NOTE: Massive spoilers in this entire article. For those who haven’t seen any of these movies, go watch ‘em first!
2004 was an interesting time for American horror: it was pretty great year, with many big-name movies coming out, but almost all of them were either sequels (Seed of Chucky, Cube Zero) or remakes (Dawn of the Dead, The Grudge). Enter a young James Wan, who had just been greenlit to make a feature-length film out of his successful short film, Saw. What would follow was to be one of the most talked-about and popular horror movies of the year.
Being one of the most influential horror movies of the past decade, it was inevitable that there would be many, many movies to follow. At first, the success of the first was the jumping-off point to turn the series into a trilogy, but after the trilogy was over the producers eventually said “Eh, fuck it” and decided to draw the series out to four more films, capping the series at seven movies total. Today, our job is to count down the films from worst to best – we already did a Worst Traps list, so without further ado, let the game begin!
- Saw IV (2007)
I don’t think it’s an unpopular opinion to start this list off with the fourth entry in the series – by far the worst movie in the franchise. For starters, we have a main character that we’ve followed through the entire series thus far (Lyriq Bent as Lieutenant Daniel Rigg) and yet care nothing about; we have some of the most chessmaster-y, borderline-asinine traps in the whole series; and we have a twist that is not only confusing, but entirely underwhelming. And already done better by Saw II!
This was the only film in the series when, prior to re-watching it, I just couldn’t remember a damn thing about it – other than poor Donnie Wahlberg finally being put out of his misery. But there are way, way too many questions here to try and answer properly. Why wasn’t there a tape in the first trap? How did Art get involved in a second trap so soon after the first? And how the hell did Jigsaw/Hoffman rig an entire apartment complex without anyone noticing? To all these questions, the answer was the same: I simply wasn’t invested enough to care.
- Saw V (2008)
While the next film in the franchise did start to show semblances of the previous films’ former glory – an actually competent main character in Agent Strahm (giving yourself a goddamn tracheotomy? Daaaaaamn!), and a twist in the nature of the game itself – there were still plenty of things wrong with Saw V, most notably the fact that the main plot was just, well, pretty damn boring.
I mean, who wants to see Hoffman’s smug-ass face for that much screen time? Who wants to see all the cops in the police office shuffling papers for what seems like the entire movie? To top the whole thing off, the ending trap in the finale is just simply too chessmaster-y for it to be believable. I wrote a whole damn article about it, so I have strong feelings about it.
- Saw VI (2009)
As the second-half of the series proper started to gain traction, it slowly got more interesting: now that Hoffman has to cover his ass with the police, the traps that he’d lain out so carefully all start to crumble out from under him, culminating in his inevitable fall in the last act at the hands of none other than Jigsaw’s own wife. If that’s not some karma coming back to bite you in the ass, I don’t know what is!
However, the B-plot of the movie was constantly followed by this unbearably preachy undertone about healthcare being monetized, the insurance companies having all the power, how people are just pawns in a greater corporate hamster wheel… It’s called show-not-tell, John! Couldn’t it have been spelled out a little more discreetly, in the traps perhaps, without all the soapbox flashbacks? Oh wait, it already was? I rest my case.
Side Note: Can we just take a look at this poster and wonder what the hell it’s even trying to depict? A glove? A hand in the background? “Trust in him”? Like, trust his hands? I just don’t get it.
- Saw VII (2010)
Considering how far from the original movie we find ourselves by the time we get to Saw VII, the final film in the series does wrap things up pretty nicely: everyone, and I mean everyone, is dead except for our triumphant Doctor Gordon (probably the best part of the whole damn movie), the legacy is finished, and the Reverse Bear Trap finally gets its first victim, most likely from die-hard fans bitching about how it hadn’t actually killed anyone. There, are you happy?!
That being said, empathy for the B-plot protagonist is at an all-time low, thanks in part to the fact that he’s a lying bastard who got everyone into this mess (including his poor, innocent wife), which makes his spectacular failure of his final test all the more juicy. For all of those saying after you hear his sob story, “That’s not how the human body works!” here is your ultimate pay-off: that’s not how the human body works, and not even the protagonist knew it. What a dick.
Side Note: Can we also look at this poster and wonder how low the marketing team was scraping the barrel with it? Is it a Jigsaw Rocket? Are they gonna shoot John into space? Or are they in ancient Mesopotamia? Who even knows.
- Saw II (2005)
After the first Saw was made, Leigh Whannell and James Wan were tasked with a difficult job: make the next Saw up the ante in every way. And up it they certainly did: instead of two players, we’re introduced to eight; instead of a single room for the game, we’re given an entire house, each room filled with traps more gruesome than the last. Well, mostly. (Come on, why would you put your hands in there? Why?!)
The one problem with introducing so many characters into the game is that, inevitably, we only end up caring about a couple of them. There’s so many players in this film that I wish had been given a little more background (like Obi, or even Xavier) but are instead treated as one-note roles. Of course, in Saw II, the point is that Jigsaw can see so many moves ahead of the players that he’s arguably in control of the game the entire time, without even having to watch it. The ending twist is fantastic as well, and was the first time we were ever introduced to the idea of an accomplice. At the time, it was groundbreaking for the series.
- Saw III (2006)
Out of all of the films on this list (other than our #1 entry), Saw III was the only movie in the series where I actually cared about the B-plot as much as the main plot. We have Jeff (Angus Macfadyen), whose son was recently killed in a car accident. As the game progresses, we see that everyone involved is a major player in the court case, and thus the challenge for Jeff to forgive them is given actual weight outside of the whole “killing an innocent life” thing that the later films in the series rely on (because, come on Saw VI, killing a guy for smoking is pretty thin, even for you).
On top of this, the main plot is extremely compelling: the concept of the main game being that the killer has to stay alive is brilliant, and the stakes never feel compromised or cheap with this premise. And the nurse (Lynn, played by Bahar Soomekh) is a character who is actually smart, who makes rational decisions, which is why her eventual fate stings even more when it happens. It shows a potential flaw in Jigsaw’s plan – even though he still, arguably, comes out on top – which is something that none of the other films really look into. It proves that the emotions that Jigsaw is usually so apt at reading aren’t always on point, which is huge. The payoff is worth it.
- Saw (2004)
Yup, you probably saw this coming. (Sorry.) But it’s not unwarranted that the original film that started it all is the top choice in our list: it really is a nearly-flawless design, one of the best that Jigsaw ever gave us. It’s simple – two people chained to the wall, two hacksaws, a body with some items, and a timer – but the way that this film slowly builds tension, and gives us insight into each of the two character’s lives, is perfectly balanced. And you end up caring about these two a great deal, despite their flaws, which is something that the series never really did ever again. This film made its victims the main characters, instead of the villain, which makes the stakes of the game an actual investment to the viewer.
And of course, the twist. Holy shit, the twist. There was a point in my life after I saw this movie for the first time that I would actually show it to other people, just so I could see their reactions to that last shot. It still gives me chills every time I see it; it’s a twist that’s so twisted, so unforeseeable, and yet works so perfectly with the Jigsaw character. He was truly in control the entire time, and the twist reveals what a perfect machine he created. There was never any hope for escape. It was all planned out. Game over.
Of course, what makes these movies so great and compelling is the complex moral code that Jigsaw lives by, and how the various flaws in that ideology reveal themselves throughout the series. Between the first and second arc, we can see that moral code tested against people, both playing and controlling the games, and we can eventually see how even Jigsaw had to provide a fail-safe, post-mortem, in case something went wrong. It’s a series that has surprising moral depth, despite the splatter, which might be why it’s one of the most lucrative horror series ever made. Let us know what you think in the comments below!