As news lands of a new Saw movie, here’s when we went back over the seven films to day, in just one day…
The Saw movies are a genuine phenomenon. When the first movie came out, it felt original and exciting; while most early 2000s horror was tired and toothless, a reheated soup of J-horror clichés, sequels, and remakes, Saw was different. It was cheap and scrappy, bursting with ideas. It blindsided audiences: it was a small film, made by a first-time writer and director, starring nobody in particular, produced by an independent studio, and yet it became massive. It felt bold, new, and above all, extreme. People couldn’t stop talking about it.
And it made so much money that a sequel was immediately rushed into production. And then another, and another, and another. The Saw franchise became a Halloween tradition, to the point where other horror movies had to be scheduled around it, because when a new Saw came out, that’s all anyone would be watching. It was relentless, and, if you were a horror fan, ubiquitous. You couldn’t get away from it: whether you loved it or hated it, you knew all about it.
Despite being a total horror junkie, it took me a while to warm to the franchise. I saw the first one on DVD and found it scary enough, but didn’t fall for it as much as I did Hostel. I saw the second one at the cinema and found it dopey and irritating; I went to see the third one at the cinema and hated it. I gave up on Saw for a while, but decided to give it another chance in 2010 after going on the Saw themed rollercoaster at Thorpe Park. During a week-long Saw binge leading up to the release of Saw 3D, I fell in love. And ever since then, I’ve been convinced that Saw is the best horror franchise that’s ever existed.
I haven’t been able to convince many other people. But it’s been nearly a decade since the first Saw movie was released, and since then, the torture porn wave has come and gone, only to be replaced by yet another stream of haunted house movies and 15-rated snoozefests. Now seemed like a good time to revisit the franchise, and since the films become increasingly interlinked and complicated as they go on, what better way to do it than attempting to watch them all in one 24-hour period?
I know, I know, you think I’ve lost my mind. I suspected as much, too. I spent the entire week beforehand veering between feeling excited and worrying that I was making a terrible mistake. The Saw movies have often been denounced for their violent content; even many horror fans don’t hold them in high regard, and watching seven movies of any kind in one sitting is hard enough, let alone ones that are trying to make you feel scared, anxious, and grossed-out. I watched all six Star Wars films in one day during the Christmas holidays last year and by the time I got to Return Of The Jedi I felt like I’d fused with the sofa.
To make matters worse, I was planning to do this crazy thing in the company of one friend who’d only ever seen Saws I to III, and another friend who’d never seen any of them. Would they be permanently emotionally scarred? Would they ever speak to me again afterwards? Would we greet the opening credits of Saw 3D by chewing one another’s faces off? Or would we just end up with a new perspective on the franchise? We gathered together some cuddly toys and chocolate to offer emergency comfort, and settled in…
We started watching Saw at 2.30pm on Saturday afternoon, with heavy snow falling outside and warm mugs of tea clutched in our hands. (We’d laid in huge supplies of alcohol, but now didn’t seem like a good time to start drinking it.) The first thing that really struck me about it is how cheap it looks; it’s a low budget film shot in under three weeks, but somehow, time had blurred its rough edges in my mind. But it’s really cheap-looking. Jigsaw’s red-lined cape looks like a mass-produced Halloween costume, all of the sets look like the same room, and there’s an amazingly terrible car chase where it’s painfully obvious the actors are just sitting in stationary cars as dry ice wafts around them.
The dialogue is occasionally clumsy, and the less said about the acting, the better. The fact that Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannell are English and Australian respectively, both doing dodgy American accents, adds a layer of silliness to all of their scenes together, and the only person who manages to look convincingly scared or upset at any point is Shawnee Smith. (She’s great, though.)
It’s nowhere near as gory as everyone thought it was when it was released, either. Maybe it was all blown out of proportion, or time has desensitised me, or movies have got more gory, but watching Saw now, I can see that a lot of the gore is implied, rather than explicitly shown. There’s really very little torture in the film.
And in spite of its many, many flaws, it’s still got something. The mystery is compelling, the logic puzzles are clever, and Jigsaw’s warped vigilantism is really interesting. Although most of the aesthetic choices in the film were made because of the budget constraints, they nonetheless dictated what horror movies would look like for years afterwards, as even films with three or four times as much money to throw around as Saw strove to look cheap and grubby. Knowing what would come later somehow makes me feel affectionate towards that first Saw movie. After all, it’s really just a small, enthusiastic movie made by a bunch of guys trying really hard.
Saw II, on the other hand, is… not very good, in hindsight. I didn’t like it much the first time round, and time hasn’t really softened my opinion. It’s immediately far gorier than the first film, and it’s also immediately obvious that more money was spent on it. While Saw was made for a little over a million dollars, Saw II had a budget of around $4 million, and you can tell. The sets look less wobbly, the effects are more elaborate and gruesome, and there are tons more characters involved.
Like every horror sequel since the beginning of time, it’s more complicated, and involves more characters dying. It also contains multiple references to the original movie – even returning to the original bathroom at one point. It’s interesting to see how the franchise has already started building up its own mythology, beginning to introduce characters who’ll be more important later on, and papering over a few cracks from the first film.
But there’s something about the structure of the main trap that I don’t think quite works, and the fact that the lesson for Detective Mathews is “shut up and don’t do anything” seems kind of stupid. I like Jigsaw’s games best when they’re simple, straightforward, “what will you do to survive?” games, and though I dig the chronology twist at the end, it’s a bit overwrought.
Before we started on Saw III, we decided to grab the last bit of available daylight and went for a walk outside. This might actually be the most important thing I’ve learned from movie marathons: taking a break to stretch your legs, move around, and get some fresh air is vitally, vitally important. Even when it’s snowing and so cold you can’t talk to one another because your teeth hurt when you open your mouth and the air hits them. We also ordered pizza, which, again, is crucial to a movie marathon.
And then we watched the Saw movie I knew everyone would hate.
Saw III is an odd beast because, while the previous two movies split their time fairly equally between the victims playing Jigsaw’s games and the police investigating the case, III spends most of its time with John and Amanda. As an obsessive fan of the franchise, I love that about it, but for anyone who hasn’t seen the later movies, it seems kind of dull, and needlessly in love with its own mythology. Which, of course, it is. It’s also longer than the previous two movies, and it does drag a bit as a result.
To make matters worse, Saw III contains probably the grossest trap of the entire franchise: the one where the judge almost drowns in a vat of liquidised rotten pig goo. The idea of making a grieving father push past his pain and find forgiveness is an interesting one, and it kind of fits Jigsaw’s MO, his bizarre need to make sure everyone properly appreciates his or her life, but somehow the dramatic tension doesn’t quite work.
And they killed Kerry. Detective Allison Kerry, the one cop we’ve seen actually doing proper police work in the entire franchise so far, dies in a rigged trap and it feels massively unfair. (During this marathon, someone yelled “Oh my God, they killed Kerry!” and it barely made me laugh because IT’S KERRY, DAMN IT, AND SHE SHOULDN’T HAVE DIED.)
The storyline about Amanda misinterpreting John’s mission and setting up unbeatable traps makes sense only on a surface level, because even in the first movie, some of the games are so difficult they might as well be impossible. (The one with the benefit cheat who gets burned alive is particularly harsh!) Still, I think maybe worrying too much over the potential hypocrisy of a fictional lunatic is probably useless, so I’m trying to let it go.
Having seen the later Saw movies, it’s interesting how much of Saw III is about shuffling the pieces around, putting things that will be important later in place now, even if it seems pointless. So while John and Amanda both die at the end of this movie, we’re introduced, briefly, to the characters who’ll ensure the Saw franchise can continue: John’s ex-wife, Jill Tuck, and forensic detective Hoffman, who’s shown in a seemingly incongruous lingering shot at one of the crime scenes. I think that’s why I don’t hate this film as much as I hated it the first time – it feels like part of a whole, now that I know what’s coming, and not just like an incomprehensible mess of a movie. Because it still kind of is that, if you’re watching the films for the first time.
Halfway through Saw III, I started drinking. I knew from the outset that getting through III and IV would be the hardest bit of the whole endeavour, and beer helped. Because Saw IV is incomprehensible, and frustrating, and hideous to look at. Darren Lynn Bousman, who also directed Saw II and III, seems to have been getting more and more colourblind as the franchise goes on, because Saw IV is green. Overwhelmingly green. Super green. The editing, which had been hyperactive from the beginning, has become so jarring by this point it could give you motion sickness.
The film opens with John Kramer’s autopsy, which is ballsy. It almost feels like a statement. This isn’t one of those franchises where the villain is unkillable; John is very, very dead. But the autopsy is also kind of a fake out, because chronologically, it doesn’t happen until the end of this film. The only reason it appears at the beginning is so that the film can go for one of those Saw II style twists, but here it’s really disorienting.
The events of Saw IV actually run concurrently with Saw III, which is only revealed at the end, and we spent at least 10 minutes after the credits rolled going, “wait… so how did they know…” “Hang on… so, which tape was that, again?” and trying to unravel what happened when. It’s not satisfying, it’s just really, really annoying. Even having seen this film twice doesn’t help.
And then there’s the police stuff. Since almost all the local police force has been killed at this point, the FBI show up to help, and we’re introduced to Detectives Strahm and Perez. It’s kind of funny watching this film with people who hadn’t seen it before, because they had exactly the same issue with it that I did to begin with: namely, that Scott Patterson, who plays Strahm, looks way too much like Costas Mandylor, who plays Hoffman, to the point where it’s actually confusing.
What also doesn’t help is that the central game in the film is infuriatingly confused. It takes the one member of the original detectives working on the Jigsaw case, Rigg (who actually doesn’t show up until Saw II, continuity fans!) and throws him into a game in which the lesson he has to learn is that he can’t save everyone. Like Saw II, if he’d just sat down and waited for the clock on his game to run out, everything would have been okay. It’s somehow an even more confusing message here, and no matter how many times they explain the trap that Mathews and Hoffman are put into, I can’t make sense of it.
Really, there’s only one interesting thing about Saw IV: it’s at this point in the franchise that a new writing team took over. The first three movies were all written or co-written by Leigh Whannell; Saw IV is the point that Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton, the writers of Feast, take the reins. This movie sees them wrap up all the loose ends leftover from the first few movies, and dive into their own version of the Saw mythology. And that’s when things get awesome.
At this point, you’re probably wondering why I claim to be a Saw fan, when all I’ve done is complain about things in Saws II to IV. Well, the reason is that V and VI are not only great, they actively fix the problems with the earlier movies, and create the illusion that the entire franchise makes perfect sense. The story simultaneously moves forwards and backwards, as old plot holes are reopened and then filled in, in a way that makes the earlier films seem smarter. It’s an amazing bit of sleight of hand.
So, right, Saw V. After the hideousness of Saw IV, Saw V’s muted colours were kind of soothing to look at, especially because scenes started to actually resemble things you might see in the real world. That makes a big difference to how watchable it is.
Also, there are some actual recognisable actors in this movie, for maybe the first time since the original Saw! Julie Benz, of Buffy, Angel, and Dexter, is one of five people in a new Jigsaw game, along with Greg Bryk, of Weirdsville and some other stuff that’s not as good as Weirdsville.
The game itself is like a better version of the game from Saw II, in that there are several people trapped in a game, and working together is the only way out, but since they’re all there for being bad people, they don’t do that. The final part of the game is so horrifically violent I had to break into the emergency chocolate (and watch through my fingers). The cleverness of the trap, combined with the improved acting, makes this part of the film engaging, which it hasn’t really been since the first film.
The police angle is interesting here, too. Things got complicated after Hoffman was revealed as another Jigsaw accomplice in Saw IV, but the FBI agents are slightly more competent than every other cop we’ve seen in the franchise, and it often seems they’re on the brink of discovering his involvement. Along with the current trap and current investigation, though, Saw V goes way, way back to the beginning of the story, and even further, and explains how Hoffman got involved with John Kramer.
It turns out his sister was murdered, and the man who killed her got off with a fairly light sentence, so Hoffman, being a bit of a psycho, decided to use the fact that there was a lunatic out there murdering people in complicated traps to take revenge: he built his own unwinnable Jigsaw trap, and shoved his sister’s murderer into it. But John took umbrage at this, and kidnapped Hoffman to blackmail him into becoming, basically, his muscle.
What’s clever about this is that it answers a question that’s been hanging over the franchise so far: how did John Kramer, a frail old man dying of cancer, possibly manage to kidnap so many people and put them into elaborately built traps anyway? He had to have had help, and the idea that Amanda, a recovering heroin addict, could have provided that help is a little hard to accept. Hoffman is a perfect solution. His assistance also partially explains where John managed to find out about all these escaped criminals in the first place, and the idea of a crooked cop helping a vigilante carry out a twisted version of justice is kind of perfect.
Obviously, Hoffman was introduced in Saw III, and revealed as an accomplice in IV, so V can’t take all the credit, but it’s the film that shows how it all came about, and the new flashback footage, expanding on scenes we’ve already seen at least once already, is seamless. It’s retroactive continuity, sure, but it doesn’t actually change what happened – it just adds to it. And that’s something that’s been a theme of the movies since the very beginning: what you think you see isn’t necessarily the whole picture.
(There’s even a line in the first movie that goes something like “there’s another picture underneath the one you’re looking at”, which is apparently about one photograph being tucked underneath another one in a wallet, but in light of the later movies, seems more significant than that.)
The finale of Saw V is both immensely satisfying and incredibly gross, as Hoffman finally outsmarts Strahm and, apparently, gets away with murder. But there are still two more films left in the franchise… At this point, despite the fact it was nearly midnight, we went for another walk around the block. It was even colder than before, and we didn’t go very far, but the shock of the cold and fresh air managed to wake us up enough to tackle another Saw film. Saw VI is my favourite of the whole franchise, because it’s everything that Saw V was, but even better.
It’s immediately gory as hell, as two bank employees are forced to chop bits off their bodies to atone for the sin of lending money to people they knew would never be able to afford to pay it back. It’s gross, and pointed, and the part of my brain that wants Jigsaw’s traps to always be fair wonders whether it’s okay to put people in a position where they can’t both escape, but then I remember the dude who swallowed the key in Amanda’s original test and decide, again, that I will never entirely understand how John Kramer thinks, and that’s probably for the best.
Speaking of Jigsaw, Tobin Bell gets to do some great stuff in this movie. Although John died in Saw III, he’s appeared in flashbacks ever since, and here he gets to ham it up as his pre-Jigsaw self, arguing with his health insurance provider about the kind of treatment he should be entitled to for his brain cancer. The guy who refuses him coverage is the one being tested now, as he’s forced to make his way through an elaborate maze where his employees rely on him to choose whether they live or die. Again, it’s not quite fair, but shhhh. It’s kind of cool. The parallels being drawn between Easton, head of Umbrella Health, and John Kramer, psychopath, are interesting, even as they’re both too self-righteous to notice them. (I love the scene at the cocktail party so much.)
So, yeah, the trap is great, with an especially vicious twist at the end. The Jigsaw flashback stuff is great. And the flashbacks about Hoffman and Amanda are also great, because they change Amanda’s histrionics in Saw III from pathetic to completely understandable and sympathetic! I think that’s why I can now watch Saw III more happily, because I know it’s not as stupid as it seems. Or rather, it is, but Saw VI suggests an alternative interpretation of the events.
There’s some cool police stuff going on, too, as Hoffman’s plan to frame Strahm fools no-one. He gets caught when a magic computer technician somehow manages to unscramble the recording he left on the tape for his sister’s killer. Even the computer wizardry is forgivable, because the scene where Hoffman paces around like a caged bear as the tape plays “right now, you’re feeling helpless” over and over again in a coded voice that’s increasingly recognisable as his is wonderfully tense. Unfortunately, he manages to escape by murdering everyone, including the franchise’s second competent police officer. RIP Perez!
Saw VI also gives Jill, John’s ex-wife, something to do. She’s been around for a while – she appears in soft focus romantic flashbacks in Saw III, she appears in horrible sickening nasty flashbacks in Saw VI, and she’s around in Saw V, mostly being interrogated, but here she plays an actual role in how things play out, and the final scene, where she betrays Hoffman, is brilliant.
The end of Saw VI is as awesome as this franchise gets, for my money. It’s an oddly satisfying ending, tying up all of the loose ends of the franchise so far. And it’s where, during this particular marathon, we gave up and went to bed.
But of course, there was one film left to watch. Thanks to Saw VI’s relatively dismal box office returns (it only made around $68 million, as opposed to Saw V’s $114 million), the general public’s decreasing appetite for Saw’s brand of cop-show-with-extreme-gore horror, and the launch of the equally profitable Paranormal Activity franchise, Lionsgate decided to wrap up the Saw franchise, and they wanted to go out with a bang – in 3D.
A 3D Saw movie is clearly, obviously, a terrible idea, but somehow, it happened. It’s about as awful as you’d expect, with bits of metal and guts flying towards the screen during each death scene. But, urgh, sadly, the seventh Saw film would have been terrible even in 2D, because it has an awful script and terrible acting.
I didn’t really want to watch it, but I had two Saw virgins staying in my flat who wanted closure on the whole crazy experiment. (I’m oddly impressed that they were so keen; you’d think they’d be burnt out by the experience, but apparently not!) So, sausage sandwiches in hand, we watched it.
Saw 3D starts out where Saw VI left off, with Hoffman managing to outsmart the reverse bear trap and chasing down a horrified Jill. He basically becomes a slasher movie villain here, walking slowly towards his fleeing victims as they run away from his knife, and I think maybe that’s part of the reason this film doesn’t work for me. Part of the appeal of Saw is that it isn’t about a guy with a knife, it’s about an elaborate machine that forces victims to test their survival instinct. Some guy stabbing you doesn’t have much to do with your own character. It’s just a bit dull.
The other problem is that all of the new characters in this film are really, really, really super annoying. An internal affairs officer shows up – about time, really, all things considered – and basically does nothing except twitch and tell people they’re crazy. (His explanation of a safe house – “It’s a SAFE… HOUSE!” is particularly irritating). A man who’s written a book about surviving a Jigsaw trap, Bobby Dagen, gets stuck in a trap for real (remember, Jigsaw hates it when people impersonate him) and somehow at least half of the games carry a strong whiff of misogyny, something that’d happily been missing from the franchise until this point.
Most annoyingly, Cary Elwes is back, and though that should be cool, it’s not. The reveal that Dr Gordon was another Jigsaw recruit who’d been doing surgery for John throughout the early traps half works, because it does explain who did all that careful implantation of keys in people’s eyes, but it’s too late to add in another accomplice, especially since we’ve seen so many scenes in flashback already. It kind of doesn’t make sense that we’d never seen him before. On this rewatch, I did notice that the early films are careful never to explain where Gordon went when he crawled out of the original bathroom game, though, so I guess I’ll forgive it.
What I’m less willing to forgive, though, is the stupid dream sequence right in the middle of this movie. Saw has always been about tricking you into thinking one thing was happening when, actually, something else was going on, but it’s always been through carefully not showing you everything in a scene, not by throwing in footage that never happened at all. A dream sequence feels like a betrayal of all the deliberate retconning that’d been done up until this point. It’s lazy, awful writing, and it makes me spit. I thought it’d be less annoying this time round, but no – it’s still terrible.
I love this franchise, for all its flaws, and it would’ve been great for it to go out on a high. From Lionsgate’s perspective, I guess it did; it brought in $136 million at the box office, which is hard to argue with. And as much as I dislike the final film, compared to almost every other horror franchise in history, Saw is remarkably consistent.
It’s incredible, really, that the films were made so quickly, so cheaply, and with most of the same people on board throughout; it makes Saw a franchise that almost seems like a time capsule, a distillation of the interests and concerns of a mainstream audience during the mid-2000s. Already, some parts of it feel a little dated, but it’s also already fascinating to see how the films deal with things like terrorism, the Iraq war, and the economic crisis.
As much stick as this franchise gets, as much as people sneer at it and assume that it’s just lowest common denominator crap churned out for profit rather than art… I wonder. I wonder what we’ll think of it in the future. In years to come, the fact that these films attracted so much attention, that they were seen by so many people, might just come to seem significant, and like maybe there’s something they have to say about who we were, at this moment in time. Or maybe, y’know, people might just rediscover them as popcorn entertainment.
I thought this marathon might change my mind; that seeing the films again, through fresh eyes, might diminish them, but I still stand by my earlier statement: the Saw franchise is the best horror franchise ever. And my friends still seem to be talking to me, and they still have all of their limbs intact, so… let’s call that a success, shall we?
This article originally appeared in 2013.
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