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. Now with Saw X making its way into theaters, the Saw franchise suddenly feels like it has a bit more life left in it. On that note, it’s time to once again take stock of the Lionsgate series and count down the series from its worst entry to its crowning moment.
10 – Saw 3D (2010)
Saw 3D is the worst movie in the Saw franchise. Period. It has a made-for-television production quality about it. Countless retconning and an endless cast of assistants over the sequels render the 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.
9 – Jigsaw (2017)
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 Outdated.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.
8 – Saw V (2008)
If Saw IV showed signs of franchise fatigue, Saw V marks the official turning point. 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 series’ least memorable. As for Costas Mandylor, he’s a poor substitute for Tobin Bell’s ‘Jigsaw’.
7 – Spiral: From The Book of Saw (2021)
Points for effort. If it’s not a perfect return to form, Spiral: From the Book of Saw still delivers a good horror movie and a middling-to-good Saw movie. At the very least, Bousman turns in a better effort than the franchise’s later sequels. Though he’s not Tobin Bell, our new copycat killer earns enough good will in the movie’s final minutes. And Chris Rock fares much better than expected. With some decent Jigsaw-inspired traps and some effort at timely commentary, Spiral: From the Book of Saw eventually shakes off some of tired police procedural tropes in its third act. Despite somewhat missing the mark, Bousman and Rock’s new vision for the franchise deserved another movie.
6 – Saw IV (2007)
On the one hand, Saw IV is a watchable entry. By and large, it shares enough of the Saw 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 are almost unwatchable for audiences just joining. This sequel would also kick off the trend of elevating minor characters to lead roles regardless of their ability to generate audience interest.
5 – Saw VI (2009)
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.
4 – Saw III (2006)
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. In addition, Saw III’s grieving father, Jeff, gives the sequel a compelling protagonist. Where Saw III stumbles is its lack of focus.
3 – Saw II (2005)
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.
2 – Saw X (2023)
If you had Saw X not only being a decent Saw movie, but maybe the best of its sequels, on your bingo card, you win the Internet today. Nearly 20 years after the original released, regular collaborator Kevin Greutert delivered grisly, cringe-inducing traps to a cast of deserving Jigsaw victims. Yet what’s most surprising about this belated sequel is the emotional focus on Tobin Bell’s ‘John Kramer’. Yes, Bell actually gets to add some depth to his character. And Shawnee Smith’s ‘Amanda Young’ gets fleshed out as a character. Yes, someone also amputates their own leg. After all, this is a Saw movie.
1 – Saw (2004)
Nothing was going to top James Wan’s (Dead Silence) Saw. To be honest, this selection doesn’t require much explanation. Only in a handful of franchises will be there be an instance where the first movies isn’t the best. In spite of the changes that horror has undergone over the last two decades, Saw remains a compelling and genuinely shocking horror movie. Even after multiple views, Saw holds up and feels every bit as fresh as it was when first released. In addition to introducing one of the more recent horror icons, Saw introduced ‘torture porn’ – for better or worse – as a subgenre even if it wasn’t the movie that coined the expression. There’s no denying the impact of this 2004 movie as one of the century’s defining horror movies.