Love it or hate it, Saw is this generation’s Friday The 13th and Halloween: a stacked horror franchise that turned one cheap, beloved and profitable hit into a multi-million-dollar monolith. Critics love to loathe it, but gore fiends keep returning in droves, even eighteen years and nine movies deep. The violent “games” of serial killer Jigsaw were a draw first for their cerebral mystery, then for their batshit lunacy, compensating for increasingly insane story threads with extravaganzas of blades and viscera. Ranking the nine Saw movies (so far) is a herculean task, especially as the series’ changes have seen it appeal to different people as it’s evolved. With a tenth film now confirmed, what better time to present Hammer’s take on the worst through to the best?
Jigsaw fucking sucks. Six years after Saw’s “final chapter”, Lionsgate resurrected the franchise, and the result is an entry with all the problems of the previous sequels but none of the fun. The twist, once again, is that Jigsaw had yet another accomplice aiding him the entire time: a plot point so recycled that the killer has gone from zero to five people at his beck and call. Furthermore, the events taking place when Jigsaw was still alive only further complicates the series’ ludicrous chronology. The traps aren’t wacky enough to make up for the story, either. It’s a tacked-on addition, but its grossing of $100 million against a $10 million budget revived the Saw lineage.
Saw IV (2007)
Saw III was meant to end the franchise as a trilogy: director Darren Lynn Bousman and co-writers James Wan and Leigh Whannell only made it in tribute to producer Gregg Hoffman, who passed away in 2005. After that film supposedly wrapped up the series by killing its antagonist, the announcement of IV caused mass confusion. The follow-up chose to circumnavigate Jigsaw’s death by taking place concurrently to III, the reveal of which instantly undermines all the intrigue of the film. Furthermore, the twist – Detective Hoffman being another acolyte of the Jigsaw killer – is the same as Amanda’s surprise at the end of II. It’s a development so dumb that the next film suffered for trying to make sense of it.
Saw V (2008)
Saw V wastes so much time. It’s the first entry to take place after Jigsaw’s death, yet that character’s the reason anyone paid money to see this franchise. As a result, it pads its runtime by pointlessly giving a dead bloke character development and trying to make sense of IV’s retconning. Meanwhile, in the game, five people have to survive a gauntlet of traps and get picked off one by one, and the reveal that the whole bunch could have survived the entire time is painfully obvious from the get-go. The saving grace is protagonist Straum’s cat-and-mouse pursuit of Hoffman, which is at least interesting and comes to a satisfying conclusion.
Saw: The Final Chapter (2010)
After IV, Saw’s appeal was less the characters and narrative and more “Holy shit, look at the traps and blood!” And The Final Chapter understands that. The franchise’s “last film” depicts two men bisecting a woman with a buzzsaw, a skinhead gang (one of whom is Linkin Park's Chester Bennington) getting decimated by a car and a self-help guru enduring hell for manufacturing a Jigsaw survivor story. Meanwhile, the narrative in between makes no sense: the original’s protagonist, Dr Gordon, is back and has been helping Jigsaw the entire time, for some reason. Although it wasn’t going to win anyone over, it was an aptly gore-crazed send-off for the converted.
Saw II (2005)
After Saw proved the surprise hit of 2004, Lionsgate rushed a sequel into production. To streamline the process, they dug up a script written by Darren Lynn Bousman called The Desperate, then fiddled with it to make it the next entry in Jigsaw’s series of games. The result has the lamest traps of any sequel, with ideas like getting stuck in a furnace or thrown into a hole full of needles seeming pedestrian compared to the batshit brutality later on. On the other hand, there’s Tobin Bell giving the performance of his life as Jigsaw, while the twist – which reveals that Donnie Wahlberg’s Detective Eric Matthews was watching recordings of the horrors as opposed to a live camera feed – is another inventive one.
Saw III (2006)
When making Saw III, Bousman, Wan and Whannell wanted to put the relationship between Jigsaw and his apprentice, Amanda, front and centre for an emotional “finale”. It actually goes above and beyond that. Not only does it explore the crumbling teacher and student dynamic, but also the turmoil of protagonist Jeff Denlon, who has to save the lives of those responsible for letting his son’s killer dodge prison. The traps are creative, ranging from someone freezing to death in a meat locker to a contraption that twists your limbs off one by one. Plus, the ending, which kills both Jigsaw and Amanda, is legitimately unexpected – even if future sequels later undermined its impact.
Saw VI (2009)
By VI, the Saw story made absolutely no sense. This is another plot with incomprehensible twist after incomprehensible twist, but it compensates with wilder games and cathartic political jabs. The apex is when health insurance executive William Easton, who denies people coverage based on loopholes, has to choose which two of his six underlings will survive a merry-go-round of death. There’s also an opening game that has two predatory lenders tear themselves apart. VI received the best reviews of any Saw sequel, although its clash with the wide release of Paranormal Activity made it the least profitable at the time. Thus, Lionsgate opted to give the series its send-off the following year.
Spiral: From The Book Of Saw (2021)
By ditching the baffling Saw storyline to be a standalone relaunch, Spiral is the closest the franchise comes to recapturing its mystery thriller roots. Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson lend A-list talent Saw hadn’t seen since Danny Glover in 2004, and the pair share some addictive chemistry. The concept of a killer slaughtering amoral police officers makes the series feel fresher than it had been in years, as well. Sadly, less innovative traps and a predictable twist stop it from outdoing the original. And the killer’s voice sounds like Kermit The Frog. Despite its release during the Covid pandemic, Spiral recouped twice its production budget at the box office: enough cash for Lionsgate to greenlight Saw 10 for 2023.
Like countless franchises that have come before and since, Saw never topped the original. There’s a charming simplicity to this claustrophobic mystery thriller, which locked two characters in a bathroom with nothing but hacksaws. There’s none of the convoluted backstory or splattering blood that later defined the sequels. Instead, Saw’s a humble ode to mystery thrillers like Seven and Primal Fear that lets compelling writing and logical twists do the legwork. When released in the US in October 2004, it dethroned The Blair Witch Project to become the most profitable film of all time, grossing $104 million off of a $1.2 million budget. Such success ignited a torture porn institution that, for seven years, ruled the horror landscape and inspired a myriad of copycats.