Somewhere in between ‘masked slashers’ and ‘insidious conjurings’, torture porn briefly reigned in horror. From Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects to Eli Roth’s Hostel and the ‘New French Extremity‘ movement, horror fans flocked to movies characterized by extreme graphic violence. However, it all started with James Wan’s Saw in 2004. The low-budget movie kickstarted a sub-genre and a Halloween tradition for nearly a decade. To date, it remains one of the most lucrative horror series at the box office. With seven movies over the course of its original run and a recent soft reboot, Saw put Lionsgate and Twisted Pictures at the top of the horror mountain. But where does your favourite Saw movie rank in the series?
Saw 3D is the worst movie in the Jigsaw franchise. Period. It has a made-for-television production quality about it. Countless retconning and an endless cast of assistants over the sequels render this entry’s story incomprehensible. At this point, Tobin Bell’s Jigsaw had technically been out of the franchise longer than he was ever in it. That’s a problem. It only took the Friday the 13th series one sequel to realize fans wouldn’t accept a killer that wasn’t Jason. And Costas Mandylor’s bland Detective Hoffman is no Jigsaw. Not even Cary Elwes’ much-anticipated return helps. However, the Saw 3D makers seemed to know the series had reached a point of over-saturation. Their solution – A LOT of traps. Though the 3D didn’t amount to much more than a gimmick, the ‘Garage Trap’ was a gruesome highlight.
Belated. Unnecessary. Outdated. Jigsaw is all these things. What once felt fresh and visceral, the 2017 Jigsaw felt out of place among fresher horror offerings like Get Out or It Follows. Of course, it didn’t help that Jigsaw isn’t even a particularly good Saw movie. Though it’s more competently made than Saw VII, Jigsaw is dull with forgettable traps and even more forgettable characters. Tobin Bell’s ‘Jigsaw’ barely factors into this soft reboot. Any Saw sequel that makes you miss Costas Mandylor’s Detective Hoffman should instantly be relegated to the bottom of dollar store bins.
If Saw IV showed signs of franchise fatigue, Saw V marks the official turning point for Jigsaw. There’s a marked drop in quality as the series buckled under the weight of its own convoluted storytelling. Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan’s screenplay spends ways too much time connecting dots in the franchise’s ever-expanding mythology. In fact, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that there are indeed characters caught in ‘Jigsaw’ traps. On top of these problems, the trap designs are among the serie’s least memorable. As for Costas Mandylor, he’s a poor substitute for Tobin Bell’s ‘Jigsaw’.
On the one hand, Saw IV is a watchable entry. By and large, it shares enough of the franchise’s hallmarks to qualify as a ‘good’ Saw movie. Some of the trap designs in this sequel are particularly cruel including ‘The Scalping Seat’ and ‘The Spike Trap.’ And what can you say about a sequel that brings Donnie Wahlberg back only to crush his head in between two ice blocks? But Saw IV is also the sequel that doubles down on many of the franchise’s worst excesses. Endless retconning and world-building would bog down later sequels. Subsequent Saw movies would become virtually unwatchable for horror fans just entering the series. This sequel would also kick off the trend of elevating minor characters to lead roles regardless of their ability to generate audience interest.
Six movies into a franchise is not typically when you see improvement. And no, Saw VI is not the series’ best. Nor is it necessarily a ‘good’ movie by objective standards. But this sequel is a big step up from the previous franchise entry. As compared to Saw V, Kevin Greutert’s sequel is a much more focused outing. There actually seems to be a guiding theme that also benefits from its timeliness. Just a year removed from the 2008 financial collapse, a Saw movie targeting the U.S. healthcare system was probably cathartic for moviegoers. Arguably, the trap designs don’t stand out quite as much, though the ‘Pound Of Flesh’ trap doesn’t lack for gruesomeness.
Following the shocking success of Saw, horror had a new franchise heavyweight. Saw II kicked off a Halloween tradition that would last most of the decade. To a large extent, Saw II follows the horror sequel model pretty closely. More traps, more blood and gore, and a higher body count. But first-time director Darren Lynn Bousman infuses enough gusto into the formula to make it a fun watch. Moreover, the trap designs are inventive and cringe-worthy with the ‘Furnace Trap’ and ‘Hand Trap’ both standing out. The twists and playing with timelines also still felt fresh in the first sequel. Besides Saw II has Donnie Wahlberg in it.
Cut out about 20 minutes. Then take out any table-setting for future sequels. Maybe cut down on the dramatic slow motion. What you’d end up with is a lean and intense ‘torture porn’ franchise entry. Instead, Saw III is a good sequel that does enough justice to the prior movies to be what should have been a satisfying finale to a trilogy. At this point, director Darren Lynn Bousman understood what audiences wanted to see – lots of grotesque gore. And Saw III delivers. In fact, Saw III may have some of the series’ best trap designs. The ‘Pig Carcass’ traps is disgusting while the ‘Torture Rack’, ‘Rib Cage’, and ‘Freezer Room’ traps suitably balance gore with tension.
If this had been the last sequel (which it should have been), horror would have its first true great trilogy.
In addition, Saw III’s grieving father, Jeff, gives the sequel a compelling protagonist. Where Saw III stumbles is its lack of focus. Leigh Whannell’s (Upgrade) screenplay sets aside far too much time for retconning flashbacks and stage-setting future sequels. At nearly two hours, Saw III is criminally over-extending itself. Nonetheless, this sequel delivers what it promises, ending on an appropriately nihilistic tone. If this had been the last sequel (which it should have been), horror would finally have its first true great trilogy.
This selection doesn’t require much explanation. I can’t think of many, if any, cases among horror franchises where the original isn’t the best of a series. As I re-watched the Saw franchise, I was struck by how dated some of the sequels felt. Horror as a genre has change remarkably over the years. But the original Saw is still good horror. It’s tense, immersive, and shocking, even on repeat viewings. Even as ‘torture porn’ has receded, Saw remains a mainstay for fans. Saw is a classic horror movie deserving of its cult status.