It might seem crazy now, but the Saw franchise used to be a big deal. Released annually around Halloween from 2005 to 2010, with a follow-up in 2017 (and another due out next year) the films were something of a yearly tradition. They’re also incredibly high-grossing, usually making tens times their small budgets. It makes sense. People love gore, and these films have them in spades. There’s something perversely entertaining about seeing people being killed in increasingly outlandish and gruesome ways. But the series also has an incredibly complex (and surprisingly engaging) narrative connecting the films, making it impossible to jump into one of the sequels without seeing the previous films.
But you don’t make this many films without a dip in quality. So I’ve decided to rank them. It wasn’t an easy task, and I was surprised by just how entertaining all of these films were. The overarching story (though absolutely insane and incredibly convoluted) rewards fans who are willing to put in the effort to understand it. The films also have a really grimy but singular style, taking place in an unnamed American city that’s more akin to Gotham than anywhere else. They’re just a lot of fun. But some are more fun than others. So let’s dive in.
Saw: The Final Chapter
I want to make it clear. Despite it’s dismal Rotten Tomatoes score, Saw: The Final Chapter (or Saw: 3D) is not abysmal. Honestly, I think I was so invested in the twisted narrative after six previous films that I would have watched paint dry and still found it enjoyable (as long as the “Hello Zepp” theme played over it). But it is definitely the weakest. The story begins to fall to pieces at this point, under the weight of its own twists and turns. Original Jigsaw victim Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) reappears in a twist so outlandish you’re left trying to piece it all together. But despite this, there are moments of interesting world building, including a trip to a Jigsaw survivors meeting which was a nice moment for fans who live to spot all the connections and cameos. And the traps are reliably good, with a standout four-four person trap that sees a bunch of neo-Nazis killed in increasingly ridiculous ways.
The main reason for this being at the bottom is the 3D element. Because of this, the whole film looks way cheaper than other entries in the series. Blood is way too light, which I presume was needed for people watching in dark 3D glasses. And there’s an opening scene that feels so disconnected to anything we’ve seen before, with some pretty crappy effects and acting to match, that it started the film on a sour note. Though, I did giggle when Cary Elwes threw a CG saw at the screen.
After a seven year gap (and ten in universe since the death of John Kramer) the franchise made a return in 2017. And don’t be fooled by its placement on this list, Jigsaw is actually pretty good. It’s well made and preposterous enough that fans of the franchise will find something worth watching. The traps are also pretty great too. Even if the addition of lasers feels very silly, it’s in the best way. The story is also really gripping, genuinely leaving you guessing, with a cast of characters so ridiculous and disconnected from the real world that it could only be a Saw film. The main difference is just how much more expensive the whole thing looks. Though that might be good or bad, because the franchise has always had a cheap charm.
What lets it down, and earns it is place, is how disconnected it feels to the others. Set years after the original, the film can throw in as many flashbacks as it wants, further retconning and complicated the John Kramer mythos, but it’ll always be a spinoff. A tangentially connected series of traps and gory deaths. It also goes above and beyond in terms of its twist, offering perhaps the most convoluted last minute rug-pull in the series, which is really saying something. And, for my money, this absurd last-minute twist kind of hurts the film too. It stretches the believability a little too far.
It’ll be interesting to see if next year’s Spiral can avoid some of these pitfalls. The trailer so far looks really great, but will it do enough to feel like its own film? Or will it feel like an unnecessary addition like Jigsaw?
Saw IV was the first film in the franchise to not be written by original creator Leigh Whannell. Perhaps it was teething problems that led to this one being a little more forgettable than the others, or maybe it was the batshit insanity of Saw III that this one struggled to follow. But it’s decently entertaining on its own, with some really fun twists and great protagonist in Lyriq Bent’s Lt. Rigg – even if his death is a little underwhelming. It also does a disservice to Donnie Wahlberg’s Eric Matthews, who might get one of the series’ most rewatchable and hilarious deaths as his head is smushed between two giant blocks of ice, but he deserved better. Especially as his story didn’t feel quite complete.
One scene that I think is truly incredible in this film – in a pretty gross way – is the autopsy of Jigsaw in the first ten minutes of the film. Firstly, it’s ballsy to have Jigsaw play such a big role in the film, despite his death in the previous instalment. But this scene is a practical effects masterpiece. Yeah, don’t watch it when you’re eating, but the detail put into this scene is very impressive. Another great scene is the mausoleum trap in towards the beginning of the film; a nail-biting way to start.
This is the Saw film that I will defend as being way better than people say. With a pretty dismal critical response, Saw V is actually really good! Again, this is dependent on how much you’re willing to go along with the b-plot, which is pretty much like an anime at this point. But the films live or die based on their traps, and I think Saw V has some of the most interesting. It sees a group of five people wake up in a room, and they have to work together to get out. Of course they don’t, because the people Jigsaw usually picks aren’t the most moral characters. There’s decapitations, electrocutions, and explosions, as each challenge sees another person get picked off.
It ends with the two survivors having to cut through their own arms with table saws, in probably the grossest scene in the franchise in my opinion. They have to fill two beakers with blood, a task that would’ve been a hole lot easier if they’d worked together. This whole set up is really fun, and showed that the series was willing to mix things up, even if critics weren’t particularly fond of the result. It helps that one of the main characters in this is played by Far Cry 5′s Greg Bryk, who is just really great to watch here as a spoiled trust-fund kid with a penchant for arson.
The last one written by Leigh Whannell, Saw III really laid the groundwork for the insanity that was to follow. It also made the extremely insane decision to kill Jigsaw – through with his inoperable cancer he wasn’t long for this world anyway. You can kinda split the film series into the original trilogy, and then everything that came afterwards. So in a way, this works as an ending for that part of the franchise, and as an opening for the next “arc”. Jigsaw is dying, so he kidnaps a doctor to perform brain surgery on him. If she refuses, her head will be blown off by the shotgun shells in the collar around her neck. Unbeknown to her, her husband Jeff is taking part in his own game next door.
Some people HATE Jeff. Played by Angus MacFadyen, who I always think of as the weird villain of Equilibrium. He’s similarly schlubby here, running around in his pyjamas as Jigsaw puts him face to face with the people he holds responsible for the death of his young son in a hit and run accident. There are some great traps in this one, including an especially gross one than sees the driver of the car involved in the hit and run having his limbs slowly twisted off. But some people complain that Jeff is a bit slow, taking ages to decide whether to help these people or not. But I can’t explain it, something about MacFadyen’s sad everyman performance won me over, and gave Saw III some humanity that the other films often lack. In my opinion, it’s a worthy instalment.
Perhaps a controversial placement for the film that started it all, but it’s difficult to call it the best of the bunch when the films that followed it improve upon it in a lot of areas. But it’d also be wrong to fail to recognise the impact of the film. Filmed for just over one million dollars, the film’s box office was $103.9 million, showing how films like this could make serious money. It also launched the careers of director James Wan and writer/director Leigh Whannell, probably the best two people working in horror today. It also put into place all the elements that fans have come to expect; gruesome traps, lots of blood (though this original is probably more bloodless than you’d expect), the last-minute twist, the iconic score, and Jigsaw himself.
Looking back, it’s admirable that the film was able to do so much with so little. It looks quite cheap at parts, but that look would go on to define the aesthetic of the world moving forward, with the series often looking like a grim parody of David Fincher’s S7ven. Two men, stuck in a dirty bathroom with a corpse. They’re chained to a pipe, with a saw beside them. It appears to be simple. But even back at the start, the series made a habit of twists and turns and takes pleasure in revealing its cards over the runtime. Watching it now, the film is just as enjoyable, and it’s cheap feel only intensifies the dread in that room, possibly the most famous bathroom in cinema.
For me, Saw VI is the biggest surprise in this franchise. As the story is running at full throttle, fresh from the madness from the fourth and fifth instalments, this sixth film in a series based around people being killed in disgusting and crowd-pleasing ways is somehow excellent. Obviously, it has the usual traps and gore that keep the audiences happy, and has some of the most ludicrously entertain gore in the whole series. But it’s also weirdly smart, deciding to use Jigsaw’s morally ironic traps to make a point about the American healthcare system. Bear with me here.
The film follows William Easton (played by “that” guy Peter Outerbridge), a health insurance executive who routinely denies healthcare to the sick and dying, as it wouldn’t be profitable for the company. The man is cruel, hell he even has a tank of piranhas in his office (I never said the film was subtle). One unlucky man who is denied health insurance – effectively dealing him a death sentence – was John Kramer, AKA Jigsaw. Even after his death, he gets revenge on Easton by forcing him to play his games. One sees him choosing between his elderly and diabetic secretary and his young, healthy intern. She has a family. He is a loner. How would Easton’s health insurance formula calculate that? What is the worth of a human life? Another sees him having to save two out of six of his “dog pen” – his ruthless team that takes pleasure in finding errors in health insurance applications, thus denying them. This scene is extra cathartic for anyone who has ever worked alongside soulless sales people.
Ultimately, his fate is decided by the wife and son of a man who Easton left for dead. It’s nasty, but it’s also weirdly powerful. I think people are so used to the insanity of the American healthcare system that they don’t even bother making satire of it anymore. As someone who has known nothing except for the NHS, you guys across the pond have got it all wrong. As Jigsaw himself says, “Did you know that in the Far East, people pay their doctors when they’re healthy? When they’re sick, they don’t have to pay. So basically, they end up paying for what they want, not what they don’t want. We’ve got it all ass-backwards, here.”
My main reasoning for Saw II being the best (it could very easily have been Saw VI at the top spot) is that it does everything the first film does, only better. As is the case for many sequels, this sophomore effort improves on every element. The traps are bigger, but still suitably low-fi, the plot is twisty, and Jigsaw has a much more expanded role. Our protagonist for this film is Detective Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg) who looks like he’s just got done cosplaying as Max Payne. He drinks, he’s violent and corrupt, and he’s stuck on desk duty. After being named by Jigsaw in one of his recent games, Matthews and a team track him down and apprehend him. But it soon becomes apparent that this was his plan all along, and Matthews is the player in Jigsaw’s latest game.
The game involves a group of people trapped in a house. One of them is Detective Matthew’s son. There’s no escape, and they’re all going to be killed by a nerve gas unless they can find the antidote. Acting a precursor to the game of teamwork in Saw V, tensions start to fray as they fight for who gets the antidote – as well as who is going to subject themselves to the game to retrieve it. The franchise is in its element when it resembles a twisted social experiment, and this house of nerve gas, broken needles, and other traps is the most nerve-wracking in a series that thrives on it. As people are bumped off, either by traps or each other, things get desperate. Perhaps it’s due to the lack of a wider overarching story in this film (though there is a bit of Jigsaw backstory) that allows it to keep the momentum going all the way to the end, leaving you feeling like you need to gasp for air as the final twist is revealed.
It’s in the scenes between Wahlberg and Tobin Bell that the film really shines. If nothing else, Saw II proves that the secret ingredient to this franchise’s longevity, aside from the guilty pleasure of watching someone get killed in a horrible way, is Bell’s performance as Jigsaw. His voice has become instantly recognisable as Jigsaw, as has the fantastic “Hello Zepp”, which has become the theme of the series. Saw II does everything right.
So that’s my ranking. Do you agree? Or disagree? Or do you just think the franchise should die? Let me know.
At some point in 2021 we’ll see the release of Spiral, a film so bizarre, I still can’t quite believe it’s happening. I might rework this ranking after it releases, and see where it sits. Until then, stay safe!