Revisiting the Saw franchise sixteen years after its debut.
It’s time to talk about Saw. The films have captured my heart for a number of years now and a comprehensive article breaking down the highlights and flaws of Saw is long overdue.
Critics point to the Saw franchise as nothing more than torture porn for sadistic fans of gore. One could argue that the bloody, twisted traps that brutally murder (mostly) innocent people make the film unwatchable for some. Saw ostracizes a chunk of the population with its brutal horror, but simultaneously creates a niche for the sick, twisted, and/or curious. The Saw movies fell into my hands in my junior year of high school during a lonely, lonely spring break. Having never seen the iconic first film, a staple of 2000s horror culture, I decided it was time. The remainder of this article will explore several key plot points throughout the eight-film series, so a spoiler warning is advised.
Filmmakers James Wan and Leigh Whannell coined Saw after graduating from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology where the two bonded over their interest in horror films. Facing budget limitations, the two needed a script that took place in a singular room with a limited number of actors, but the question remained: how did the characters get there? Thus, Saw was born, throwing its protagonists Adam Stanheight and Dr. Lawrence Gordon into a filthy bathroom with a dead body between them. The full, finished Saw film includes more than one room, but primarily focuses on the two desperately trying to escape the bathroom. The film’s end sees Dr. Gordon crawling away from the bathroom in search of help just before John Kramer, the man behind the infamous “Jigsaw” persona, slams the door shut on Adam with the iconic phrase “game over.”
Both audiences and critics praised the original Saw film, viewing it as a new, fresh horror narrative. The film also lacked the same amount of torture present in the following entries. However, as Twisted Pictures continued to pump out seven more Saw movies, the films began to lose their original charm and became nearly humorous. Tobin Bell, who plays Jigsaw, keeps the films in motion with his consistently brilliant acting performances; similarly, his “Billy” doll that appears at each and every trap became an iconic staple of the series As the Saw movies move along, the franchise’s timeline is ruined more and more. Some of the storylines blend together and create a satisfying resolution, but often the audience is left wondering: where the fuck does this fit into the story?
Jigsaw, the most recent installation in the series, showcases the chronological problems of the Saw universe perfectly. The film is presented in the “now” as Jigsaw-like murders crop up--despite John Kramer’s death ten years ago. Scenes switch from a “live” game of Saw taking place in a barn as bodies appear throughout the city matching the description of the characters; for example, a blonde character plummets to her death with needles in her neck ala the character Carly’s death. The city’s police force begins a wild goose chase to find the new Jigsaw killer. However, as the film concludes, the watcher learns that the on-screen barn murders happened over ten years ago and the film’s protagonist, Logan Nelson, became one of Kramer’s many apprentices. This places the majority of the events in Jigsaw as a prequel for the rest of the series.
Jigsaw’s other apprentices range from the detectives hunting him down to the lucky survivors of his traps. As the series progresses, the traps grow more and more vicious. Saw III featured an “Angel of Death” trap that ripped its victim’s ribcage apart, Saw VI forces its “protagonist” to pick two out of six people to survive a carousel of death that shoots each person in the head with a shotgun, and the nearly laughable Saw 3D shows a man claiming to have survived a trap, pulling himself up with two hooks through his pectoral muscles to connect two wires, ultimately failing to complete said trap in order to save his wife--who is then incinerated in front of him.
The Saw franchise loses itself in an endless spew of different directors, writers, and producers. After Wan and Whannel’s departure following Saw 3, the films noticeably feel out of touch with their roots. No longer a cohesive story going from point A to point B with traps, violence, and mystery woven in between, the stories devolve to a complicated timeline that seeks to put as many characters in peril as possible with little thought given to the actual meaning behind the traps. Whannel himself agreed that “the sequels have retrospectively tainted that first film with the impression that [traps are] what the film is about.” Wan further explained that: “The irony is, now that there’s been so many sequels, the storyline has gone completely to the extreme and has become convoluted to the point where I know Leigh himself—who wrote the first script, and the second, and the third—is having a hard time trying to keep up with its mythology.” Some of the films show events that occurred over three movies ago before immediately clipping into a scene from the present. Time becomes meaningless following Wan and Whannel’s official leave of absence from Saw duty.
In Saw 3D, the original “end” to the series, the elements that made Saw so iconic are almost entirely gone. The first trap of the film is in broad daylight for no apparent reason. Detective Hoffman, one of Jigsaw’s many accomplices, turns from a clever trap setter to a flat out murderer. John Kramer’s ex-wife Jill Tuck becomes a caricature of herself. Any character that was likable, or at very least interesting, is ruined as Saw 3D introduces one of the franchise’s most annoying characters: Bobby Dagen. Bobby claimed to survive a Jigsaw trapping, going on to write a book about his transformative experience and profit off of his false narrative. Saw 3D follows Bobby’s journey through an actual set of traps while simultaneously trying to tie up all of the series’ loose ends. An hour and forty-three minutes does not a franchise ending make.
The longevity of Saw, even after its misguided storylines, lies in the franchise’s well-developed cult following. In an interview with The AV Club, creator James Wan spoke fondly of the project, noting “I never expected that my first little, as I refer to it, my student film would ultimately go on to have such a cultural impact.” Two Hollywood outsiders pioneered a newfound genre of torture, terror, and so-bad-it’s-good-but-still-bad movies. Despite the quality of the films growing increasingly worse, though Jigsaw served as a promising return following the heinousness of Saw 3D, the series retains the audience it built from the ground up. One cannot help but laugh at the goofy effects, plot holes, and pulled-from-the-director’s-ass twists that only grow more absurd as the films continue. The series blends camp and horror throughout its now almost twenty-year run. Future installations of Saw, namely the delayed Spiral, will continue to draw fans, enemies, and curious newcomers to all answer the question: do you want to play a game?