With the latest instalment in the long running Saw franchise with Spiral: From the Book of Saw, I thought I should review all 9 movies in the series.
The original Saw was a lower budget horror movie which proved to be incredibly successful, going on to have 8 sequels, 6 in the main series, and 2 ‘soft reboots’. It was very influential, and the series would be instrumental in the forming of the infamous horror sub-genre ‘torture porn’ (even though I think that title really only belongs to just one of the movies in the franchise).
Earlier this year I watched through the franchise in preparation for Spiral and I found myself surprisingly enjoying the experience. Despite some of the silliness and very present issues in each instalment, I kept wanting to watch the next movie in the series.
Without further ado, here’s my ranking.
Minor spoiler warning for most of the movies, as many of the plots of the movies link in with each other.
9. Saw 3D: The Final Chapter
It’s actually incredibly difficult to note down everything wrong in this movie in just one list entry, my review of the movie barely covered most of the points. From its opening trap that took place in public focussing on two guys having to fight over a girl who cheated on both of them, that’s where the movie lost me. The best thing I could say about the opening scene was that it was an indication that it was going to be a very different Saw movie, and not necessarily for the better. It feels so far removed from the previous instalments, tonally it was sillier and hard to take seriously despite not having quite an overt comedic approach to it. Even aspects of the direction were quite different despite being directed the director of the previous film. Instead of the typical grungy and grimy look in the past 6 movies, Saw 3D is so brightly lit that it looks awful and doesn’t fit with the series at all, it makes it looks like a direct to DVD Saw film. The filmed-for-3D approach also heavily affected the movie too, with random things flying at the camera, and the blood being brightly coloured pink. This is the only Saw film I’d actually call torture porn, with a further emphasis on the traps (they even add a dream sequence just to include another trap scene) and the inclusion of 3D, the latter of which is to have gore and body parts flying at the screen. They even add a dream sequence just to include another scene of gore. At the same time, it’s really the least scary of the series.
The writing itself is astoundingly bad, and this is coming from someone who’s pretty lenient on the series considering that the writing across the series is generally very flawed to say the least. The actual story had some potential and interesting ideas but that’s it. The idea of someone who lied being a Jigsaw survivor and being tested for real sounds interesting, but they don’t really do much with it, and the lead character Bobby isn’t particularly compelling. Even the ongoing plot which continued from Saw VI with characters Mark Hoffman and Jill Tuck just isn’t made that thrilling. There are other little moments and ideas which don’t reach their fullest potential. The Jigsaw survivor group sounds interesting, but that’s only used in one scene. The character of Lawrence Gordon being back in the Saw movies so long after his last appearance sounds exciting, but he’s creepy in the one scene and then he has a rushed montage at the end to wrap up the plot, he’s basically just an extended cameo. On that note, while I liked the note it ended on with its last scene, the way that it tries to create a finale is very unsatisfying, in fact raising more questions than providing answers. That’s not to say that the movie doesn’t have some enjoyable parts. A few of the traps are alright if incredibly overblown. There’s a lot of comedy to come from the bad writing, dialogue, performances and even the story choices. I’m aware of all the behind-the-scenes issues, with a last minute director change, condensing the movie from two to one and more. However I’m not quite sure how it still managed to be this bad. I can’t say that I dislike this movie, not just because this wasn’t the final chapter as originally planned, but also because it’s so silly that it ends up being somewhat entertaining.
My review of Saw 3D: From the Book of Saw
8. Saw V
Now the jump from Saw 3D to Saw V is from a terrible movie to something rather average and mixed. Saw V is much better than 3D, but it’s probably the most boring of the Saw movies. It’s also the most frustrating of the series because there was a lot of potential here. The main game was about a group of selfish people needing to work together and that sounds interesting. However the game ends up being one of the weakest of the series, with some characters that are hard to like or really care about. With that and how disconnected it felt from the rest of the plot, it really just feels like it’s there just because it’s a Saw movie and it needed a game. The traps themselves were a little mixed, with the pendulum, water box, blood pint and glass coffins being quite good and standouts among the series, but the rest were rather forgettable and even boring.
The cat and mouse game between FBI Agent Strahm, and secret Jigsaw apprentice Hoffman also had some potential, unfortunately they don’t exactly handle that in the best way either. For one, Strahm’s ‘investigation’ comes across as redundant when it’s known to the entire audience that Hoffman is the apprentice. Not to mention, he spends pretty much the whole movie basically serving as a source of exposition to the audience about Hoffman. Speaking of which, much of Saw V is trying to establish Hoffman as the new Jigsaw, and the movie generally fails to get people on board with that. While I like that Hoffman is distinctly different from John Kramer’s Jigsaw, he’s just not that interesting of a character. The plot moves so slow and sluggish that it felt like a chore at times. There weren’t necessarily choices that I hated, but there’s also not a lot that grabbed me. For all my issues with the movie, there were some solid scenes. Any time that Tobin Bell shows up as Jigsaw of course it really picks up immensely. However, it is by far the worst Saw movie outside of 3D, I’m less inclined to come back to this one.
7 years after the series ended terribly with The Final Chapter, Lionsgate ended up making a reboot of sorts. It had potential, there were some great directors on board, and the plot has a mystery as to whether John Kramer is back as Jigsaw. However what Jigsaw ultimately boiled down to was another Saw movie, just done in modern day. As it was, it was quite enjoyable to watch. The traps ranged from great to rather forgettable, but it was a decent game. It’s well shot, and features some of the best direction of the entire series. The writing is very mixed, with some lackluster characters. Some of the writing is far fetched, where characters make some pretty unbelievable decisions. However for the most part there’s really not much to say about the movie.
Then there’s the ending twist, which is where most of my issues lie. Not only is it very convoluted and doesn’t make sense, but it also breaks the Saw timeline in some ways. It even makes me look back on the rest of the movie in a less positive way overall. My issues with the eventual reveal aside, I would be interested to see story and characters at the end of Jigsaw reappear and continued in the future Saw movies. In a way, Jigsaw’s level of quality really depends on if it continues to have relevance in the next movies, especially in a post-Spiral world where that film wasn’t a continuation of the previous movie. If it doesn’t get a follow up, I’d be wondering what the point of this movie would be aside from just being another Saw movie.
6. Saw IV
Saw IV is one of those Saw movies that I do appreciate the more I think about it, even with its many faults. Saw IV does feel like it’s on autopilot, while managing to feel like there’s too much going on. There’s a new Jigsaw game, we also follow an investigation from the FBI, and there’s a storyline focusing on flashbacks of John Kramer becoming Jigsaw, and it just feels bloated. There are so many characters, between bringing back past characters in prominent storylines, and then introducing at least 4 new major characters. Almost every Saw movie is 90 minutes long and out of all of them, this is the one that definitely needed a lot more time given to it. The game at the forefront is better when compared to a lot of the sequels but the backbone behind it doesn’t quite work for me.
With that being said, there are story moments and reveals that are quite interesting and strong. There’s some nice twists, especially with how the movie ties to Saw III. There’s also some very impressive and memorable traps. However it’s still very much a mess on many levels. The most interesting aspect was John Kramer, and if anything I wish the whole movie was focusing on Tobin Bell’s John Kramer and his origin story. It’s one I do want to go back to, as some moments ring better for me the more I think about them, but all in all, it’s another Saw movie that I’m quite mixed on.
5. Saw III
It was this movie where I noticed a shift, even when I saw it for the first time before my watchthrough of all the Saw movies. I liked it noticeably less than the first two movies and even on my rewatch I still had a lot of. I noticed the slight jump in budget and the jump in the amount of gore, as well as the amount of reliance on it. Starting off with the positives though, I do like a lot of many of the ideas on display. There are some memorable and truly brutal traps with some fantastic practical effects. The plotline with the characters of John Kramer, Amanda and Lynn was actually great, with some solid dynamic between the three. The movie does try to actually add an emotional dimension to the movie and while it doesn’t completely work, I kind of respect it. The movie also makes some firm decisions, some of them work, some of them don’t work, and some of them were quite bold (for better or for worse). The ending also did end up writing the series into a bit of a corner, but I respect it to a degree.
However there’s plenty of problems. This movie really did have an overreliance of flashbacks (something that much of the series would have as well), revealing things that we really didn’t need to see. You don’t like a lot of the characters and you’re generally not that interested in them, so emotional investment is quite difficult already. Of course Tobin Bell is fantastic as Jigsaw, Lynn is not that interesting but good in her scenes with John, and I have mixed feelings about Amanda in this particular movie. Then there’s lead game character Jeff, who ends up being one of the major issues of Saw III. Probably my least favourite lead Saw character, Jeff is just frustrating to watch, with him making some annoying choices, and us having to watch him take a long time to slowly go from one trap to another. Despite an interesting setup, it was not nearly as interesting as some of the other games in the series. It really does say something that the storyline that doesn’t involve a lot of traps was more interesting than the one that did. It is also the longest of the movies at nearly 2 hours long and while I do feel like some of the other Saw movies could’ve been a little longer, you really do feel like this movie drags. Not to be that person, but its not that fun to watch, and if I had the choice to watch any of the Saw movies from here or the 5 movies below it on this list, I’m not entirely sure that I would pick III. With that all being said, it is definitely one of the better Saw movies.
4. Spiral: From the Book of Saw
This is where the list goes from mixed/okay movies to actually pretty good movies. Spiral is the latest Saw movie, and it is definitely the most different film in the series. It’s also the first Saw movie I watched in the cinema and I really enjoyed it, even if there are some issues especially on reflection. To a degree I wish there was a little more to this movie and was expecting more. I feel like even 5 extra minutes would’ve benefited it in some way, to add some more depth or explain some things. Like some have said already, some aspects of the plot and reveals were rather predictable. Additionally while I liked the themes and commentary surrounding corrupt police, I feel like it could’ve explored it just a little more and really committed to it instead of it almost feeling like a setup for the plot. The movie has some other writing issues and it can be messy. It does fall into some familiar tropes from Saw and detective/cop movies in general, and the dialogue doesn’t always work. However by Saw standards, I don’t have a huge amount of problems with the movie.
Spiral is quite a different film for the series, with it instead being more of a detective movie. It has a distinct tone, and is all around quite standalone. It removed itself from the rest of the movies, all the while still existing in the same world and being a Saw movie. While most of the traps aren’t as memorable, some of them are great, and above all else, they actually fit into the plot. The traps have reasons and meanings behind them outside of just serving for the gore (though it’s no slouch in that department either). It’s also one of the best directed Saw movies, bringing back longtime Saw director Darren Lynn Bousman turned out to be a great choice. As said earlier, the killer’s identiy was predictable, but the rest of the mystery surrounding this person(s) was more interesting than the identity, and I found myself interested in that. I was quite on board with the plot generally. The performances are good, with Chris Rock, Max Minghella and Samuel L. Jackson being delivering in their roles, definitely some of the stronger acting in the series. I am definitely interested to see where this story and these characters go after the ending of this movie, and I would love to see a sequel.
My review of Spiral: From the Book of Saw
These next three are interchangeable for me.
3. Saw VI
Looking at its first 5 movies, the Saw series had gradually been getting worse. By the time it got to IV and V, it was pretty disappointing and ranged from messy to dull. VI was the surprise instalment that really added new life back into the series. Saw VI starts out strong from the beginning and stays strong throughout. The story is reasonably straightforward in contrast to the past movies, and the pacing is much better. Unlike the last movie, while there are some lore and backstory revealed in flashbacks, they don’t feel forced and they work naturally for the characters and story, especially as they showing important moments between John Kramer and other major characters. The game itself is great and one of the best in the series. The movie is is surprisingly political, taking on health insurance in the USA, proving to be quite topical considering it came out in 2009. This approach proved to be quite fresh and fits perfectly as it would be something that Jigsaw would focus on. There are moral dilemmas that health insurance executive and lead Saw VI game character William Easton faces throughout and he has to make some hard choices. Easton as a character is the most morally bankrupt of all the Saw protagonists but with a mix of the situations he’s put into and Peter Outerbridge’s solid performance, it makes you sympathise with him and willing to follow him throughout. The traps also overall are the best in the series since Saw II. They are creative, from one based on oxygen, to one featuring a carousel, the latter of which ranks among the all time best traps. It helps that there’s a lot of meaning behind the traps and why they are like that (outside of the gore), and can even be psychological.
Even the rest of the story following the characters of Hoffman and Jill Tuck are actually quite good, especially as the former tries to deal with an FBI investigation. Hoffman who was underwhelming in Saw V despite it intended to make us actually like him as Jigsaw, really is at his best in this movie and he has some great moments. The voice lab and the ending especially sticks out as one of the best moments in the series. In terms of flaws, it does have some of the familiar issues with the rest of the series. The editing is still unnecessarily frantic and fast paced but it is reigned in and utilised a lot better here compared to many of the past movies. Saw VI is still over the top and unbelievably ridiculous, both with the story and characters and some bits with the writing. Also even though there are some stronger main performances from the likes of Tobin Bell, Peter Outerbridge and Costas Mandylor, a lot of the smaller performances can still be pretty bad. Some of the writing issues in this movie are present in the other Saw movies, and have been a lot worse there. So at this point it’s very easy to look past them. Also the over the top nature of the story and traps is easy to go along with when you see at what point the series had gotten to. Maybe it might’ve just been the previous couple of Saw movies that were disappointing, but I enjoyed VI thoroughly and didn’t have too many large complaints with it. Out of the Saw movies, this and Saw II would probably be the ones I’d be most willing to rewatch.
2. Saw II
Saw II was the immediately greenlit sequel after the surprise that was James Wan’s Saw back in 2004. It’s quite interesting that this is based off director Darren Lynn Bousman’s script for a different movie, which was turned into the script for the Saw sequel. Not to mention that Saw II ended up playing a big part in the shaping of the series. As a sequel it is very reminiscent of the first film but made some changes. Instead of just repeating the first movie, there are two storylines at the same time, one is with people trapped in a Jigsaw game, and the other focusing on police with Jigsaw as they see the game continuing. It also expanded the scale of the game. The first film had a bathroom and relatively small traps in flashbacks. Saw II had a game in a small house and had a group of people instead of just 2. At the same time, it still felt contained and even plausible at times. It also added a lot more traps, and they are quite creative and also resulted in a lot more gore.
One thing that Saw II has over the first movie is a lot more Jigsaw. Tobin Bell made a brief appearance in the first Saw but it’s here where he really gets to shine, and has an onscreen presence throughout the whole movie. The scenes between him and Donnie Wahlberg are particularly great. This is also a movie that expanded Jigsaw’s philosophy and puts it more in the forefront, even if it’s a little conflicting (i.e. Jigsaw’s “I never killed anyone” line is a little hard to take seriously at this point). There are even some twists that are effective, that rival even the end twist of the first Saw. Overall I liked Darren Lynn Bousman’s direction but some of the technical elements are brought over from the first movie, including frantic editing and the visual style, aren’t exactly the best. In the first movie, some of the technical elements are there because the filmmakers needed to do them, but including it in Saw II made them staples of the franchise, for better or for worse. The writing is also not the best especially with the dialogue, but the story does well enough to hold your attention throughout. All in all, Saw II is one of the most enjoyable movies in the series.
There’s not much to say about Saw that hasn’t been said already. It had a lot working against it, the budget was really small, the filmmakers weren’t allowed many takes, and the amount of time to film was short. Despite all the odds, they pulled it off. Saw became an instant hit, and a sequel was immediately greenlit. Influenced by films like Se7en, Saw at its core was a psychological thriller about a serial killer. It’s well constructed and keeps you invested from beginning to end, focussing mainly on mystery and tension more than outright scares or even gore. The majority of the film was two men in a bathroom trying to figure out what’s going on, with a very simplistic approach to the story. The traps are known in the Saw movies but most of them in Saw I are just shown in flashbacks. They can be gruesome but are shown briefly and are more believable than those in the sequels. It is a bloody movie, but it uses these moments effectively and doesn’t feel overly reliant on them.
For a debut film, James Wan did succeed quite well despite all the problems that he and writer Leigh Whannell experienced when making this movie. Now it definitely has its issues. The acting is a mixed bag, it is quite dated, a lot of the dialogue and writing can be quite flawed. On the technical aspects too, the frantic editing was definitely done in a way to help deal with the restrictions they had. However many of its issues and rough edges adds a charm and distinct style to it, and considering everything, it’s impressive that the final movie was as good as it was. It also laid the groundwork for things that would feature in many of the sequels from the grimy and green look, the music video-esque fast paced editing, the overblown twists and the ending reveals (accompanied by an iconic score from Charlie Clouser). About a decade and a half later it still remains an incredibly iconic and influential horror film that has paved the way for other horror movies, even beyond the torture porn genre. If you read this list and you haven’t seen any of the Saw movies but you like horror movies, I do recommend watching the first film at the very least. I really understand why it remains a cult classic for many people.
What are your ranking of the Saw series, and what do you think of the movies?