Saw – A Retrospective

Every Halloween I choose a horror franchise and watch it from start to finish. In the past, I have dived into Nightmare On Elm Street, Halloween and Friday the 13th. This year’s brand of torture was Saw, enjoy.

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He’s a creepy wee fucker.

A serial killer who doesn’t kill. That’s the intrigue at the heart of the Saw films. Instead, Jigsaw’s victims are placed within a game. A game in which you may face great pain or even the loss of a limb, but in which it is always possible to survive. Why? Because Jigsaw is dying of cancer, and with that knowledge weighing him down he looks at the world and sees humanity wasting their lives. He wants them to understand how incredible it is to be alive.

Saw (2004) directed by James Wan

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Stretch, man!

The original Saw kicked off the world’s interest in torture porn. Or, did it? Because what’s interesting about Saw is that it’s not actually that violent. Which isn’t to say this is a walk in the park and you certainly won’t be plonking your toddler down in front of it. However, it’s playing on suggestion rather than outright shock. A lot of the dismemberment takes place off camera or is edited in such a way that it’s never clear. For the film that started all this gore, there is a surprising lack of the stuff.

Instead, Saw is a thriller. A twisted game which features two people trapped in a room, slowly being drip fed information that gives them a shot at escape. You have to wonder whether the rise in popularity of Escape Rooms could directly be linked to these films because that’s precisely what’s going on here. Except when you get together with your mates there’s unlikely to be quite this much hokey dialogue and hammy acting. This was a cheap film, and it shines through. However, there is a hint of what James Wan will become as his stylistic flourish work hard to hide those flaws.

This film’s real ace isn’t in the acting or the gore, though. It’s in that final twist. That twist which has become so famous that it’s now nearly impossible to watch Saw without prior knowledge of it. If you’ve somehow remained unspoiled, stop reading now and go watch. You’re in a lucky position. For, right at the end, when Jigsaw rises from the floor of the room that our twisted game has taken place in there is genuine genius being struck. The corpse that has sat there all film has become an afterthought, a piece of set dressing that is notable only for how unnotable it is. It’s the moment that turns this from a mildly intriguing piece of cinema into something that had stood the test of time.

Verdict: Thumbs Up

Saw II (2005) directed by Darren Lynn Bousman

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Why would you put your hand in the hole!

After the surprising success of Saw, it didn’t take long for a sequel to be greenlit. In fact, it happened so quickly they didn’t have time to write a script, choosing instead to repurpose Darren Lynn Bousman’s film The Desperate. With James Wan busy on other projects, Bousman was also given a chance to direct his edited story and expand the Saw universe past its humble origins.

He did that by giving us more. More blood, more guts and a hell of a lot more plot. Gone was the escape room and in its place is an escape house. Meanwhile, Jigsaw has got off the floor and is now a frail old man who gets himself captured by the police early in the film. In reality, that’s merely an excuse for him to elaborately explain his evil ways to Donnie Wahlberg’s Detective while the same man’s son plays his crooked game.

Saw II’s budget was around four times that of the original. Their newfound spender power allows the trap to get more elaborate and the blood to flow. Meanwhile, Bousman leans into Wan’s stylistic flourishes and turns them up to eleven, as we fly from scene to scene, the camera never giving us a chance to rest and figure out what the fuck is going on. Techniques that were used to hide the cheapness are now working to make the film feel low budget.

There is still some joy to be had. The escape house is cleverly realised while it walks the right line between giving us more of an insight into Jigsaw and not over-explaining him. However, the attempt to one-up the first films twist falls flat on its face (spoilers incoming). The reveal that Amanda Young is, in fact, working with Jigsaw is heavily telegraphed from the start, particularly after her brief cameo in the first film. While the discovery that our game and Jigsaw’s interrogation are not happening simultaneously feels cheap. A ploy that could not be puzzled out no matter how many viewings the watcher is willing to sit through.

Saw II isn’t an awful film, it just lacks the subtlety of the first. A flaw that we better get used to.

Verdict: Thumbs In The Middle

Saw III (2006) directed by Darren Lynn Bousman

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Jigsaw loves a weird helmet.

It’s always a bit worrying when you see three films released back to back. You know those scripts are no labour of love. Saw III is the first time that fact becomes obvious. After two films the illness which inspired Jigsaw’s rampage is killing him, so he calls on protegé Amanda to bring him a nurse. Meanwhile, his latest game features a father being confronted with the people that he holds responsible for his son’s death in a car accident.

You know how I said that the original Saw’s lack of violence was surprising? Well, by Saw III the torture porn tag has been well and truly earned. I have a strong stomach for this stuff yet even I found it gratuitous. There’s a nastiness to the way these films revel in their gore that is almost distasteful. The scene involving some rotting pig carcasses made me particularly glad to be a vegetarian.

That’s not the main flaw, that comes from the flashbacks. Holy shit, are we inundated with flashbacks. Every time it looks like they might be about to build up a bit of spooky tension we zoom back in time, pulling us out of the moment to reveal another snippet of useless information about one of the many characters I don’t give a shit about. That line I spoke of with Saw II? The one it walked with Jigsaw? Yea, we’re now sprinting away from it as we dive into his past and retcon the events of previous films to get the plot of this one to work. It’s a fucking hodgepodge of ideas that never come together.

And, of course, we need a twist. This time, we learn that our nurse and our grieving father are in fact, man and wife. A reveal that was so mundane I was more shocked that it was meant to be a shock. That’s not all, though! No, for on top of that, we learn that this game was not only for them, but it was also for dear Amanda. A game that she failed losing her life in the process. Oh, and Jigsaw dies too. Which you’d think would mean we were coming to the end of these films. Sadly, we’re not that lucky.

Verdict: Thumbs Down

Saw IV (2007) directed by Darren Lynn Bousman

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One of the simpler traps.

The opening moments of Saw IV is where these films finally ditch any claim to intelligence and decide to rely on chucking guts about the place. It’s disgusting, and the only thing worse than that is its pathetic attempts at constructing a plot which makes the slightest bit of sense.

This time around its police officer Daniel Rigg’s turn to face one of Jigsaw’s games. All because he has the temerity to want to help people. Something you’d think would be a prized possession in a cop, rather than a flaw that needs to be murdered out of you. His tasks have entirely lost the subtle and twisted morality that came with the earlier films and rely on pure brutality.

Meanwhile, we’re getting to know Jigsaw’s wife, Jill, and learning more about the man behind the murders. Because we’re on the fourth instalment and what we all really want is to be made to feel empathetic for the sociopathic prick. What is it with cinema and its obsession with origin stories? I don’t need to know how John Kramer became Jigsaw beyond the bare bones of the cancer story of the originals (which is retconned into irrelevancy).

And we’re now going to hit spoiler territory because this film takes the Saw franchise’s love of a twist and boots it in the bollocks. First off, we learn that we’re not actually witnessing the aftermath of Jigsaw’s death. Nope, this all happens at the same time as Saw III because why the fuck not. Then, we learn that Amanda is not Jigsaw’s only apprentice. There’s also Detective Hoffman. Who is Detective Hoffman? EXACTLY! No one gives a flying fuck about Detective Hoffman because he is a background character who is irrelevant right up to the point where he becomes crucial to the entire film. Let’s give them some credit, no one saw it coming. Then again, you could have had it be an extra from the first scene, and we wouldn’t have guessed that either. Saw IV makes everything that came before look like a masterpiece.

Verdict: Shove your thumbs in one of Jigsaw’s traps.

Saw V (2008) directed by David Hackl

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There are a lot of rooms that look exactly like this.

The fifth Saw film is a forty minute film. The other fifty minutes are used to go back and tweak the previous four films to make the plot of this one come together into something that might resemble sense. Is it still a flashback if it makes up the majority of the runtime? Or at that point is the rest of it a flash forward? Those are the kind of questions I was pondering while Saw V bored me to tears.

For this time around Jigsaw is definitely dead and Detective Hoffman (He Who No-One Gives A Fuck About) is aiming to continue his legacy. To do that, he has to off the few remaining members of the cast because otherwise they might stop him and bring this whole shit show to a close. That would have been nice, wouldn’t it? Oh, there are also some people trapped in a room. Why? Well, it wouldn’t be a Saw film without that, would it?

Saw IV made me angry while Saw V just made me tired. By the end, I was desperate for it to be over as even the traps began to lose their gruesome appeal. It desperately misses Tobin Bell’s Jigsaw in a central role as even during Saw’s worst moments he was at least charismatic. I’m sure there must have been a twist, but I don’t remember it. Perhaps I didn’t realise it was a twist? Or there’s a chance I fell asleep. This is the decaying corpse of a franchise that needed to be buried six feet deep. Unfortunately, He Who No-One Gives A Fuck About survives, and we go on.

Verdict: If I lie down in this strange contraption will I be able to sleep?

Saw VI (2009) directed by Kevin Greutert

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You’ve got something on your face.

Here’s a surprise, Saw VI isn’t total bollocks. I mean, it’s still pretty bollocks. It’s just not as utter shite as the few films that came before it. There are still fundamental flaws, the main one being that it’s not at all scary which is supposedly the aim of a horror film. A lot of the old issues have hung around too. An over-reliance on flashbacks, more unneeded fleshing out of Jigsaw’s past and He Who No-One Gives A Fuck About is still in the central role chewing up the scenery.

However, the plot in this one isn’t a total mess. While it’s not tidy, it actually makes a bit of sense as He Who No-One Gives A Fuck About (I’m going to run that joke into the ground) acts out Jigsaw’s final wishes by putting a health insurance executive through one of his twisted games. It ticks all the boxes, from Jigsaw’s empty moralising to some delightfully fiendish puzzles. Sure they continue the theme of the later films by being needlessly violent (despite being the most expensive entry so far, it’s more cheap and tawdry than the original), but at least I’m not bored by the bullshit hoops it has to jump through to make all this shite make sense.

As usual, we get a twist and if for some strange reason you don’t wish to have Saw VI spoiled this is the point where you stop reading. In this one, we discover that Amanda had played a part in Jill’s (Jigsaw’s wife) miscarriage. He Who No-One Gives A Fuck About then used this information to blackmail her causing her to kill the nurse in Saw III. Something John might have been aware of because he’d left Jill instructions to put He Who No-One Gives A Fuck About through a game of his own. Oh, yea, Jill is working with Jigsaw, did I mention that? Ah fuck, what was it I was saying about this making sense?

So yea, Saw VI is not a good film. It’s just doesn’t make you want to go for a midnight stroll through Jigsaw’s workshop in the buff which is at least a small achievement.

Verdict: We live another day.

Saw: The Final Chapter (2010) directed by Kevin Greutert

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You’ve… well, you don’t have a face.

After that slight improvement, you might have come into Saw VII/Saw: The Final Chapter/Saw 3D with a degree of hope. You’d have been foolish. Foolish I tell you. This film is bollocks, and I’m not even sure I can be bothered explaining why. However, I’ve written six of these damn things, so I might as well go the whole way.

The simple plot that I thought existed in the previous entry is at least possible to spot here. Mainly because it follows on from that one quite succinctly. He Who No-One Gives A Fuck About is still alive, killing and on the run from the police. In an attempt to stop that (although it’s also because she failed to murder him), Jill goes to the authorities to aid their capture of him which pushes the investigation forward. Meanwhile, someone has been telling porkies and claiming to be a Jigsaw survivor. You’ll never guess what’s going to happen to them?

The added fly on top of this shit cake is that it was released in the era of 3D, so everything is being spurted at the camera in an attempt to make audiences wince. That has the added benefit of taking any realism out of the violence and turning it into the kind of ridiculous gore that is usually reserved for deliberately silly teen slashers. I know I’ve complained about the sordid nature of the kills in these films, but by taking those away, you realise just how thin everything else is. Without the torture porn, it’s all a bit dull.

Of course, we couldn’t leave without a twist, and this might be the dumbest one yet. Guess who is back? It’s only one of the fucking victims from the original bloody film. Was there any hint that he was alive? Of course not. Who cares about that, though? Flashbacks can fix anything. Now, we are led to believe that he (alongside Jigsaw’s army of apprentices) was involved all along because why the fuck not. At this point, I’m half convinced I was involved in some of Jigsaw’s murders. Every other fucker seems to be.

This is shit. A lot of these films are shit, but this one is really shit. Please don’t watch it.

Verdict: Stab me in the eyes, please.

Jigsaw (2017) directed by Michael and Peter Spierig

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Ominous.

The seventh Saw film was supposed to be split into two parts. I was devastated to learn that after Saw VI underperformed Lionsgate pulled the plug on that and 2011 became the first year since 2003 not to feature Saw. In fact, there would be no Saw until 2017 when Michael and Peter Spierig convinced Lionsgate that it was time to bring it back. Not just that, they only went and called it Jigsaw because gritty titles are all the rage. Get excited.

I mock, but there is a good idea at the heart of this film. Set ten years after Kramer’s death, that time has seen the cult of Jigsaw grow. Websites are devoted to his twisted philosophies while people rebuild his elaborate traps. It’s a cool idea and one you’d think they could do something with. Sadly, they don’t. Instead, we get a ‘is Jigsaw alive’ story that is a flimsy covering of the same old plot. There is a game happening, and the police are trying to figure out how that is the case when Kramer is dead.

The problem is that we all know he’s dead, don’t we? Because a few films ago we watched Jigsaw’s brain literally being removed from his skull. There is no way he’s coming back from that. It’s a pretty definitive ending. Plus, we’ve been well versed in Jigsaw’s army of apprentices. The idea of a new one shouldn’t be shocking to anyone. Or at least that’s what you’d think. The cops in this film apparently didn’t see the previous seven. Actually, they might have made the right choice there.

I don’t know if it’s because I watched all of these over a short period of time or what, but halfway through this, I was bored, and I never stopped being bored until the credits rolled. (I’m heading into spoiler territory now, so close your eyes if for some weird reason you don’t want to know what happened.) The second Tobin Bell appeared on-screen, I realised they were doing the whole out of sync timelines again. The game was going on while he was alive and the investigation was ten years later. Of course, I was right, and it turns out that he had yet another apprentice who had been helping him all along. Where was he in the previous films? DON’T ASK QUESTIONS!

This is a tired film. A tired film that should never have existed. Yet, after that seven-year break, it made a profit of over a hundred million dollars off a budget of ten. So, Saw is back, and the torture will continue whether we want it or not. Game over.

Verdict: Make it stop.

Overall

The original Saw films felt gritty and alive. They were flawed as hell, and without that twist, it would never have worked. However, it did. Unfortunately, as Hollywood tends to do, they took that formula and ground it into oblivion until it barely resembled what it had once been. By the end, it’s a shadow of that, so do yourself a favour and don’t fucking watch them.

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