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Pru’s boo reviews: 19 years of ‘Saw’

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Rian Hughes

“I want to play a game.”

Jigsaw’s iconic catchphrase has been scaring cinemas for nearly two decades this fall, which saw the release of “Saw X,” the 10th entry in the long-running horror franchise. In order to celebrate 19 years of twists, traps and terrible reviews, here is a comprehensive ranking of every single film in the “Saw” saga, including “Saw X.”

Every “Saw” movie, with one notable exception, has an A-side and a B-side. The A-side is the plot narrative, featuring either Jigsaw and his acolytes or the detectives chasing him. The B-side is the trap narrative, following the victims of Jigsaw’s latest devious death traps as they attempt to make it out of each movie alive.

 

  1. An un-Saw-cessful trilogy capper: “Saw III” (2006)

The “Saw” franchise is notorious for building a plot with each subsequent entry, often beginning new installments right where the last one left off. The serialized nature of the serial killer series is a lot of fun, particularly in later movies in the series when the melodrama kicks into high gear. However, “Saw III” manages to fail both as a successor to the excellent “Saw II” and in queuing up “Saw IV.”

“Saw III” has a boring B-side, featuring Angus Macfadyen’s mopey and lethargic Jeff. Most of the traps in “Saw III” are successful in killing their victims via Jeff’s inaction, making him a protagonist difficult to root for. Meanwhile, the A-side of “Saw III” sees John Kramer, the Jigsaw Killer, rendered bedside and bereft. He lacks the usual gravitas of most “Saw” films, and the climax of the third installment ensures that he’ll never have the same presence in the movies again. “Saw III” wrote the franchise into a corner and used the least interesting characters to do it.

 

  1. Saw-turday morning cartoons: “Jigsaw” (2017)

After laying dormant for seven years, the “Saw” franchise returned in 2017’s “Jigsaw.” According to EW, the directors of the film, the Spierig Brothers, sought to make “‘Saw’ for 2017.” Michael Spierig described “Jigsaw” as a movie “not quite as vicious and more fun” than the original seven flicks. That sentiment shows. “Jigsaw” is colorfully shot and cartoonishly staged. Instead of fun, the film is goofy. At one point, two characters are trapped inside a grain silo while various weapons fall mere inches from their faces. The real surprise of the scene is that Wile E. Coyote and an anvil don’t come crashing down after them, too. 

“Jigsaw” is all about the consequences of a copycat Jigsaw killer coming out of the eaves to haunt the city John Kramer terrorized 10 years earlier. The real consequence of “Jigsaw” is that it feels like a copycat of earlier films in the franchise. 

 

  1. An in-Saw-sequential entry: “Saw IV” (2007)

“Saw IV” deserves pity for the raw deal it received as the film was forced to follow up “Saw III,” but pity doesn’t make for a particularly memorable “Saw” entry. As the franchise sought to find its footing again after shooting itself in the foot, “Saw IV” feels like a table-setter, introducing new characters and plot threads while clearing house of the old ones.

The film also gives John Kramer a tragic backstory. Rather than a twisted serial killer with a blackened moral code, “Saw IV” tries to give emotional weight and justification to Jigsaw’s actions, resulting in a muddled mess. It doesn’t help that the backstory is delivered in increasingly contrived flashbacks as a result of the events of “Saw III,” beginning a trend that crams Kramer into each subsequent film, regardless of narrative comprehensibility. Most of the traps in “Saw IV” are forgettable, and it’s a film best forgotten.

 

  1. The first swan Saw-ng: “Saw 3D” (2010)

In “Saw 3D,” blood is pink, guts fly at the camera and the original seven “Saw” films conclude with a whimper. The film feels like well-trodden territory, rehashing previous movies’ plot beats and plot twists but with a significant amount of plot holes. “Saw 3D” focuses on a man who has used a false claim of surviving one of Jigsaw’s traps to win fame and fortune with a self-help book and talk show gigs. This deceit draws the ire of Jigsaw, and the guy is forced to save his co-conspirators from a few 3D-enhanced death traps. The premise is interesting, but unfortunately saddled with being completely unbelievable, even for a series with as many twists and turns as “Saw” sports. Bobby, the fake victim, is played by Sean Patrick Flanery in a forgettable performance, and the mean-spirited finale mostly serves to make the audience feel bad for his wife.

The less said about the plot’s A-side, the better. Secrets are revealed and the battle for control of Jigsaw’s legacy is resolved, but “Saw 3D” is an ultimately one-dimensional experience compared to what the title promises.

 

  1. Chris Rock’s Saw-cky stand-alone: “Spiral: From the Book of Saw” (2021)

In 2021, Lionsgate released “Spiral: From the Book of Saw,” the first independent entry in the series since the original. Featuring comedian Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson, “Spiral” attempted to reinvigorate the franchise with a new killer and old tricks. Instead of following the pattern of previous films, which continued to up the ante of zaniness until the cartoonish failure of “Jigsaw,” “Spiral” goes back to the well with simple, brutal traps.

Instead of convoluted death traps, the film opted for a convoluted message. “Spiral,” with Rock as its police detective protagonist, goes for social commentary. The police department is under fire from the inside in “Spiral,” as Rock exposes corrupt cops while attempting to save those same officers from the new killer’s traps. Fitting for its pig-themed villain, the efforts are ham-fisted, and Rock is woefully miscast in a dramatic role. However, the attempt at telling a new story in the “Saw” universe was welcome freshness for the franchise, and Max Minghella is a standout as Rock’s rookie partner.

 

  1. Apprentice ver-Saw-s detective: “Saw V” (2008)

The traps in “Saw V” are all about the power of friendship. Featuring the best “Saw” victim team-up after “Saw II” and the most agonizing experience of watching characters make mistakes, “Saw V” is a unifying force. The B-side plot follows five victims stuck in collaborative traps designed to pick them off one at a time, with a particularly sick twist at the end.

The A-side plot, meanwhile, is a cat-and-mouse game being played between FBI agent Peter Strahm, played by Scott Patterson, and a Saw acolyte who’s infiltrated the police force. The first fifteen minutes of “Saw V” demonstrate that Strahm is handily the most resourceful character in the series, making him a “Saw” rarity: a protagonist to root for. The plot of the film feels as self-contained as the ultra-serialized franchise allows for while expounding on the set-up from “Saw IV” in a satisfying fashion. “Saw V” is the most tragic film in the series, but it still manages to stick its downer landing with style.

 

  1. Saw-xth time’s the charm: “Saw VI” (2009)

Though the use of John Kramer flashbacks in the “Saw” sequels is often cheap, “Saw VI” succeeds in using the device to morally graey effect. In “VI,” Kramer encounters corrupt insurance executive William, played with slimy charm by Peter Outerbridge. Through Kramer’s eyes, we witness William’s villainy firsthand, creating a scenario where a death-trap-building serial killer is easier to root for than his victim.

It’s a testament to the “Saw” movies’ seasoned efforts at social commentary that it works without feeling forced. “Saw VI,” similar to its sequel, “Saw 3D,” follows William through a series of traps his office employees and associates are at the mercy of. Unlike “Saw 3D,” however, William’s choices are more harrowing and disturbing than anything else in the series. The most iconic trap in the sixth installment is the Shotgun Carousel, which puts director Kevin Greutert’s spinning editing techniques to brutal use.

“Saw VI” wins further bonus points in the canon for starring Devon Bostick, better known as Roderick in “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” and granting the “Saw” universe with a clip of John Kramer saying “piranha.”

 

  1. The Saw-riginal: “Saw” (2004)

Two strangers wake up chained to the floor of a disgusting bathroom. An audio tape tells them one must kill the other to make it out alive. Should they choose to do so, they can free themselves with the two saws in the room with them. The game is afoot.

The original “Saw” is so compelling because, much like a Jigsaw trap, it’s well-constructed, well-acted and well-thought-out. The plot switches between the A-side of Leigh Whannell and Cary Elwes’ characters Adam and Lawrence in the bathroom and the B-side of Danny Glover as a detective following the trail of the Jigsaw Killer’s other traps. The tension in “Saw” stays as tightly wound as barbed wire all the way to the climax of both narrative arcs, which explode into one of the all-time twist endings. The template for so much of what the “Saw” series would become is there in the first film, and it stays imminently watchable nearly two decades later. 

 

  1. Heartwarming family dr-Saw-ma: “Saw X” (2023)

The newest “Saw” installment is also the most watchable. Set between the events of “Saw” and “Saw II,” “Saw X” finds John Kramer in Mexico seeking a cure for his cancer from a Norwegian experimental treatment group. Unfortunately for everyone involved, the treatment is a scam, leading an angry Jigsaw to exact his revenge on the group with a new series of creative death traps. However, what’s fascinating about “Saw X” is that it opts to do something different from its predecessors. 

The film is told entirely from the perspective of John Kramer. Tobin Bell’s chillingly charismatic performance as Jigsaw is the best part of many of the “Saw” movies, which makes it more surprising that it took ten attempts for the filmmakers to fully capitalize on his talents. The movie is inside Jigsaw’s head in a way that makes him a fun protagonist. Being on Kramer’s side of the twist, for once, brings the audience into the story in a way that no other “Saw” film has managed, and the end result is vastly entertaining. Kramer is undeniably twisted and shockingly screwed up, but in “Saw X,” he’s an antihero on a hunt for justice. However, the fact that his brand of justice is building death traps is what keeps “Saw X” a “Saw” film.

The traps are as creative as ever in this installment, even ten movies in. The poster spoils the best one, which sees a guy with tubes strapped to his face that threaten to suck out his eyeballs. Kramer’s accomplice, series-favorite Amanda Young, is back in this film as well, once again played by Shawnee Smith. Smith and Bell have their “Saw” repartee nailed down, easing back into the characters and the ambiguous nature of their relationship as though 17 years hadn’t gone by since “Saw III,” the last film they have much to do together. The bond the two have makes “Saw X” feel like a happy family reunion.

“Saw X” is unusual as long-running horror series go. It’s easy to recommend as a starting point for new fans even as the tenth installment. It’s got more wit and charm than its three predecessors put together and it has an emotional beating heart to boot. It’s a “Saw X” out of 10.

 

  1. A superior Saw-quel: “Saw II” (2005)

Even if “Saw” is more iconic and “Saw X” is a better flick, “Saw II” is the best “Saw” movie. Picking up right where the first left off, the sequel builds on the “Saw” mythos with future series staples like groups of victims, booby-trapped houses and the best Jigsaw wordplay in the franchise. The twist in “Saw” shouldn’t be spoiled, but “Saw II” has two times the twists and turns, and is two times more fun because of it. Jigsaw and his followers come to play a game in “Saw II,” and we’ve been playing along ever since.

“Saw X” Rating: 5/5 Yosefs

Kaitlyn Close
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About the Contributors
Pruett Norris, Multimedia Editor
Pruett Norris (he/him) is a senior double majoring in English with a concentration in Film Studies and Electronic Media/Broadcasting. This is his second year with The Appalachian.
Rian Hughes, Associate Graphics Editor
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Comments (2)

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  • I

    Isabella RoseOct 14, 2023 at 10:20 am

    Once you’ve seen yourself, you saw yourself.

    Reply
  • P

    Piper RobbinsOct 13, 2023 at 1:59 pm

    I particularly liked, in Saw, when they would be sawed.

    Reply