Discover more from The Weekly Stuff Wordcast
Ranking all 10 SAW Films for Halloween
I want to play a game, and it involves top 10 lists
I’ve been fascinated by the Saw movies for a long, long time, even though I only watched them all for the first time this month. The first film came out when I was only 12, in 2004, and for most of the original run of 7 films – Saw through Saw 3D, released annually in October 2004 to 2010 – I was too young to go see these hard-R rated movies, and even I’d wanted to sneak in and see them illicitly, I didn’t grow up in a household that was big on horror movies of any kind, let alone these newfangled hyper-violent ‘torture porn’ films, so I wasn’t really wired to go out of my way to break the rules and seek them out.
Still, these grisly movies engrossed me from afar; I’d read the Wikipedia plot summary of each new movie when it arrived, intrigued by the intricate serial storytelling and the weird, unexpected swings the movies would sometimes take, like killing their lead character at the end of the third movie and then continuing for 4 more films, all still top-billed by Tobin Bell, without breaking a sweat. I’d read about the traps or sometimes watch clips online and be grossed out and horrified, but also kind of transfixed. What was the appeal here, I’d wonder, and why do I want to see more?
I’ve made a conscious effort to see more horror films in the last five years or so, and I’ve developed both an intense interest in and a genuine affection for long-running horror franchises. I took the plunge and watched all 13 Halloween films this time last year, and with the Saw franchise being revived once again with this month’s Saw X, I decided this October would be the season I’d finally strap myself in for the Jigsaw journey.
And I’m really glad I did. The Saw films are not always ‘good,’ but they are almost always strangely, singularly compelling, a set of annualized horror movies built on twin poles of extreme graphic violence and intensely interconnected narrative serialization. Bingeing them in 2023 feels more like watching a few seasons of modern streaming TV than a movie series, except for the fact that Netflix doesn’t generally make shows where people have to cut their own limbs off or crawl through a tub full of syringes. These films are cruel and twisted and frequently in terrible taste, and also genuinely kind of ambitious in their storytelling and themes. Where most long-running horror franchises are a nightmare of conflicting continuities, with a central ‘monster’ whose masked form means he can be played by anyone – see Halloween or Friday the 13th or Texas Chainsaw – Saw is a single, increasingly complicated narrative, and its main ‘monster’ is so inextricably linked to a single actor that even after killing him off, the series would keep Tobin Bell employed for six more films.
These movies are, to put it mildly, a trip. Describing what happens in them to the uninitiated makes one sound like a crazy person (I know I’ve worsened my brother’s day on several occasions by off-handedly describing some of the traps before realizing how awful it sounded out of context). But of course, that’s part of the fun. Now that I’ve seen all 10, I had to do what I do best, which is to rank them from least to greatest, and write at length about all of them. Surprisingly, the only one I outright disliked is the very bottom entry here; many of the others are hardly ‘good,’ but I definitely enjoyed my time with them, and I think the top 3 here – which span the entire 20-year history of the series – are actually pretty great.
So without further ado: Hello reader. I want to play a game, and rank some Saw movies.
2017, Dir. The Spierig Brothers
Even at their worst, the original run of Saw movies and this year's Saw X have things I find interesting, have an identifiable sense of style and storytelling that makes them fun to work through as a collection. But damn near everything about Jigsaw feels off. This is the first and only film in the franchise not directed by someone connected to the original run of films, and it feels like a much more generic version of Saw, if it feels like Sawat all. It’s slicker and sleeker, in 'scope' widescreen with squeaky-clean digital photography, and none of the grime or grit or grainy texture of the other films. The characters feel much more like stock horror movie victims, with everyone bickering and acting like idiots in a way they generally don’t in this series. And all the stuff with the cops just feels and looks like any generic police procedural; every time it cuts away from the barn, I wonder if I've sat on the remote and accidentally changed the channel to NCIS. There’s none of the weird, grimy, off-kilter attitude defining the other movies. It’s technically Saw, but if it weren’t for Tobin Bell's presence or Charlie Clouser’s music, it could just as easily be any number of other horror films made in the wake of the Saw phenomenon.
The film doesn't even get the basic horror elements right. Jigsaw's traps here aren't particularly creative, and it’s completely out of character for him to make ‘getting the instructions’ a part of the trap, a piece of the game the participants have to figure out. Jigsaw is nothing if not a stickler for rules, and he's usually extremely direct about what he wants his victims to do (hence the phrase "make your choice" - he's usually giving them binary options). He’s not someone who leaves his victims guessing about what they need to do, but so much of this film is watching the victims scurry about like rats in a maze just trying to figure out the parameters of the game.
And there's no teeth to the violence at all. This is apparently the only one in the series that never had problems getting an R from the MPAA – for the first time there’s no “unrated” cut – and you can see why, because it’s all so toothless and generic. The thing that’s fun about Saw is that it feels wrong. It feels taboo. You know it’s fucked up to be watching, that you will sound like a lunatic if you describe these images to people who haven't seen the movies, and that’s part of the thrill. You want the moments where you wince and close your eyes and look away, and then look back in macabre fascination, admiring the audacity and the craftsmanship of the makeup and prosthetics teams. And there’s basically nothing here that does any of that. The 'laser collar' at the very end is the closest this comes to feeling like vintage Saw, and then they completely cop out on the final 'money shot' by doing it entirely in CGI, so it doesn't have any bite. If I want to see a face fall apart with video game graphics, I'd go play Resident Evil or The Last of Us. You come to a horror movie like this to see practical effects gurus have a field day. And Jigsaw cheats us on that big time.
The flirtation with having Jigsaw come “back from the dead” is of course something the movie doesn’t actually have the balls to do, but they sure make you wait for the reveal. The combination of "Is Jigsaw dead?!" with "repeating the exact same twist of Saw II" (where two seemingly contiguous timelines are revealed to be separate) is a special kind of frustrating. I’m not going to claim any of the Saw movies are genius works of narrative intrigue, but they genuinely reward close attention; part of the fun is investing in the convoluted story and picking up on various details and seeing how it all comes together in the closing minutes, sort of like a gory low-rent Sherlock Holmes story. The twists are, at least, honest. They're not cheating you, if you're paying attention. They’re not made to make you feel stupid. This one milks the "No, really, we swear Jigsaw is alive!"bullshit for so long that it really feels like it thinks the audiences are rubes to be fooled. And when we do finally get to the big twist, it’s so labored. The other films wrap up pretty quickly, where this one spends so long expositing everything at the end that you’re bored of it by the time credits roll.
We do at least get some quality Tobin Bell time once he finally shows up, and he's never anything less than great. And Charlie Clouser is always excellent on the soundtrack – I particularly like the opening version of the main theme that plays over the Lionsgate logo here. It's excellent.
Otherwise? This sucks. It is easily the worst in the series, and while I can imagine revisiting the mainline series (1-7 and X) again in a few years and having a fun time, this one will be an easy skip.
9. SAW V
2008, Dir. David Hackl
This one is mostly wheel-spinning as the demands of annualized horror wear on the series, resulting in the least substantial film made to this point. Saw V advances the grand Saw meta-narrative a tiny bit by giving us Hoffman’s origin story and backfilling some details from the other films, but it mostly plays like filler, an ‘episode’ you could miss, tune in again next week, and not feel like you missed anything essential. Saw IV, after all, ends with Agent Strahm seemingly trapped without recourse in Hoffman’s clutches, and the story just moves in a big ol’ cul-de-sac here, with Strahm getting a reprise at the beginning, going on to pursue Hoffman for the rest of the movie, and then dying horribly (albeit memorably and very definitively) at the end without having exposed Hoffman’s crimes, so nothing that happens here really matters.
The main ‘torture’ story with five people playing a deadly game of musical chairs has its moments, but also feels fairly perfunctory. The last trap is definitely gnarly, and there’s a practical effect involving an arm falling apart that is absolutely fantastic, but for the most part, this isn’t one of Jigsaw’s better ‘games.’ There are a few other impressive gore effects here, particularly in the first scene with the big swinging blade, and I appreciate Strahm surviving the water helmet contraption by giving himself a tracheotomy with a pen. That’s fun.
Otherwise? There’s not much here, though if you’re into these movies to begin with, there are definitely worse ways to spend 90 minutes.
8. SAW 3D
2010, Dir. Kevin Greutert
This one is a fucking trip.
By most metrics, Saw 3D should be the worst film in the series. Tobin Bell only appears in two scenes – one 44 minutes in, and again at the very end – and the two other remaining franchise stalwarts (Betsy Russell and Costas Mandylor) are weirdly sidelined for much of the run-time, leaving a void filled by some of the absolute worst performances I've ever seen in a mainstream Hollywood release. Coupled with the noisy, garishly-colored cinematography – a byproduct of viewing this 3D production in 2D, as it has mostly been seen since its theatrical release – and disappointingly chintzy production design, Saw 3D often looks and feels like it's being shot in between takes of a Halloween-themed porno. It's also the most crass, sadistic, and exploitative of the series, opening with a brazenly misogynistic trap where a woman is cut in half by her jealous lovers, and exhibiting an above-average level of pain and misery on everyone else for the rest of the run-time. It's sleazy, it's dirty, and you kind of feel like you need to take a shower afterward.
But I still kind of like it?
Let me justify that – I like it by the specific, weird standards of this weird, gross series. Saw 3D is trying to fulfill two major, somewhat conflicting objectives at once: Wrap up the story of the incredibly convoluted Saw saga – since Saw VI underperformed and the producers decided to close shop after this one – and deliver a Saw-themed 3D amusement park attraction. That latter imperative is clearly the logic underlying this film's traps and approach to narrative, and when it’s just the crazy 3D blood and viscera (even viewed in 2D), it's enjoyable in a shlocky, low-rent way. If Universal Studios had NC-17-rated attractions, this movie would make the most sense in that format, taking visitors from room-to-room and letting them 'experience' different, particularly gnarly (and multi-dimensional) traps. The lack of Tobin Bell or the other series regulars in the main 'game' material here even fills the theme park logic, in the way a lot of 'rides' don't get the actual actors or characters from the movie. Kevin Greutert is better than any of the other Saw directors when it comes to the traps themselves, and this one doesn't disappoint – the Rube-Goldberg-style car trap for the skinheads is both righteous and hilarious.
As a narrative conclusion to the Saw saga, Saw 3D is obviously lacking, though I think the final twist and montage with Cary Elwes coming back and revealing himself as Jigsaw's most trusted apprentice is a fun, appropriately goofy way to tie things together. Mostly, this one just feels pretty disconnected from the other movies; where Saw VI does such a great job tying all the characters together and making Jigsaw's presence felt from beyond the grave, a lot of Saw 3D feels like a lower-rent spin-off.
That said, once this movie fully gets cooking, the last half-hour or so is pretty good; the intercutting in the final act is solid, I like how Hoffman's crazy plan comes together, and seeing him become a good ol' slasher movie monster is fun. And then there’s the 'pectoral muscles trap,' which the movie builds to the same way Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning ramps up to Tom Cruise's crazy cliff jump – it knows the money shot to end all money shots (relative to each series' particular aspirations) is coming, and it’s going to milk the hell out of it. And for good reason, because it is a great trap. There is a speed and intensity to the final stretch, helped along by an extra propulsive score by Charlie Clouser, that a lot of the sequels are missing in how much they bounce around in time and between subplots.
Honestly, the worst thing about Saw 3D is how it reduces Jill to a shrieking, victimized damsel to be tortured and killed. The film has no way to reckon with the problem that Jigsaw’s actions ultimately lead to the brutal murder of the one person he really loved in this world – via his own signature trap, no less. The series ends by essentially validating Jigsaw's approach one last time, through the reveal of Gordon's loyal relationship with him, instead of finally standing up and challenging his warped, fucked-up worldview. As always, Saw wants it both ways. If they wanted to validate Jigsaw's methods, they could have Gordon come in earlier to save Jill and stop Hoffman; if they wanted to challenge Jigsaw, they could kill Jill and then make a point about how Jigsaw’s violent methods inevitably lead to violent ends. But they want to do both – to have the big 3D head explosion as the reverse bear trap rips Jill's face apart (which is, admittedly, a spectacular piece of practical gore effects), and then have Hoffman punished by Jigsaw's hand beyond the grave. Jigsaw can never actually be wrong in these movies, can never lose, even when he's lost everything.
So yeah – I think I like this one a smidge more than Saw V, which is a more all-around competent movie, but a much less ‘substantial’ and memorable one. I can at least say that if I ever had the chance to see this one theatrically in actual 3D, I would immediately jump at the chance.
7. SAW IV
2007, Dir. Darren Lynn Bousman
The fourth Saw is a more ‘consistent’ film than either of the sequels that came before it, never quite descending to the lows of Saw II or III, but also lacking the highs of either of those films. At this point, Saw had settled into its ultimate form as a sort of grisly theatrical soap opera, much more televisual in storytelling than cinematic. Each chapter advances the story a certain amount, but has a lot of episodic ‘filler’ along the way. The B-story ‘game’ with Officer Rigg here is better than Jeff’s game in Saw III, but the A-plot search for Jigsaw is pretty lame, even with Scott Patterson from Gilmore Girls giving the cop side of things some much needed gravitas.
Getting the full Jigsaw origin story is kind of interesting, giving Tobin Bell some meaty material to play, and the final twist – revealing this film was happening simultaneously with Saw III – is solid, even if it inevitably feels like treading water to not actually move the story forward beyond the reveal of another Jigsaw apprentice.
The best scene in the film, honestly, is the opening autopsy on Jigsaw himself, which is tied with the brain surgery in Saw III as far and away the gnarliest, most graphic set of images in any of these films – and also, perhaps, the most interesting. Nothing is actually as horrifying as surgical interventions on the human body, and watching Jigsaw get torn apart – his face peeled off to remove the brain and his entire chest cavity ripped open – pulls double duty as a way to assure the audience he’s definitely dead, and extending the graphic obsession with bodily mutilation to an extreme degree that is actually quite quotidian, since this is an actual thing morticians and doctors have to do. It’s a tremendous piece of practical effects work, and proof the MPAA will let you show literally anything so long as it’s vaguely ‘medical.’
6. SAW II
2005, Dir. Darren Lynn Bousman
Compared to the first film, Saw II is a lot slower and a lot more haphazardly made. It lacks James Wan’s simultaneously sharp and delirious direction, and where its predecessor always had several plates spinning at once, a Rubik’s cube constantly being turned and contorted until the final image is revealed, Saw II is mostly a slow-burn waiting for the final twist to come, and it can definitely test one’s patience along the way.
But the final twist is so damn good it maybe doesn’t matter.
For as cheap and slapdash as a lot of Saw II feels, it’s all predicated on a pretty sophisticated understanding of how parallel editing can work against audience expectations, using the normal cinematic grammar of continuity to fool us into thinking events happening far apart are actually simultaneous. It’s the famous scene from Silence of the Lambs – where a SWAT team heads towards a house we assume is Buffalo Bill’s, only for Bill to open the door and meet a backup-less Clarice Starling – but ballooned out as the film’s entire structural foundation. You can see parts of the twist coming, but others – like the use of the safe, which is such an ingenious rug-pull that Damon Lindelof admitted to stealing it wholesale for HBO’s Watchmen in how it uses Ozymandias – are genuinely clever and surprising. It’s such a good ending that you’re willing to forgive a lot of clumsiness on the way there.
Saw II also gives us much more Tobin Bell than we saw in the first film, building the space for him to really start fleshing out this character and his performance, and he’s just so ludicrously good that it’s impossible for the movie to be anything less than entertaining when he’s on screen. Jigsaw is a raging hypocrite – he sets a lot of more-or-less innocent people up to die here for the crimes of the dirty cop who victimized them – but he is at least a raging hypocrite with a big ACAB energy who devises this whole scenario to put the screws to a really awful detective played by Discount Wahlberg, so that’s pretty neat.
5. SPIRAL: FROM THE BOOK OF SAW
2021, Dir. Darren Lynn Bousman
Spiral isn’t great, but it’s a lot better, or at least a lot more fun, than its muted reception would suggest. It feels a lot more like vintage Saw than I anticipated, or than I would expect for a movie without any characters from the original series. Certainly, watching it in close proximity to Jigsaw does it a lot of favors, because this one does, at the very least, successfully walk the line between being a Saw spin-off and still feeling like part of the larger universe. Darren Lynn Bousman manages to update and extend the aesthetic without making it feel too sleek and clean – the colors and texture still feel like Saw, with a real grit and industrial grime to everything – and the traps feel like actual Saw traps. Some of them are pretty great, too: The glass bottle trap is definitely the highlight, but the one where the police chief is tasked with either severing her spinal cord or dying by drowning in hot wax is also pretty goddamn gnarly.
Then there's the Chris Rock of it all, and he so entertainingly bad. Totally out of his element, trying hard in every shot, but never being given precise enough direction to pin down the tone and reality of this character. He's bad in a way only very talented people can be bad – because he has enough charisma and presence to make the choices to have the performance go this awry. It’s incredible. He's trying to do all this acting with his eyes, a lot of intense focus and body language, but it manifests in a lot of scenes where he's squinting so hard you wonder if he isn't taking his cues from the meme of Leonardo DiCaprio staring at Cillian Murphy in Inception. There's a surprisingly long and substantial behind-the-scenes documentary on the DVD, and in it, Rock explains his thinking behind the film, and how he wanted this role to be his Beverly Hills Cop moment, as the comedian plopped into an otherwise straightforward action (or, in this case, horror) movie. That's not what he achieves – it mostly feels like he's the straight man in an SNL parody of a Saw movie – but I can understand where he was coming from, and it's never less than fun to watch.
And while I would never go so far as to call Spiral genuinely 'smart' or 'insightful,' it is actually kind of swinging for the fences on who it's taking aim at, with a story about a Jigsaw copycat kidnapping bad cops and having them pay for their sins (in ways that are actually quite a bit more literal and eye-for-an-eye than the original Jigsaw tended to do - i.e. a cop who told lies has to rip his tongue out, and one who shot an unarmed man has to rip off the fingers that did it). The film is absolutely playing with fire, and while it probably mixes its metaphors a tad too much by making the killer a radical police reformer – which comes close to being a weird caricature of right-wing attacks on BLM or 'defund the police' movements – you can tell the film's heart is in the right place. It's a movie that scoffs pretty openly at the idea of a good cop 'on the inside' being able to have any positive impact on a fundamentally broken system. And it's a mainstream Hollywood horror movie that, instead of targeting sexually active teenagers, puts cops in the hot seat for various wrongdoings we know police in America commit every day. This is definitely up there with Saw VI as the most pointed entry in the series in terms of who the killer's targets are; it never lands on a moment as smart or incisive as the 'shotgun carousel' trap from that film, which is this perfectly gruesome visual metaphor for the American health insurance industry, but the ending, where the killer manipulates the situation so the SWAT team kills a celebrated officer in the same way cops commit 'justified' killings every day, is definitely potent.
(As an aside, though, there is a very weird line where Rock insists “John Kramer didn’t target cops," and I have to know what the fuck he's talking about. There’s a whole movie about John Kramer doing just that – Saw II, also directed by Bousman – and there's a big scene in Saw V where the cops hold a memorial for all their many fallen colleagues killed in the Jigsaw investigation. John Kramer loved killing cops. It's one of the things that got him out of bed in the morning. Honestly, if I have an issue with the storytelling of Spiral in relation to the rest of the series, it's that if this is supposed to be a Jigsaw copycat, his actions, methods, and motives are all too fundamentally similar to John Kramer to really feel differentiated from the genuine article).
It's pretty obvious Spiral only had access to Samuel L. Jackson for a few days, if that, and his role in the film feels extremely truncated as a result; it's one of the better casts in the series overall, though, and it's probably the most all-around competent production of the four films Bousman directed in the series. It lacks some of the high points of Saw II and III, and obviously Tobin Bell is sorely missed (the robot voice doing the trap messages here is creepy in its own way, but no match for the real thing), but it also feels like Spiral learned some of the right lessons from where those films sag or get messy.
Oh, and it’s got a rap by 21 Savage called “Spiral” that’s sampling the Saw theme over the end credits. I mean, fuck yeah. That rocks. That's awesome. More original movie-themed raps over the end credits. Let's make that a thing again.
4. SAW III
2006, Dir. Darren Lynn Bousman
This one is interesting, and probably the hardest film on the entire list to rank. Parts of it are genuinely great – basically anything with Tobin Bell and Shawnee Smith, who are terrific, and the entire ending sequence, which is a real knockout of intersecting character tragedies where everyone loses and the only ‘winner’ is a dead, mutilated Jigsaw – and parts of it are pretty frustrating. The first two Saw films honestly aren’t that graphically violent (the syringe scene in Saw II maybe being the exception, and even then, it’s the more the idea of how horrible that is than anything we see), but Saw III is where these movies finally earn their ‘torture porn’ label; the opening with Discount Wahlberg destroying his foot, all the traps in Jeff’s ‘trials,’ and especially the brain surgery scene are truly shocking and grotesque. Some of them are creative – I can’t really think of a worse way to die than ‘drowning in rotted pig guts’ – and some are kind of artful – there’s a matter-of-fact bluntness to the improvised brain surgery that is transfixing even as it’s stomach churning – and some of it, like the ‘twisting’ machine, just feels sadistic for the sake of being sadistic. It’s a definite gauntlet to get through at times, and you absolutely start wondering why the MPAA would ever give any kind of sexual content a harsh rating when this made it into theaters with an R. Future Saw films would definitely find a better balance between ‘testing the audience’s gag reflex’ and ‘being creatively gruesome,’ particularly in the Kevin Greutert-directed entries, but this one isn’t quite there yet.
The film’s biggest issue is that it’s just overlong and meandering at times, and a lot of the Jeff material feels like filler. There is definitely a tighter, 80-to-90-minute version of this that would probably be a real knockout, given how strong the film’s core spine is with John testing Amanda while forcing Jeff to grapple with his capacity for vengeance. If they didn’t have to pump out one of these every single year back when the series was in full swing, and if the script had more time in the oven to fully coalesce, there’s absolutely a great movie hiding in here – maybe the best underlying story in any of the Saw sequels, which is why I’m ultimately ranking it this high. We definitely get glimpses of it, and that ending is, again, fantastic. Killing your main character and most of the supporting cast in the third film of a wildly successful annualized franchise is definitely a bold choice, and one that leaves a mark as the credits roll.
3. SAW X
2023, Dir. Kevin Greutert
In just about every way, Saw X is a triumph. It takes the two best characters and performers in the series – Tobin Bell as Jigsaw and Shawnee Smith as Amanda – and puts them front and center, in a story that’s much more straightforward and self-contained than any film in the franchise. It’s wonderfully acted, and surprisingly sober in tone and theme and even technique, light on the stylistic histrionics of the earlier films (while still matching the overall aesthetic in terms of cinematography and production design – it looks like a Saw movie, but from a slightly different angle). The traps are extremely inventive but also conceptually direct and elegant – and gnarly as fuck. I found some of the scenarios here genuinely scary, or at least audaciously hilarious, in ways a lot of other Saw traps leave me cold. And while this sort of qualifies as a “legacy sequel” given how long it’s been since the original run of films – longer still since Jigsaw and Amanda were alive in them – it doesn’t succumb to any of the legacy sequel problems like excessively winking at the audience or pandering to nostalgia.
If anything here left me unsatisfied, it’s the way the film opens up the clearest example ever of how deeply hypocritical John Kramer is as a character. When Jigsaw a) asks his victims to mutilate themselves to degrees that far outstrip any bad thing they did to him or anyone else, and b) lets them die even though they follow his sick instructions exactly, only failing to complete the task in time – losing on a technicality – he really does just seem like a run-of-the-mill serial killer, stacking the deck against his victims and watching them twist. That’s pretty much always been the case, and a problem with the Saw movies is they never came up with a hero who could confront John and call him on his bullshit. This one goes in the other direction, just straightforwardly making him the hero, and then inventing an even worse villain who’s much more detestable than he is for the third act so he can claim moral superiority. And her villainy is established by having her carelessly murder the one victim who actually makes it out of the main ‘game’ alive, which just feels needlessly mean spirited of the movie.
But then, the more I think about it, the more this weird disconnect has actually grown on me. I was talking to one of my students about it the other day, and she called the film “weirdly wholesome,” and that is a good way to describe it. There is something compellingly strange – maybe even knowingly so – about a movie where Jigsaw inflicts some of the most gruesome torments of his criminal career, but because it’s all from his point-of-view, and because he literally walks into the sunset at the end with the adorable child he rescued and has now single-handedly lifted out of poverty, we’re seeing a vision of the world where Jigsaw is firmly the hero in his own story. Which, of course, is how John Kramer has always seen himself – so Saw X is actually a pretty valuable piece of the overall puzzle, the one where the slasher gets to be the hero. There’s nothing stopping us from judging him, after all, and there’s something undeniably memorable and fun about fully seeing the world through his warped eyes.
And it must be stressed just how unimpeachably great Tobin Bell is here. He is one of the all-time great horror icons, and this is his best showcase in the role to date. Shawnee Smith is damn near as good, and I absolutely love that Saw X refused to do any stupid ‘digital de-aging’ on either of them. Yes, they look older than they should given when the film is set. Who fucking cares? They’re actors. They act. They do it beautifully. It works. We believe it. That’s movie magic for you.
2. SAW VI
2009, Dir. Kevin Greutert
It’s kind of tragic Saw VI is the one where the box-office collapsed, grossing a little over half as much as the previous entry and convincing Lionsgate to wrap things up with the seventh film, because this is easily the best, most confident, most structurally sound, and even the most thematically engaged Saw since the original. If the fourth and fifth movies feel like they’re treading water after the death of Jigsaw, Saw VI actually makes his ‘beyond the grave’ grip on this world an interesting, active part of the story, to the point where it feels like they’re really getting value out of having killed him so early. And the film even broaches honest-to-God politics with a central game testing a health insurance executive in the business of denying people with pre-existing conditions. Saw VI was made in 2009, the first year of the Obama presidency, as the bill that would become the Affordable Care Act was taking shape, and amidst those horrible, heated debates about the ‘horrors’ of ‘government run healthcare’ (which the ACA is not and never was, though it did at least resolve the pre-existing condition issue). Saw VI not only puts the greedy, heartless insurers through Jigsaw’s traps, but builds to a big moment where Tobin Bell basically turns to camera and tells us the real villains are the insurance companies and the system enabling them.
Wow. You don’t see that in your average annualized horror entry.
But even on a more fundamental, meat-and-potatoes level, this is a much tighter, slicker film than the prior sequels. The three parallel stories – Hoffman’s criminal antics, the Jigsaw flashbacks, and the main torture game – all tie together and bounce off each other in interesting ways, and the finale even finds a way to tie it all together with enough of a punch that it would have made a pretty decent ending for the series as a whole.
It helps that the direction here is so much more assured than in any film since the first. I don’t know if Kevin Greutert is a great director in general, but between this film and Saw X he is clearly a great Saw director. It’s no coincidence he edited all the films up to this point – editors know the guts of their films, to use a metaphor Jigsaw might approve of. One of the best James Bond films, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, was directed by Peter Hunt, who edited all the 007 movies up to that point. Not every editor makes a good director, of course, but they’re never a bad bet, especially with a long-running series with its own sense of style. Greutert definitely knows this franchise inside and out, and he feels more comfortable here than any director besides James Wan. There is a confidence and a spring in this film’s step, and in Saw X, that’s missing in the other sequels, along with a real focus on the actors and characters, and even some real visual panache: the Zoo setting here, and the big warehouse in Saw X, are more memorable than other industrial trap settings in the series.
And the traps themselves? Outstanding. The film’s opening is gnarly and gruesome enough for a whole film, but it’s just the warm-up for a movie that’s actually less about gore (though there’s plenty of that – the final fate of the insurance executive, getting injected with acid until his body melts in half, is appropriately fucked up), and more about mood and ideas. The boiler room maze sequence is easily one of the best and most visually memorable traps – it looks a lot like the climax of Terminator 2 – but the ‘shotgun carousel’ is the film’s, and maybe the franchise’s, coup de grace. It’s easily the most ethically and thematically interesting set piece in the series, in how literally it visualizes the logic of health insurance and the horrible, mechanized, inhuman way healthcare is made into a capitalist competition in America. It’s a genuinely potent piece of filmmaking – hopeless and sad and brutal in a way that’s even more viscerally affecting than watching people cut their limbs off.
2004, Dir. James Wan
Other than a few too many bits of early-2000s hyperactive style, the original Saw rocks. By the time I finally got around to seeing this film, I’d known the final twist for a long time, and I’d absorbed a lot of the story via cultural osmosis, and none of that mattered in the slightest. James Wan and Leigh Whannell crafted a great, deliriously intricate script, this endlessly twisty Russian nesting doll that keeps opening up new pieces, and bouncing between straightforward horror, gritty detective story, and intense thriller. It’s a ridiculously confident directorial debut from Wan, who really came out swinging; the way he uses the space of that main bathroom set in particular is just extremely sophisticated, muscular direction, but there’s also a lot of the weirdness – like Jigsaw’s pig mask persona – we’d come to love him for later on. The production design is particularly fantastic, detailed and tactile in a way that belies the low budget, as is the Charlie Clouser score, which builds to that iconic final theme and nails the landing. The performances here aren’t conventionally ‘good,’ necessarily, but they’re all dialed into a very particular wavelength – Cary Elwes especially – that acknowledges, in a sort of pseudo-campy way, the inherent silliness of the material.
It all adds up to a film that was critically underrated in its moment, but has held up incredibly well, and rewards repeat viewings. Watching it today, there’s no surprise it was a hit that launched a giant franchise, the first of three times Wan would do this, with Insidious and The Conjuring producing similar results. That’s a heck of a legacy, and it all started here.
If you liked this review, I have 200 more for you – read my new book, 200 Reviews, in Paperback and on Kindle: https://a.co/d/bivNN0e
Support the show at Ko-fi ☕️ https://ko-fi.com/weeklystuff
Subscribe to JAPANIMATION STATION, our podcast about the wide, wacky world of anime: https://www.youtube.com/c/japanimationstation
Subscribe to The Weekly Stuff Podcast on all platforms: https://weeklystuffpodcast.com
Thanks for reading The Weekly Stuff Wordcast! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.