Updated: Nov 15, 2019
There was a time, not so many years ago when nobody knew the name, James Wan. I realise that sounds preposterous now, what with The Conjuring Universe being an unstoppable, cinematic, omnipresence. We even have films coming out that we didn’t know were part of the Conjuring Universe until they are actually released, (for example, The Curse of La Llorona).
Back in 2004, Wan and writer, Leigh Whannell hit it big with their feature-length movie, Saw. Based on their short film from the year before and with a small budget but an inventive concept, Saw came out of nowhere and changed the face of horror for the next two decades that followed.
It’s not unfair to suggest that horror as a genre had become stagnant. Scream had been a game-changer, eight years previous to Saw’s release but in its wake came a tidal wave of PG13, Teen Slasher movies that appealed more to the ADHD, MTV crowd with all it’s beautiful cast members and flashy jump scares. True horror fans craved for something more. Something a little bit nastier. Something dirty and unpleasant. For we were the Video Nasty generation. We had spent our youth’s hunting down the grainy, fourth-gen copies of the movies that the BBFC had told us we were not allowed to watch. Saw felt more akin to that than it did to films like I Know What You Did Last Summer.
The clever thing about Saw was that while it was a very low budget movie. (it was made for $1.2 million, which is chump change in Hollywood), it never felt cheap. Hell, it even had Danny Glover in it. Danny (I’m too old for this shit) Glover of Lethal Weapon fame. How could it possibly be a B-Movie? Saw was the breath of fresh air that true, diehard horror fans had been waiting for.
Saw was a Hit. Grossing more than $100,000,000 compared to its meager budget, it turned out that cinema-goers really wanted to see horrible things happen to people. Not only did the success of Saw mean that it would go on to spawn endless sequels, of varying quality, but it opened the door for other filmmakers such as Eli Roth and Rob Zombie, to craft more vicious, violent movies in a sub-genre that would become known as Torture Porn.
Suddenly the pretty, teen, horror of Scream was out and instead we had films where the camera wasn’t afraid to linger as someone in a dark, dank, basement has their eye removed with a blow torch or their knees decimated with a power drill. The shelves of Blockbuster (it’s what us old-timers used to use to watch movies before the age of superfast broadband), were lined with DVD cases with pictures of screaming faces next to some power tool or another. Titles like Hostel or The Devils Rejects calling out to us to rent them. It made a refreshing change from the tired plot of waiting to find out which school friend was really the killer, all along.
Sadly, much like anything else in this world, quantity and quality seldom go hand in hand. Saw sequels became an annual thing as filmmakers rushed through production in order to have the next film released for the Halloween market. Story became brushed aside and in its place came set pieces to showcase one gruesome event after another. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy gore as much as any other fan of the genre but, what I liked so much about the first Saw film was its interesting plot device. It was brilliant in its simplicity.
Directed By: James Wan, Written By: James Wan & Leigh Whannel. Starring: Tobin Bell, Danny Glover, Cary Elwes, Leigh Whannel.
Two Strangers (Elwes & Whannel), awaken in a filthy, abandoned Bathroom. Neither have any idea how they got there and both are Chained at the ankle to pipes. In the middle of the room there lies a dead man, holding a tape player and a handgun. Both of the chained men find they are in possession of a tape and a rusty hacksaw. Upon retrieving the tape player and playing their tapes it is revealed that one must kill the other in order to prevent the death of their family. After trying, unsuccessfully to cut the chains that bind them it becomes clear that the saws are not meant to cut through the metal. If they want to survive they will have to make a greater sacrifice with the tools given to them. For they have fallen victim to the Jigsaw Killer and are now Pawns in his sick game.
It’s such a wonderfully simple concept that it’s hard to believe nobody thought of it sooner. Sure it’s nasty in places but the original Saw is miles, removed from the gorefest’s that followed. We only really glimpse some of the more elaborate traps that appear in the sequels, such as the reverse bear trap. Saw relies more on its characters and building tension than endlessly offing people in the goriest ways possible. It’s the story alone that makes Saw the best of the bunch. Every film in the franchise has paled in comparison.
Saw 2 (2005)
Directed By: Darren Lynn Bousman. Written By: Leigh Whannel & Darren Lynn Bousman. Starring: Tobin Bell, Donnie Wahlberg, Shawnee Smith, Erik Knudsen.
Detective Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg, must rescue 8 people, one of who is his estranged son, who are trapped in a basement by The Jigsaw Killer (Tobin Bell). A SWAT team storm Jigsaw’s lair and arrest him but it soon becomes clear that being arrested is all part of Jigsaw’s twisted game and if Detective Matthews doesn’t play along, he will never see his son alive again.
Saw 2 is not a bad sequel. Once again it doesn’t reach the gore-soaked heights of later entries. There are some interest and more inventive traps introduced in part 2. The pit of syringe needles being a particularly nasty set up. The character of Amanda (Shawnee Smith), briefly seen in part one, is more fleshed out, ready for a prominent spot in further installments. Saw 2 is the best of the sequels, delivering more on plot and story, before the franchise became a gore/sketch show.
Saw 3 (2006)
Directed By: Darren Lynn Bousman. Written By: Leigh Whannell & James Wan. Starring: Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith, Angus Macfadyen, Bahar Soomekh.
A Nurse (Bahar Soomekh), is abducted by Jigsaw, who is now in the late stages of cancer. Her task is to keep him alive long enough to see his latest game played out. The catch is that she has been fitted with a collar loaded with shotgun cartridges. The collar is linked to Jigsaw’s heart rate monitor and should he flatline, her collar will detonate and it’s game over. Meanwhile, Jeff (Angus Macfadyen), is the latest participant in Jigsaw’s game. Overcome with grief at the loss of his Son at the hands of a drunk driver, Jeff must navigate his way through Jigsaw’s hellish maze, on a path that will bring him face to face with the man responsible for his loss.
Saw 3 is where it all started to fall apart. In truth, it’s not a bad film. There is still some semblance of a story to be found and having a Nurse spend the film trying to keep the antagonist alive for its duration and at her own peril is a nice touch. It’s at this point however that the franchise began upping the gore quota. Characters are introduced, just to be killed off in some grizzly fashion in a matter of mere minutes. Saw 3 also manages to kill off its villain at the end of the movie so how can there be 5 more of these films I hear you ask? Trust me, that doesn’t matter...
Saw 4 (2007)
Directed By: Darren Lynn Bousman. Written By: Patrick Melton & Marcus Dunstan. Starring: Tobin Bell, Scott Patterson, Costas Mandylor, Shawnee Smith.
Jigsaw is dead. Killed at the end of part 3 in fact but, that doesn’t matter because you had better believe that he is going to keep appearing in these movies, regardless. Amanda is also dead but that doesn’t matter either. The film opens on a pretty graphic scene depicting Jigsaw’s autopsy. It's gruesome in its detail and sets the bar for the rest of the movie, oh and serves to remind you that he is in fact deceased. He may be gone but someone is still committing murder using Jigsaw’s M.O. It’s not John Kramer. He’s dead. Remember the autopsy? It’s not Amanda. She’s dead too. Is it a copycat? An FBI profiler, Agent Strahm (Scott Patterson), is called in to help Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), get to the bottom of what the actual fuck is going on.
By this installment, it’s all about the traps and I admit that they are pretty cool. The problem is that what contrived plot there actually is doesn’t matter because you really won't care at this point. Personally, I find Saw 4 to be the most boring. Sure there are some nice, gruesome deaths and yes, the traps are always clever but I had lost interest about 10 minutes into the film.
Saw 5 (2008)
Directed By: David Hackl. Written By: Patrick Melton & Marcus Dunstan. Starring: Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Scott Patterson, Julie Benz
So it’s 2008 and we have now had five of these movies. I think I vaguely remember going to the Cinema to see this one but I really can’t be sure.
Hoffman has been revealed as the next Jigsaw. Strahm was left for dead but managed to survive. And now knows Jigsaw’s identity. Can Hoffman cover his tracks and silence Strahm for good, before he spills the beans? Meanwhile, a new group of cannon fodder is being fed into the meat machine that this franchise has become. Among them is Brit (Julie Benz – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Rambo 4). She and four others who are linked by some random plot device that I can’t even remember, must negotiate Jigsaw’s maze of horror until only one of them is left.
I will be honest. Saw 5 is the last movie in the series that I remember quite enjoying. I haven’t revisited it since that first viewing so whether or not I would enjoy it a second time remains a mystery. Again, the film exists purely to off people in new and inventive ways but while the money keeps rolling in, the sequels keep rolling out. Original Jigsaw, Tobin Bell, appears throughout the film in a multitude of flashbacks. It’s as if the filmmakers regret killing him off and keep coming up with new and desperate ways to force him into the story. I may have to give this another watch soon to see if I enjoy it as much as I thought I did.
Saw 6 (2009)
Directed By: Kevin Greutert. Written By: Patrick Melton & Marcus Dunstan. Starring: Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Mark Rolston, Shawnee Smith.
Agent Strahm is now dead. Killed by Jigsaw/Hoffman at the end of part 5. Unfortunately, this isn’t the end of Hoffman’s troubles as a new FBI agent, Erickson (Mark Rolston – Aliens), is on his case. While Hoffman tries to evade the eagle eyes of the feds, his new game gets underway. This time, in the firing line, is an unethical, Health Insurance Salesman. He must make his way through a maze and along the way try to help as many people as possible to escape jigsaw’s traps before, finally coming to the aid of his family.
It’s more of the same I’m afraid. Just one set piece after another. Some of the traps are interesting though. I especially liked the Shotgun Carousel. The plot, however, is now a thing of the past. We are offered no characters to care about. The main victim is a sleazy, Insurance salesman. I mean are we really meant to give two shits about him? The rot had truely set in by this installment.
Saw 3D – The Final Chapter (2010)
Directed By: Kevin Greutert. Written By: Patrick Melton & Marcus Dunstan. Starring: Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Betsy Russell, Cary Elwes.
Could it really be the final chapter? Nope..
The plot, if I can use that word to describe this mess of a film, see’s new Jigsaw/Hoffman going after old Jigsaw/Kramer’s wife because she knows too much and Hoffman can’t have someone else spill the beans over his identity. Seriously, really? This is the same plot device, three movies in a row. Meanwhile, some more bags of meat.. Sorry I mean characters are captured and put in traps and yada yada yada..
Saw 3d, or Saw The Final Chapter, Or Saw 7, or whatever the fuck you want to call it is just bad. There is nothing I can say about this film that I find to be a positive. The gimmick of turning the gore effect that this franchise relies on so heavily, into 3D effects, makes them look cheap and fake. The story is so contrived and boring by this point that I honestly can’t remember what was happening. Saw whatever teased us by claiming to be the last part. It wasn’t and we never should have allowed ourselves to be taken in.
Directed By: Michael Spierig & Peter Spierig. Written By: Josh Stolberg &Pete Goldfinger. Starring: Tobin Bell, Matt Passmore, Laura Vandervoort.
In 2010 we were made to believe that Saw had come to its conclusion. This wasn’t the first time that horror fans had been fooled by the inclusion of The Final Chapter. Friday the 13th had pulled the wool over our eyes with that trick, decades before. Whereas Friday still had some steam in its engine, Saw had ran out, yet seven years later we got Jigsaw.
Jigsaw was intended to introduce some new blood to the series and in many ways, it succeeded. The filmmakers toned down the gore a little, although the plot wasn’t exactly amped up much. Again we got some new and interesting traps. The Spiralizer, I especially liked. The basic story, if you can call it such see’s bodies turning up bearing all the hallmarks of the Jigsaw Killer. It couldn’t possibly be John Kramer, right? Surely he is dead. As it’s a relatively new film I’m not going to spoil it for you. All I can really say is that, if you’re a fan of everything that came before, there is no reason you wouldn’t enjoy Jigsaw.
It would be easy to ignore the importance of the Saw films on the horror genre. Yes, they got worse as the series went on. This tends to happen with most, long-running film franchises. Their legacy will live on, long after they have stopped making them. Saw injected new life into a stalled genre. It also paved the way for some pretty great movies from some pretty great movie makers. Regardless of how I believe the series took a downturn, clearly many disagree with me because if these films didn’t make money they wouldn’t keep making them. I guess some people are not too bothered about the plot as long as they get to see people killed in a horrific manner. Personally, I preferred it when the Saw films offered up a little bit of both. But that is just my opinion..