Revisiting the Saw franchise: Saw and Saw II

With Saw 3D set to appear in cinemas, we take a timely look back at the franchise’s long, gory history, starting with Saw and Saw II…

This article contains spoilers.

Hello, readers. I want to play a game. For years, we have watched others suffer through the indignities of increasingly elaborate and illogical traps every Halloween. The suffering compounded, after the initial outings, into a soap opera of gore and twisty-turny plot bits. Now, you’re going to have to read about how I watched them all again before the final indignity hits the big screen on Friday. Let the game begin.

No, there’s no get-out clause in that little introduction, as so few of the traps in the latter Saw movies actually have those. You can click the Back button if you like, of course, but otherwise I’m presuming that you’re here because you’re interested in Saw, as I am.

From one surprisingly successful horror film, a gargantuan franchise has sprung, on the same scale as A Nightmare On Elm Street or Friday The 13th. At its centre, John “Jigsaw” Kramer, played by Tobin Bell, a monster of a different variety to thoughtless killers like Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees.

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He’s a man who’s on record saying that he abhors murderers, and yet believes that putting ne’er-do-wells through intensely violent trials can redeem them. In the earlier films, in particular, he has a cold logic that you can’t help but admire, even if you do totally disagree with his moral standpoint.

We don’t really meet him for the whole of Saw, the first film in the series, even though he’s onscreen for more of the running time than you first realise. Instead we’re looking at Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) and Adam Faulkner-Stanheight (Leigh Whannell), brought together in a dilapidated bathroom and encouraged by Jigsaw to saw through their chained feet in order to escape.

The complexities of the first film mount up and reveal themselves over 103 minutes. It’s Dr. Gordon’s task to kill Adam and secure both his freedom and the safety of his wife and kids. Circumstances have conspired to bring Gordon here for a long time, but he never suspects it might have something to do with one John Kramer being one of his terminal patients.

Another nice touch in the first film is Detective Tapp (Danny Glover), whose obsessive pursuit of Dr. Gordon gives the story outside of the bathroom a human element. We suspect Tapp might be Jigsaw, Tapp suspects that Gordon is Jigsaw and both trapped men suspect each other by turns.

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The reason why those who like Saw like it so much was because it’s smart as a whip, and it keeps an audience riveted even when they’re repulsed by such plot devices as the reverse bear trap or the room full of barbed wire. It has the kind of intelligence that would be missed in the later sequels.

For its ingenuity and interesting approach to the idea of redemptive torture, Saw made a splash when it romped into cinemas in 2004. It might not have been to everyone’s taste, but it made over $100m at the worldwide box office, and so Saw II, the first of many annual sequels, came out close to Halloween 2005.

Saw II brings in the cops en masse. Specifically, a SWAT team led by Detective Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg), who busts Jigsaw in his lair as he starts a new game, with several wasters stuck in a condemned house filled with his patented games of chance and torture. One of the people in Jigsaw’s grasp is Daniel, Eric’s son. A battle of wills ensues between Detective Matthews and Jigsaw, but one man’s refusal to listen to the other could have fatal consequences.

The squeam factor is ramped up considerably in the sequel, it has to be said. It starts a trend that reaches the terminal level of vomit inducing torture porn around about Saw IV, but it is at least still finding innovative ways to put characters through the wringer.

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The ‘needle in a haystack’ test, in particular, made me cringe more upon a repeat viewing, as Jigsaw survivor Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith), is chucked into the pit by despicable hustler Xavier. In the progressive shambles of traps, though, we see the beginning of the series’ undoing.

Where Saw found one compelling story to sustain the length of a feature, Saw II favours a house of horrors wherein some stock criminal characters travel from room to room while slowly choking on nerve gas. There’s some nice tension in the fact that they’re all connected by Matthews, in that he framed all of them except Daniel, who is, of course, his son.

The final twists in the tale here is equal if not better than the great reveal in the first film, as what the cops think is a live feed of Jigsaw’s latest game is actually revealed to be a recording of a game that has already concluded with the survival of Daniel and Amanda. While Daniel was in the room with his father the whole time, Amanda was Jigsaw’s woman on the inside, having been recruited following her survival in the first film.

I watched Saw and Saw II together for two reasons. Firstly, because watching more than two of these films in a row can become extremely demoralising. Secondly, they’re easily the best of the series, unless Saw VII has surprises up its sleeve later this week. They establish a strong villain in Jigsaw, and create an ambiguity about him that would, sadly, be destroyed in later films.

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That said, in Saw II, you can definitely see the beginnings of what the series would devolve into. Aside from the platforming of traps, this is the first film that goes for a kill before the opening credits. It’s a horror movie cliché that everybody is surely sick to death of, and one that becomes more and more tenuous with each passing Saw film.

Saw is the better film. That’s why it attracted actors like Cary Elwes and Danny Glover, not to mention Lost alumni Ken Leung and Michael Emerson, while the latter instalments go for less memorable presences.

Keeping it all together is Tobin Bell as Jigsaw. His importance in the series will become apparent when I look back at Saw III and Saw IV.


4 stars
Saw II