premise. Two strangers awake to find themselves chained into a dingy old basement washroom. A dead body lies between them. They will each be given messages which contain keys to their survival. One of them will end up sawing off his own foot in order to escape.

Wan directed and Wannell played one of the two hapless men. They combined to write the screenplay. The movie came about just before Halloween in 2004 and was a very big hit. Torture porn was born.

Saw 4Like J.K. Rowling with a fetish for knives and blood, Wan and Wannell devised an ambitious 7-part story tracing the devilish schemes of a psychopath known as Jigsaw and his disciples. The movies came out every year the week before Halloween and all brought in the box office. Though Jigsaw dies at the end of the third movie, his presence, in the person of actor Tobin Bell would loom large over the entire franchise via flashback. The overarching narrative was rather complex, with characters fading and reappearing, and twists constantly popping up at each climax.

Each movie followed a familiar pattern. Victims would find themselves trapped in some horrific scenario, or “game,” as Jigsaw was fond of saying. In order to provide some relief from the games, there were often two other narrative elements at play. There was typically some sort of police investigation going on outside the game. And, with the exception of the first movie, there were flashbacks to Jigsaw, who we would come to know as cancer-stricken civil engineer John Kramer, as we learned more and more about his motivations.

But people paid their money for the games. And it was in the creation of creative and outrageous ways to test and torture its victims that all of the Saws made their bones.  The phrase “I want to play a game” came to symbolise all that was terrifying and painful in the world. Just hearing it today, delivered in that low passionless rumble, can cause a quick glance behind you to make sure no masked creature is waiting to pounce.

If you want to dive into the bloody pool that is Saw, you should commit to watching all seven in order. But for those interested in arguing over ranking, here’s my own analysis, in order from worst to best:

7: Saw 3D: The Final Chapter

The odds are usually stacked against anything called “The Final Chapter.” How many such stories have really been any good? This final chapter suffers from most of the issues that plagued the series after the original movie. The storyline grew more and more convoluted. The suspension of disbelief required to accept that the bad guy could possibly pull off the elaborate schemes involved went through the roof. The opening set piece, which had become a common device midway through the series, was totally divorced from the main storyline and therefore played as entirely gratuitous (as well as just plain ludicrous). By this point in the series, John Kramer was long gone and his mantle had been assumed by the very dour Detective Hoffman. Though Tobin Bell was still prominent in flashbacks throughout the run of the series, the transition from the charmingly brusque John to the wretched sadist Hoffman signalled the biggest single problem that the series encountered. Costas Mandylor as Hoffman, has none of the twinkle or sense of ironic contempt that Bell brought to John. He’s simply unpleasant to behold.

There was also a big missed opportunity in Saw 3D. The game involves a charlatan “survivor” who has turned his fake story into a gold mine by becoming a self-help guru. He helps people overcome violent trauma. This actually might have yielded a great conclusion had the survivors of Jigsaw’s games really banded together to seek revenge. It also would have been more thematically coherent, since Jigsaw’s proclaimed motive was to help people take control of their lives. Alas, that was not to be, and the games played by a rather bland Sean Patrick Flanery, don’t amount to much.

There is one pleasure toward the end, with the return of a character from the distant past, but it doesn’t save the final chapter from being a dud.

6: Saw IV

Darren Lynn Bousman assumed directing duties from Wan for the second, third, and fourth movies and at least he didn’t kill the franchise. But the fourth was a very weak entry.  This was the first story in which Jigsaw was dead, although we would come to learn that its timeline was running parallel to the third movie and so he actually was still alive for most of the events. Still, Bell appears exclusively in flashback, and via tape recordings. The story goes somewhat off the rails here in part because its game player, a SWAT commander named Rigg (Lyriq Bent), is free and roaming around the city for most of the story. Jigsaw has sent him on a chase designed to test his ability to let go of his all-consuming passion to rescue people. It’s a rather iffy proposition to begin with and it signalled the franchise’s uneasy focus on law enforcement personnel as victims. That had been evident in an earlier story, but in that earlier one, there was a much more coherent rationale. Here it simply seems mean-spirited. When they were at their best, Wan and Wannell realised that pure sadism was not an effective motivation for their villains. Here, that concept gets lost.

Letting Rigg roam free robs the story of its primary atmosphere – the feeling of entrapment. And with John deceased, we begin to get a lot more of his back story and motivation. That can be gratifying at times, but it can also be demystifying, which is not necessarily a good thing here.

5: Saw V

David Hackl had been the second unit director on several of the previous movies and took over for Bousman for number five. The movie is hurt by the emergence of Mandylor’s Hoffman as a major presence, but that is partially balanced by the appearance of the first actual worthy investigator, in the person of Scott Patterson’s FBI Special Agent Strahm. Previous law enforcement characters had been brave but not smart. Strahm is the first one who can begin to match wits with the Jigsaw/Hoffman team. That makes the climax, in which Hoffman outwits Strahm, difficult to buy. The other major problem with Five is that the game – a treacherous maze created for five arrogant and entitled yuppie-types – is largely disconnected from anything else in the story. That sense of disconnection would plague many of the later entries. And Saw tended to be at its best when the lessons Jigsaw was “teaching” were small and personal. Here, it involves some vaguely grandiose moralising, which is never a good idea.

4. Saw II

The immediate sequel is often considered the best of the follow-ups, and it does have a lot going for it. Bell was barely in the first movie but here he begins to really take control and he is an excellent presence. Donnie Wahlberg’s hotheaded cop Eric Matthews makes for a good adversary. There is a logic behind Jigsaw’s selection of Matthews which is an important gauge for this twisted morality, a gauge that would go missing in some of the later stories. It effectively introduces the first glimpse of Jigsaw’s disciples. The only real problem with the movie is that I don’t find the game itself all that interesting. This one places eight seemingly unrelated people in a house which is slowly filling with poisonous gas. Moving from the laser-like focus on the two principals in the first movie to a much broader narrative here means that the characters are much sketchier. And the increasing sickness they each feel actually works against narrative momentum, because although they grow more desperate, they simultaneously grow more lethargic. Instead of the screaming and slicing, the dominant activity in the game becomes sneezing and staggering. Still, Bousman’s initial offering as director kept the train a rollin’.

3: Saw III

This was Bousman’s best effort, a very good horror which returned to some of the original’s focus, while preparing for the transition to a post-Jigsaw Saw-niverse. It also returns to the original story’s emphasis on medical professionals. A doctor, Lynn Denlon (Bahar Soomekh) has been kidnapped and brought to a dying Jigsaw. She is fitted with an explosive collar around her neck. As long as Jigsaw stays alive, so does she. If he dies, her head blows up. It’s a strong premise, almost better suited to suspense than to horror. Meanwhile, a man is playing a game in which he must confront those responsible for the death of his son, and decide whether or not to rescue them from their tortures.

This plot-line also features several elements that make this one of the best of the series. First, it is one of the only games that actually presents a reasonable test of morality. One of the maddening things about the entire series is that even though Jigsaw goes on about how his games are designed to educate, that is almost never the case. They are either too hard or too convoluted to offer any kind of actual choice. In Three, Jeff (Angus McFadden) does get choices and must make moral decisions. It also features the best, grossest specific game not related to knives and cutting when Jeff must save a man from being drowned in the liquefied remains of rotting pig carcasses which are being fed through a meat grinder above him. Sick? Obviously. But not a sequence you will soon forget.  Finally, Saw III has the best single character in any of the movies in the person of Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith), a survivor of a previous game who in Stockholm Syndrome fashion, has come to see Jigsaw as a father. Innocents often suffer and die in the Saw series, but Amanda, who is far from innocent, remains the most tragic character we ever meet.

2: Saw VI

Series editor Kevin Greutert directed the final two episodes. I’ve already lambasted the last movie, but he knocked the first one out of the park. Though like many of the later movies, the narrative occasionally gets bogged down in Jigsaw’s elaborate backstory, Six offers the best game outside of the original and the best game playing character. John has designed this game to be implemented by Hoffman after his death to test the insurance bigwig who rejected coverage for experimental treatment after John’s cancer diagnosis. John considers that this man, William, has essentially killed him. He subjects William and his team of mostly young and hungry underlings to a gauntlet in which William must make life or death choices for all involved. Unlike the weaker games in the series, this one has both personal relevance to John and societal relevance. It is a better political statement than the rather broad “greed is bad” message of Five. The reason it works is because the filmmakers constantly play against expectation. William (Peter Outerbridge) is initially portrayed as a greedy son of a bitch. Without ever making him sweet and loveable, the narrative reveals a much more nuanced and realistic character who is being put through hell. This is played out right up until the twist at the end in which everything we thought we knew about William and his situation is again turned on its head. His narrative works on every level. The central game, played on a child’s playground toy, in which William must choose which of his support staff will live and die, is one of the least bloody and most intense games in the entire series.

The investigative plot-line, which involves Hoffman’s unpleasant persona and the FBI’s utter stupidity, is not terribly good. And John’s ex-wife Jill (Betsy Russell) who becomes a bigger presence as the series goes on, is not especially interesting. But Saw is built on games, and Saw VI has the best one, outside the original.

1: Saw

A lot has been written about this one, and I don’t have much to add. It is the best, not because it was the first, but because it was the purest. It was the one least prone to getting sidetracked. In later movies, the excursions away from the games were necessary because the games themselves usually couldn’t support the weight of the entire narrative. Here, the excursions are a welcome respite from the overwhelming claustrophobia of the central game, played only between a doctor (Cary Elwes) and a photographer (series co-creator Leigh Wannell).When we leave that eerie basement washroom, we are plunged into an investigative story that echoes the supremely difficult Se7en, made ten years earlier. The desperation in Saw is both understated (at least compared to the subsequent movies) and very palpable. These guys were clearly on to something.

I’m of mixed minds about the potential reboot of the series. It had certainly run its course by 2010. But the inadequacy of the “final chapter” does make me long for a better resolution. Under normal circumstances, I would be very content to see the series remain entombed. But part of me hungers to see whether Wan and Wannell, and whoever else they work with, can coax a little more life out of the franchise. Part of me longs to see that reverse bear-trap one more time.

Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-eig/.

7 thoughts on “Reflecting on the Saw Series: A Cut Above or a Bloody Mess?

  1. I actually watched all seven, because I’m a masochist, but after the first two, I was effectively done with the series.

    However, one quick correction: torture porn was born LONG before Saw. While I’m probably still not going back far enough, two obvious entries from 1988:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bqnftyYWW4E
    The full Men Behind the Sun (Hei Tei Yang 731)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n40slF_c3hU
    …and the trailer for Guinea Pig 2: Flower of Flesh and Blood.

    (Going out on a limb, the first Guinea Pig film probably invented the genre, in that it has no plot, no character development, no reason for existence other than the torture and murder of its female lead.)

    • Thanks Goat. Maybe these movies were made for masochists.

      I believe you’re right about the actual ancestry of torture porn. I think Saw was the one that firmly placed it in the mainstream. The one after which you could walk into a meeting with a reputable producer and pitch something sadistic and bloody without them calling the men in white coats on you. Suddenly, all the big players wanted their own version of Saw.

  2. I thought that the first film was innovative, and enjoyed it immensely. After that, I lost interest, and turned off the sequel before the end of the film. I haven’t seen 3, or for that matter, 5,6, and 7, and doubt I ever will. Over a ten-year span, this franchise can attract new audiences, and there is no reason why it could not continue indefinitely, especially if taken up by an Internet streaming company.
    You have given us a comprehensive and thoughtful review nonetheless, Jon.
    Like most things in life, it comes down to a matter of taste.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  3. I’m impressed that you were able to sit through so many terrible iterations of this film series, Jon. I’ve avoided it after the first one, which I though had some suspense, despite being rather distasteful and unpleasant to watch. But this looks like another franchise, a la Halloween, Friday the 13th, et al, that seems designed to be reborn again and again to attract new audiences as well as gather “nostalgic” fans of the original flick. I’m not either, but I have to admit it does have staying power, for whatever that’s worth.

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