Retro Review: The SAW Franchise.
After nearly a decade, Jigsaw is back. We go back to the original films to talk about the good, bad, and deadly of the SAW series.
The SAW movies are a bit of an enigma for me. They weld together the pieces of different horror movies, sometimes inexpertly, and yet wind up with what I find to be a satisfying creation. It features a serial killer, but he’s either absent or dead for most of the films. It has gore and “torture porn”, but is nowhere near as extreme as Hostel or a Rob Zombie flick. There is a cat and mouse game with the police, but it’s not as interesting as Silence of the Lambs or Seven. While it popularized the booby trap genre, movies like Cube were better and came first. On paper, I can’t say why I like it…but I do, despite it liberally using horror tropes I usually hate. Apparently Jigsaw found the perfect mix of not too hot and not too cold for his bloody porridge.
To celebrate the return of the Jigsaw killer, we’re going to take a brief tour through the traps and torments of the SAW franchise. While they’ve had their ups and downs, they’ve routinely made money and sold tickets, so I guess I’m not the only one who wants to play a game.
Two men awaken in a filthy restroom, each chained to a pipe on opposite sides of the room. The men discover audio recordings on a corpse that give them each instructions, rules to their own personal games of survival. One must escape. The other must kill the escapee. They soon realize this is the work of the Jigsaw killer, a maniac who makes those he feels aren’t worthy of their lives enact gruesome trials. They have only a small window of time to find a solution before a terrible toll must be paid by their loved ones.
The first SAW movie is pretty much the high-water mark. The traps are clever, brutal, but winnable. The pacing is excellent, alternating between the trapped men, the police hunting Jigsaw, and flashbacks that flesh out the story. Tobin Bell is perfect as Jigsaw: his voice and face are implacable but not malevolent. He’s a cruel judge, but he believes his verdicts are fair, making him all the more terrifying. While the film does have some of the faulty logic and unbelievable happenings that mar the later films, it is a cunning thriller.
SAW II (2005)
A police detective follows the trail of clues from Jigsaw’s latest kills to the man himself, but it all turns out to be another game. Jigsaw, or John Kramer, is dying of cancer and wants to have one last game with the police. He has put the detective’s son in a separate game, and unless the man cooperates in a private match of wits, the boy will die.
The sequel upped the ante in terms of body count, gore, and the cruelty of the traps. For this reason it starts to feel less like the first SAW – not surprisingly since the clamor for a sequel meant using a script for another similar movie, The Desperate. As the franchise wore on, the traps got more gruesome but less winnable, ruining the idea of a strict but fair game master. We also start to see the splintering of the Jigsaw identity as more and more characters are revealed to assist Kramer…and we also start to get the creep of multiple twist reveals, cheapening the effect. While not a bad entry, it is a less elegant game of death that showed how the franchise was going to go without the original writers.
SAW III (2006)
Jigsaw lays dying from his disease, but he still desires to play another game. He kidnaps a brilliant young neurosurgeon and her husband. The man is obsessed with vengeance for his son who died in a car accident, and the woman is disgusted by what her husband has become. Jigsaw plays a double game where she must attempt a radical surgery on Jigsaw, and he must let go of his anger when presented with the object of his rage, if they are to survive this fateful night.
The third installment of the franchise may be my favorite. It is much more focused on characters: we get an intimate look at Jigsaw as a man, Amanda as a misguided acolyte to the myth instead of the man, and the married couple who are just packed with issues. The script specifically calls out the unwinnable cruelty of the last games and seeks to gently correct the course of the franchise. The two original writers came back to pay respects after the sudden death of the series’ producer, and their good faith is evident. There are twists and sudden reveals like usual, but they feel much more earned. The ending is also explosive, as if the series intended to go out on a strong final note as a trilogy.
SAW IV (2007)
Taking place slightly before the events of SAW III, this installment follows the former partner of the detective who played Jigsaw’s game in SAW II. You can see how this is going to get byzantine! The officer has become obsessed with saving Jigsaw victims after the loss of his friend, and this often causes unintended harm. A secret Jigsaw tape is found detailing an intricate game that the police must play in order to save the detective, presumed dead, from SAW II.
What a mess! A new team of script writer’s stepped into this bear trap. The face of the series was dead, as well as the character who was supposed to take over for him. They had a story that was pretty much wrapped up…that now had to be unwrapped. Their solution was to throw every twist from the previous movies into a blender and see what looked edible afterwards. A lousy backstory elaborates Kramer/Jigsaw’s motivations, changing him to a vengeful ghoul instead of the calculating dispenser of “justice.” The new character who takes over running the games is unlikable and feels slap-dashed. Overall, a pitiful attempt to keep this series on life support well after it had bled out.
SAW V (2008)
The heir apparent to Jigsaw struggles to keep his identity a secret from the police, and we see how he became an apprentice to Kramer in the first place. It is revealed that several unexplained events in the earlier films were due to the new killer’s machinations.
This script, by the same guys from IV, attempts to smooth over all of the rough edges and make the mythology cohere. While the backstory makes the new guy less detestable, and the inter-cutting of timelines leads to some interesting ambiguities, it is the reliance on cool traps that saves this entry. You pretty much have to just accept that the story has become a bit of a hot mess and let the stylish kills, which may be some of the best in the franchise, wash over you.
SAW VI (2009)
The new killer finds himself being pursued by two very different groups. The police, aided by surviving members from previous games, are zeroing in on him. Meanwhile, the estranged widow of Kramer/Jigsaw receives a posthumous envelope that gives her information that should ensure that the new guy plays by the original’s strict rules. All three parties circle each other as a new game commences, pitting the people who denied Kramer early cancer treatments against each other.
The sixth movie is weaker than the fifth but not as awful as the fourth. The traps are good but not amazing like before, and the script starts to indulge the constant need for more twists and shocking reveals. It starts to feel like the Star Wars prequels where we learn everyone is related to everyone else in really unsatisfying ways. Three movies after he died on screen, they still find a way to get Tobin Bell some screen time, so that’s nice, I guess.
SAW 3D (2010)
The final confrontation begins between the new killer and Kramer’s widow, who feels that he has spoiled her husbands legacy. Playing the police off against each other, the bloodletting is interrupted by a new game, which takes the two antagonists by surprise. A man claiming to have survived Jigsaw’s games is placed in a situation where he must really survive a Jigsaw game. As everyone races to discover the new force behind the games, Jigsaw’s final design comes into focus.
Blind squirrels do find acorns! After a rather peevish story arc where Jigsaw is dead and others are just fighting over his scraps, we finally get an invigorating twist with a new player. The dilemma of the phony survivor is interesting and rewarding as well. When the story and characters all come together, this final installment (well…final until Jigsaw comes out tomorrow) feels like a spiritual successor to the first film. I can’t understand why it is the most hated in the series, but I figure franchise fatigue had a lot to do with it.
Where to Now?
Jigsaw premiers this weekend, bringing back the SAW franchise for at least one more go around. The film takes place ten years after the death of Kramer, but stars Tobin Bell in some manner. The script writer’s are new, but a lot of the plot points in the trailer feel extremely familiar. I understand that a studio would want to stick to the formula; despite the revenue and critical response decreasing over the life of the franchise, this series was cheap to produce and made a ton of money in comparison to the budget.
The problem is that I don’t think there is any desire from fans for more of the same. It’s too soon for nostalgia to have set in, so going back to the well is a bad gamble. I would love to see a really novel direction taken for the franchise that would position it for a new story arc. Either way, I’ll pop in the cassette tape and follow the directions when the time comes to see what game Jigsaw has cooked up.