Cinema Dispatch: See Saw – A Franchise Retrospective

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The Saw films and all the images you see in this retrospective are owned by Lionsgate Films

As mentioned in my Jigsaw review, I’ve had a somewhat complicated relationship with Saw franchise as I’m sure is the case with a lot of fans who somehow stuck with this series to the bloody end despite it inarguably getting worse and worse as it went along.  Now this is hardly new for horror franchises (just look at the startling sharp drop the Halloween movies took) but to me Saw wasn’t just a series that got BAD or CHEESY as it went along; it got actively toxic.  What do I mean by that?  Well if you read the review I’ve now referenced twice already (SHARE IT WITH YOUR FRIENDS!!) you probably already know what that is, but let’s go ahead and take a look at this series from the beginning to see just how it managed to change and pervert its core concepts over time.  Oh, and we’re going into TOTAL SPOILERS on these films, so only read if you’ve already binged watched them on Netflix or cannot be bothered to ever do so.  Let’s get started!!

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Saw (2004)

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Two men (Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannell) find themselves locked in a room and chained to opposite sides of it with a dead guy right in the middle; presumably having shot his brains out given the blood on the floor and the gun in his hand.  Eventually they find a few tapes left for them by the serial killer who locked them up there in the first place known only as Jigsaw.  They only have so much time to get out of this trap before the killer starts looking towards their loved ones, and this means they may have to make some really tough decisions; ones that involve the titular saw of the movie.

I haven’t watched this movie in about a decade so going back to where it all started, ESPECIALLY after seeing what the series would ultimately turn into, was quite a shock as the original film has much more in common with Se7en than any of the other movies.  To a certain extent it’s a bit unfair to compare this initial entry to the rest of the series as it ends up feeling like an outlier (similar to how the first Friday the 13th doesn’t even have Jason as the killer) but there are qualities to this that are sorely missed in the sequels.  For one, Jigsaw isn’t the overwhelming and unstoppable force that he would become in later films and is also a downright sadistic mother fucker with no redeeming qualities.  Later films went all in on the cult of Jigsaw which is one of the biggest failings of the entire series; not only because it puts forth a reprehensible world view, but it takes so much menace and danger away from Jigsaw as a character.  The Jigsaw in this film (working through a character named Zep) isn’t given a platform to spout his faux-populist agenda and the film takes time to show just how horrific and unjustifiable his actions are; mostly through the extended sequences of Zep having to terrorize a mother and child while the game is going on.  Compare this to the later films where even the INNOCENT victims barely get a semblance of humanity before becoming props in a giant shit show of moving parts and sharp metal, and you can see why things got so monotonous and smug as the series went along.  Now I’m not about to tell you that this is a perfect movie by any stretch as the editing is rather poor and the performance by Danny Glover is surprisingly awful, but you can see why this first film managed to garner the reputation it did and why Lionsgate was so eager to turn it into a franchise.  The only question is, now that we know who the killer is (the guy on the floor played by Tobin Bell was playing dead the whole time) where else could they really go?

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Saw II (2005)

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The movie begins with the infamous Jigsaw Killer (Tobin Bell) actually getting captured by the police who have managed to find his secret lair and are surprised to find that the one they’ve been tirelessly hunting is in fact an old man with terminal cancer.  Still, it’d be a bad move to underestimate him as Detective Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg) finds out rather quickly when they find monitors showing what appears to be a video feed of the next game that Jigsaw has devised.  The catch here is that Eric’s son Daniel (Erik Knudsen) is one of the players (rounded out by a series of criminals and someone who has already survived one of Jigsaw’s games) in what appears to be a whole HOUSE of traps!  With only a few hours to spare and the criminal mastermind behind it all right in front of him, how will Detective Matthews manage to save his son from becoming one of Jigsaw’s last victims?

One of the most thankless tasks imaginable is to try and make a sequel to an unexpected hit; especially when said sequel doesn’t have the original director of the first one.  In James Wan’s place Darren Lynn Bousman who gets a co-writing credit here (the film is mostly based on a screenplay he was trying to sell at the time) along with the writer of the original film Leigh Whannell so there was more than enough chances for this film to fall flat on its face in trying to recapture the magic that was partly due to the talented director who was no longer in the driver’s seat.  And yet, what we got is easily the best film in the franchise at least as far as I’m concerned.  There are a few reasons why this is the case, but it mostly boils down to the movie being smart enough to expand the world set up in the original film instead of simply trying to recapture exactly what they got right the first time around.  The best aspect about this is the fact that the film wastes no time putting the Jigsaw Killer John Kramer front and center into the movie as Tobin Bell is a phenomenal actor who makes the most of what is easily the biggest role he has in the entire series.  Unlike the first one where he’s basically just on hand to be the twist and later films where he’s just around to try and tie things back to the earlier films, this is him in all his smug and menacing glory as he wastes no time letting Donnie know how full of shit he is and how much smarter he is than everyone else.  Now it’s not like later films which straight up deify him and make his actions above reproach, but this is a much more interesting and fleshed out character than we got in the last film that is sold perfectly with an actor practically brimming with charisma.  He’s still far from a good guy as he’s still straight up murdering people with his life ending prognosis justifying his God complex, but he manages to keep the audience engaged in the way that characters like Hannibal Lecter and Freddy Kruger did in their respective films.  The traps themselves are some of the better in the series as they aren’t as OVERLY complicated like they’d be as the series went along, but have enough variety and creativity as to feel like a solid evolution of what we got in the first film.  I guess you can say that the rest of the cast falls rather flat standing next to the powerhouse that is Tobin Bell, but they’re serviceable enough to get the job done and it has an ending that’s even better than the first film.  Not the BEST in the series which we’ll get to soon enough, but this is one of the few sequels out there that managed to pass the original film in almost every way which means we got a REALLY good movie, but it also means the next movie has even MORE to live up to.

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Saw III (2006)

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After finding out in the last film that Jigsaw Survivor Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith) has become John Kramer’s accomplice and protégé, the third film picks up with her kidnapping Doctor Lynn (Bahar Soomekh) who is tasked with keeping John (Tobin Bell) alive long enough to see his final game to completion.  This game involves Jeff (Angus Macfadyen) who had lost his son in an accident going through a series of rooms with traps that are meant to either give him the vengeance he’s looking for against those he deems responsible for his son’s death or to find salvation through forgiving those who wronged him and letting go of the past.  Will Jigsaw’s last game end with a man redeemed and a family brought back together, and what will Amanda do once John is gone and isn’t there to guide her on this homicidal path she’s chosen? 

We were already lucky enough to get a good sequel from the first film, so it’s hardly a surprise that the third time turns out NOT to be the charm.  That said there’s still enough to appreciate in this so as to not make it a worthless or even all that detrimental addition to the franchise.  In fact, had the series ended right here, this would have very likely been considered one of the better horror trilogies out there!  Heck, outside of Evil Dead, can you even NAME a solid three part horror series!?  It definitely has problems that become exacerbated in later films; particularly the traps which are just plain goofy this time around.  Where the hell did the sick John Kramer or the former heroin addict Amanda Young manage to secure THAT many pig carcasses?  Who the heck thought of that ridiculously elaborate method of freezing someone to death… which somehow actually worked?  It’s also the movie that started what I like to call THE MISERY TOUR which became a staple of later films where the movie focuses on ONE character walking through a series of rooms where OTHER people are stuck in traps.  It’s not a bad idea if its executed right, but every single time they try it in this series (including this film) it just feels like an excuse to show off more traps without losing the narrative through line which in turn lessens the overall impact as the MAIN VICTIM (the only one we get a semblance of character from) is never really the one in danger.  Still, the movie manages to succeed despite itself mostly due to how strong the ending is which may just be the best in the entire series.  Not the best TWIST per se as the one they throw in at the end is rather predicable and mundane, but the culminating moment of John Kramer’s story is the best this series could have possibly hoped for.  Everything he worked for and the legacy he tried desperately to secure crumbles right before his eyes mere moments before his inevitable death.  Sure, he gets the last laugh in a way, but it’s a hollow and bitter victory; the last bit of pointless spite he could muster before being finally succumbing to his illness to forever be derided as a ruthless killer who did nothing worthwhile with his miserable existence.

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Saw IV (2007)

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John Kramer may be dead and gone, but the Jigsaw killings are far from over!  Detective Riggs (Lyriq Bent) who was good friends with Detective Matthews all the way back in the second film finds himself in the middle of one of Jigsaw’s games where the goal at the end seems to be saving Detective Matthews who has been missing for quite some time.  While he’s trying to piece together the clues that Jigsaw has apparently left for him, a bunch of other cops including Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), Agent Strahm (Scott Patterson), and Agent Perez (Athena Karkanis), are following in the path of destruction that Riggs is leaving behind him and are working under the assumption that Jigsaw must have yet another accomplice as it certainly isn’t the dead John Kramer or the dead Amanda Young who’s pulling all this off!  Will Riggs be able to save his friend before the new Jigsaw killer finishes playing with him, or is there more to this latest game than anyone playing it can fathom?

This isn’t quite the nadir of the series, but it’s by far the most forgettable as I literally couldn’t remember a single freaking thing about this movie outside of the autopsy scene at the very beginning.  It was clear right away that the filmmakers had no freaking idea what to do now that they killed off the best actor they could ever hope to get, so the attempt to beat one more movie out of the dead horse are embarrassingly apparent.  Rewatching it in the broader context of the franchise it DOES come together a bit more so I now will probably be able to remember at least SOME of it, and the flashback scenes describing Tobin Bell’s backstory (framed by way of an interrogation of his ex-wife by the police) is just interesting enough to excuse the tired trope and just how obviously they’re shoe horning him back into it.  Everything else though?  Completely worthless.  Lyriq Bent is trying SO hard in this movie, but the script makes him out to be a completely gullible and short sighted jackass which makes it nearly impossible to sympathize with him as he goes on his own MISERY TOUR; a MISERY TOUR by the way that he doesn’t actually have to take part of and ESPECIALLY doesn’t have to take part of by himself.  I just can’t fathom Rigg’s decision making process in this film, nor can I buy any of these ridiculous and overly complicated traps that appear to be set up in rather conspicuous locations.  This is also the film that introduces us to Detective Hoffman who (SPOILER ALERT!) is the hidden protégé for Jigsaw and will carrying the mantle of THE JIGSAW KILLER going forward.  Look, some people like the dude and he does have some natural menace, but he’s not an engaging actor and simply withers away in the shadow that Tobin Bell is leaving in his wake.  He never comes across as some sort of criminal mastermind or even someone with a “code”; rather he looks like a straight up bruiser.  He wouldn’t be bad in a slasher film or even a movie about an evil cop, but as a genius mechanical engineer who has keen insight into the human condition?  Nope.  Not a chance.  Not that any of that matters because Lionsgate were committed to keep this franchise going and they were gonna do it with or without a convincing lead actor!

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Saw V (2008)

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After finishing off Detective Riggs and Detective Matthews at the climax of the last movie, Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) who is the secret disciple of John Kramer (Tobin Bell) begins setting up the next game while also erasing whatever tracks may eventually lead himself back to the infamous Jigsaw Killer.  Agent Strahm (Scott Patterson) however is not one to be easily deceived and he starts looking more and more in Hoffman’s direction as he investigates the events of the last film as well as the third one.  Will Hoffman be able to keep the game alive while also keeping his secret identity intact, or will he have to get his hands even dirtier in order to clear his name?

After the utter bore fest that was SAW IV: WHAT THE FUCK WERE WE THINKING, the series had to find a way to get everything back on track, so what they did was make a movie that was entirely franchise maintenance busy work in an attempt to make all the disparate parts that have been collected over the last four films fit together into something of a cohesive whole.  The results are mixed as it requires some fantastical leaps in logic to somehow fit everyone’s least favorite and super obviously evil cop Detective Hoffman into the already jumbled mess that was the Saw continuity and it ends up pushing the actual Saw stuff to the background which presumably is why everyone is here to see the damn thing.  The traps are incredibly half assed with minimal gore, and what few gruesome deaths WERE in the budget are completely laughable.  It MIGHT have been even more useless than the fourth film if it wasn’t for one thing.  This movie MAY have the best twist ending in the entire series which is some rather bold praise to heap on such a crappy sequel to a franchise known for having twists, but what makes this one work so well is the utter tragedy of it all and one of the most satisfying brutal deaths in the series; not because of the gore or how painful it looks, but for how wrong of an outcome this is.  The one cop in the world who knows that Hoffman is the new Jigsaw not only fails to capture him but also gets famed for everything, and the only thing he can do as his own death slowly and inevitably dawns on him is to shout impotently at Hoffman; screaming that he knows who he REALLY is and what he’s done before being silenced forever and taking the fall.  Now imagine if that ending was in a movie with characters we ACTUALLY cared about!  Still, with the slate officially cleaned and at the very least a decent sendoff under their belt, it was the perfect opportunity for Lionsgate to reassess the series and get everything back on track.  To a lot of people, that’s precisely what they did.

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Saw VI (2009)

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With Agent Strahm (Scott Patterson) unwittingly taking the fall for Agent Hoffman’s crimes, he’s clear to set up the next game that John (Tobin Bell) had left very specific instructions for prior to his death.  Apparently he had trouble with an insurance company while he was dealing with his brain tumor, so Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) kidnaps a good chunk of their workers and puts them in yet another dungeon of pain and ironic despair.  Of course, things aren’t that simple as Agent Perez (Athena Karkanis) is back to find out if Agent Strahm really is the new Jigsaw Killer or if he’s a very elaborate fall guy for someone else.  Not only that, but John Kramer’s ex-wife Jill (Betsy Russell) has some items that John left her in his will and they may just spell doom for the fledgling new serial killer.  Will Hoffman find yet another way to evade his captors while keeping John’s legacy of horror intact?

Rotten Tomatoes has never been kind to this series with none of them rising above a forty-nine percent (that dubious honor being held by the first one), but Saw VI managed to reach a critical consensus higher than any of the other sequels at… thirty-nine percent.  I somehow manage to disagree with Rotten Tomatoes twice in a single instance as I think the better entries in the series aren’t as bad as the aggregates indicate, but I ALSO think that Saw VI is one of the worst in the series and is the one that most overtly turned Jigsaw into the faux-populist underdog hero that gave the filmmakers license to act like petty and vindictive shitheads in a series that was tailor made to reject such a toxic mindset.  Jigsaw is all but a god at this point whose infallible traps are the most “ironically just” yet as the target this time around is the health insurance industry which prioritizes percentages and rates more than it does human lives.  Remember how this all started with a serial killer who, you know… killed people?  Remember when we WEREN’T actively rooting for Jigsaw to win against every last one of the victims he had kidnapped and tortured horribly?  Yeah, that’s completely out of the window as Jigsaw (who is TECHNICALLY the very mortal and fallible Detective Hoffman but is still working entirely off of plans and traps already put in place by John Kramer) is now what The Punisher would be without a semblance of self-awareness by its creators or Judge Dredd without the political satire.  We’re supposed to unquestionably root for the pain and suffering of fellow human beings while also getting to avoid any of the human consequences of those decisions as we never get to know any of the victims outside of their job description and level of douchebaggery; a far cry from the earlier films which didn’t have PARTICULARLY deep characters, but were layered enough to give the proceeding slaughter some genuine grimness and weight.  With this film everything just devolves into the cinematic equivalent of Beat the Boss and frankly comes off as too juvenile to take even a tenth as seriously as it expects us to.  Also, while far from the worst crimes of this movie, the ending is rather weak after such a strong one from part five.  I guess it does enough to set up the final film, but considering how THAT turned out, they should have just left well enough alone.

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Saw VII (2010)

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Having survived Jill’s attempts to kill him at the end of the last movie, Agent Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) goes on the offensive and is plotting his revenge against her while also setting up a few more traps that John (Tobin Bell) had left behind.  The big game this time around is some dude named Bobby (Sean Patrick Flanery) who wrote a book about being a Jigsaw victim even though he was never actually in one of Jigsaw’s traps.  Well it looks like he’s in one now I guess!  Not sure where Hoffman found the time to put all this in place while he’s hunting down Jill (Betsy Russell), but I guess his time management skills are one of the reasons John took him under his wing in the first place!  Oh, and Doctor Gordon (Cary Elwes) from ALL the way back in the first movie has turned up in this one… for some reason.  Will Hoffman get his revenge against Jill which is… important… for some reason?  I guess?

As much as I didn’t like part six for its disturbingly straight faced glee at “punishing the wicked”, it was at least competently made and somewhat stood on its own.  It wasn’t the final chapter which I feel quite comfortable in saying is the worst of the series (though the forgettable as hell part four is a close second) because the traps are repetitive, the politics are MUCH worse, and it manages to drag the rest of the franchise through the mud in what it feels is a SHOCKING CONCLUSION TO THE LEGEND OF JIGSAW in what has to be one of the weakest movie endings of all time.  You know what REALLY pissed me off about the death scenes in this movie?  I mean, BESIDES the fact that this is the most blatantly sexist movie in the entire franchise?  The timers.  The timers have been an ISSUE in previous films, but god DAMN are they a fucking abused here!  Each challenge that Sean Patrick Flanery goes through in his MISERY TOUR involves a shitty timer (except for one which is just a lame hanging trap) where the guy goes through the fucking challenge put before him, but is ultimately screwed by the clock.  Doesn’t that kind of defeat whatever purpose that Jigsaw is supposedly doing all this for?  Sure, by this point we’ve LONG since gotten away from any form of discipline or restraint (why have a trap if we’re not going to MERCILESSLY butcher someone in it!?), but that’s the problem!  The series got lazy and the traps this time around are the perfect example of that.  The primary selling point of the series (for good or ill) is no longer done with any effort, so it’s no wonder this series fell apart as spectacularly as it did.  Oh, but that’s not the worst of it!  The fact that they dragged Cary Elwes back into this is one of the absolute worst mistakes I’ve ever seen a franchise take; right up there with bringing Ripley back as an alien hybrid clone with shitty one liners.  Remember what happened to him in the first movie?  Jigsaw kidnapped his family, threatened to murder him (and might have even done so as far as this guy knew at the end of that movie), and then handed the desperate mother fucker a saw to hack off one of his own limbs; nearly bleeding out in the process.  Turns out that this guy became ANOTHER Jigsaw disciple!  Yeah, THAT guy managed to escape from his trap only to find common ground with his captor and become an accomplice in other people’s misery.  FUCK!  THAT!  It’s like the filmmakers had a seething hatred for everything that the franchise was about and set out to make a movie that the fans who invested in the prior six films would absolutely despise; leaving them with a finale that is a giant middle finger right in their faces.  No wonder they waited a freaking decade to try and make another one.

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And that’s about it!  The franchise just never found a way to recover after killing off Tobin Bell and what it ended up becoming was incredibly mean and increasingly lazy.  I’ve seen my fair share of gore films so I’m not against a series like this in principal, but a cavalcade of human misery which this series ultimately became is not the same thing and wasted the potential of one of the more interestingly thought out franchises in horror history; not that the latter movies suddenly become GREAT if they didn’t turn John Kramer into a virtuous Messiah, but it would have at least been a lot more tolerable.  As for the new film, you can read my thoughts on it in my full review, but as far as it fitting into the franchise as a whole… I don’t know.  It’s actually pretty decent if it had been a simple reboot, but instead they clumsily cram it into the existing lore which not only comes off as really awkward but also carries with it a lot of the baggage that ended up hurting the later films; particularly John’s infallible morality which is again on FULL display when he shows up at the end for his cameo.  I’d like there to be more Saw movies, but only if Lionsgate hands it off to a director who understands just how awful of a human being John Kramer is and can make the kind of movie that understands the real horror behind these films.  John’s traps may be freighting to watch when someone’s stuck in them, but the man with the free time, disposable income, and complete lack of humanity to actually use them?  That’s a WAY more interesting puzzle to try and solve than whether or not someone can find a stupid keyhole in sixty seconds.

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