Historically, when it comes to spectacle, violence has been one of the major factors that has worked like a charm to attract audiences, as it is undeniably one of the integral parts of the struggle for existence itself. But without proper causality, nuance, and intertextuality, the display of wanton violence only serves as a cheap crowd-puller. That’s what James Wan and Leigh Whanell had always kept in mind while creating the iconic thriller/slasher movie “Saw” in 2004, which eventually spawned a franchise complete with its own mythology, characters, and legacy and grew large enough through the last couple of decades to become one of the top-grossing horror franchises to date. Although the later entries lost much of the subtlety and innovativeness of the original trilogy due to drastic narrative changes, the recently released “Saw X” has returned to its roots to reinvigorate the franchise once again.
Initially revolving around the shenanigans of the eccentric, diabolical genius Jigsaw killer, aka John Kramer (Tobin Bell), who subjected people to intricate and deadly traps or games, which for him were a means to shake people out of their apathy and callousness and truly evaluate their lives, the Saw franchise went on to evolve into an interconnected universe of its own. The unique yet gnarly, gore-filled death sequences presented in sync with particular shortcomings of victims or a certain theme made the franchise iconic, aside from the intriguing psyche of Jigsaw. Following Kramer’s demise in Saw III, his accomplice Mark Hoffman carried the legacy of Jigsaw forward, but the audience never really cared much about this new Jigsaw; his movies too veered way off from the cohesive narrative of the first trilogy. As we rank the top five “Saw” movies in ascending order in terms of qualitative and innovative parameters, let us see whether the latest entry manages to secure a place.
Perhaps the most divisive entry among fans after the reboot, Jigsaw (2017), Spiral is interesting in the aspect that it’s both a departure from the traditional Saw movies and also a call-back to the original trilogy at the same time. More like a spin-off than a mainline sequel, Spiral also ditches the Kramer-involved narrative, makes the effort to explore new frontiers by introducing copycat killers, and revolves mostly around intense cop drama akin to Seven or True Detective. The movie radically shifts from the usual dingy, gloomy aesthetics of the franchise to present a much more polished worldview, but in the process loses the cynical dark humor and thematic nuance the series is known for as it aims for a pretty straightforward revenge drama. The not-so-pleasant audience consensus Spiral received led the makers to backtrack and return to the Kramer storyline once again with Saw X, which proved to be a wise decision in the long run.
Saw VI (2009)
The only entry with detective Mark Hoffman as Jigsaw, which had a solid plotline, mind-boggling twists, and stomach-churning gore all at once, was the sixth entry of the franchise, Saw VI. While Hoffman gets busy burying clues which can lead to the revelation of the truth of him being the successor of Jigsaw, with multiple flashback sequences, viewers are reunited with John Kramer as his posthumous influence gets highlighted as the movie puts the corrupt American healthcare system on trial. With an insurance company, one that chooses to prey on the hapless and uses an algorithmic pattern to meticulously decide the profitable client instead of public need, being at the receiving end, the choice to take sides was never easier for the audience. A dour truth about John’s first accomplice, Amanda Young, gets revealed in this movie, linking it directly with Saw III, which surely blew the minds of the series fans big time. Also, the iconic reverse bear trap of the first movie gets used on Hoffman, so that’s a bonus point right there. Despite having an excellent story, the movie was hindered by shoddy acting, which had an impact on box office numbers.
Saw II (2005)
The unbelievable success of the first Saw movie led to immediate planning for a sequel, and within a year, Saw II got released in theaters. The sequel expanded upon the briefly teased mythology of Jigsaw in the first movie, delineated on John Kramer’s modus operandi, his protégé Amanda Young’s larger role in the overarching narrative, and even more action, gore, and twists than the first one. Saw II was the movie that initiated serious world-building in the franchise, which has since continued to become large enough to sprawl into ten movies. Saw II reveals how before Walter White, John Kramer was the dying cancer patient who decided to break bad after a chance encounter with death gave him an epiphany, leading him to become the Jigsaw in the first place. A greater number of characters also didn’t hinder the plot’s progress, as knowing their background allowed the audience to connect with the ensuing viciousness in a better manner.
Saw X (2023)
The latest entry of the franchise, Saw X which chronologically positions itself right between Saw and Saw II, is arguably the best one of the franchise, only second to the original entry due to being a sequel. The makers gave free reign to Tobin Bell’s John Kramer in this one, explored the character’s humanity more than hovering around the scheming alter ego, and, as a result, accomplished the seemingly tough feat of making viewers sympathize with the character. For the first time, Kramer has seemed this vulnerable; the mentor-addict relationship between him and Amanda was handled with a tragic note that bordered on a filial relationship. These creative decisions contributed to a really fulfilling experience for the series fans and proved the potential of the franchise is far from being depleted in the makers choice to move forward in a positive direction. The kill sequences are mostly great, with one particular exception that might seem like a cop-out, but that shouldn’t discourage viewers from checking out the movie in the first place.
This might seem like a clichéd choice, but the first movie really had a significant impact on the horror genre as a whole. The ingenuity of the subject matter, physical and psychological brutality being a metaphor for unprincipled life, underlying thematic significance, satirical undertone—it can be said without a doubt that Saw was introduced as a subversive morality play that had much more philosophical subtext to convey than a majority of pretentious arthouse flicks do. On a shoestring budget and in extremely confined settings, James Wan and Leigh Whanell were able to conjure something so riveting by focusing on shades of violence and the exchange of dialogue that it became a landmark in the history of horror movies. Adding to all this, one of the most cleverly put plot twists being included in the final moments of the movie makes Saw the best entry in the franchise.