Whether you’re a passionate John Kramer devotee or a haughty cinephile dismissing Jigsaw’s legacy as so-called “torture porn,” the “Saw” franchise absolutely got to you. Yes, you.
Back in theaters for the 2023 Halloween season, James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s indie shocker-turned-big budget ringer redefined splatter films for the post-9/11 masses and kicked off a resurgence that led to Eli Roth’s “Hostel,” Rob Zombie’s “The Devil’s Rejects,” Tom Six’s “The Human Centipede,” and more. Its notorious gore drew in the eyeballs of not just dedicated genre fans but also countless looky-loos too scared to go beyond the surprisingly dense “Saw” summaries on Wikipedia.
You can bet those same people will be back to devour every morsel of “Saw X,” director Kevin Gruetert’s third at-bat for the series (he also helmed “Saw VI” and “Saw 3D”), starring OG Jigsaw Tobin Bell and set between the events of “Saw” and “Saw II.” You know, from before “Saw III” and “Saw IV” turned Kramer into hamburger meat and forced us down an endless path of time shifts and copycat killers.
Most people know “Saw” for its exceptionally graphic formula. Pig-masked kidnappers — sometimes Kramer, sometimes not — abduct people for not living their lives up to his exceedingly high (read: dumb) standards. When the victims awake from their druggings, they find themselves placed in traps designed to make them fight for their lives. They’re instructed by video tape, audio recorder, and/or the instantly iconic Billy the Puppet to “make your choice.” Chop off your arm/gouge out your eyes/rip the skin off your back — or it’s, you guessed it, game over. Offenders range from a serial rapist to a battered woman sticking by her abusive husband to a skilled doctor taking antidepressants. Philosophy, it must be said, was never John’s strong suit.
It’s not all just blood and body parts though. Behind that appalling premise, you’ll find nine (soon to be 10!) films chockfull of wacky character lore, melodramatic police procedurals, some of the funniest transitions in horror history, some of cinema’s most surprising twists, and endless fodder for the kinds of film conversations extreme horror fans love. The franchise started with a bang, delivering a film every Halloween between 2004 and 2010 before taking a seven-year hiatus. The Spierig Brothers’ soft reboot, “Jigsaw,” marked a low point for the franchise; thankfully Chris Rock turned it around with the shockingly great spinoff, “Spiral,” in 2021.
Where will this undeniable cultural behemoth take us next? Ahead of “Saw X,” IndieWire has tirelessly puzzled over the franchise’s ranking to deliver a solutions-oriented guide to surviving a watch-through. Spoilers abound but don’t punish us for it. You’re the one not living life to its fullest.
9. “Jigsaw” (2017)
Like so many quantity-based horror series before it, the “Saw” franchise hit rock bottom on an ill-advised reboot. But while “Jigsaw” boasts the jarringly slick digital cinematography and needless self referencing that dragged down similar relaunches of “Friday the 13th” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” there are some genuinely fun moments to be found within it. The franchise never lost its knack for traps, and the emphasis on psychological games (as opposed to purely physical torture) that John Kramer employs in “Jigsaw” is quite fun. But while any “Saw” fan who had stuck with the franchise up to this point was likely to be amused, the decision to reheat the series’ most played-out twist demonstrated an unforgivable lack of creativity. It was immediately apparent that a new direction was needed — thankfully for everyone, Chris Rock decided to do something about it. —CZ
8. “Saw V” (2008)
While overarching narrative coherence has never been this franchise’s strength (true “Saw”-heads decided to find the convoluted timeline charming a long time ago), “Saw V” was the moment when it became apparent that the series was flailing without John Kramer. The only decision more questionable than killing him off so early was replacing him with the most boring man on the face of the planet (Costas Mandylor’s Mark Hoffman). Watching a police squad investigate the identity of Jigsaw’s successor — a mystery whose answer was already revealed to audiences in “Saw IV” — isn’t enough to make the collection of traps feel like a complete film. While the showdown at the end is quite cool, it feels completely unearned by the film’s meandering script. “Saw V” would have made a great collection of deleted scenes from “Saw IV,” but it doesn’t bring enough new material to the table to justify its existence. —CZ
7. “Saw VI” (2009)
Released at the height of the Obamacare debate, “Saw VI” sees Jigsaw get well and truly political. Hoffman is still in charge, but (way, way, way too many) flashbacks show us John Kramer is using his blandest apprentice to posthumously go after a shifty insurance agency for not providing coverage to dying patients. A gaggle of these goons end up in a sprawling warehouse, where everything from a steam-rigged obstacle course maze to the widely beloved Shotgun Carousel picks them off one at a time. But nothing in Some City We Don’t Know The Name Of is ever that simple, and in the background Jigsaw’s beloved Jill (Betsy Russell) is finally given some agency as she attempts to stop the out-of-control (if he was ever in control?) Hoffman.
“Saw VI” buckles under the exponentially multiplied weight of “Saw III” feeding into “Saw IV” feeding into “Saw V,” feeling more aimless and poorly reasoned than ever before. Truly, killing off a hospital janitor with a smoking habit is just…mean. (And putting him first? So he’s the most likely to die? C’mon, John!) But it’s got at least a few memorable traps and some especially committed performances from lesser characters; shout out to Tanedra Howard, who won her part in the 2008 “Scream Queens” reality series, and Shawn Mathieson, aka the “When you’re killing me, you look at me!” dude. Top marks to you both. —AF
6. “Saw III” (2006)
Ah yes, the film that killed John Kramer! It’s a shocking creative decision almost every subsequent “Saw” movie contorts itself to account for, but hardly a spoiler since the promise of a collar bomb attached to Kramer’s heartbeat sets up the entire premise that plays out across “Saw III” and “Saw IV.” (Blink and you’ll miss it, but…is that Detective Mark Hoffman in Act One? How long do you think we’re going to be stuck with that fucking guy?)
With time on his terminal cancer diagnosis running out, the original Jigsaw uses his apprentice’s (Shawnee Smith) help to set up one final test. Jigsaw intertwines the games of Jeff (Angus Macfadyen), a grief-stricken father/the slowest man in horror history, with his jealousy-prone “Saw II” trainee, Amanda, who as the first acts of the film tell us has been crafting unwinnable traps much to Jigsaw’s dismay.
Kramer and his cult’s philosophy has been ridiculous from the beginning and “Saw III” finally puts a fine point on just how outrageous it is that Kramer never considered himself a murderer. There’s adequate narrative explanation given to exploring traps that really can’t be beaten, and the design team makes a meal of the new parameters, putting everything from a frozen naked lady to a man drowning in pig guts on display. It might not be the most compelling film in the bunch, but its planning was pivotal. —AF
5. “Saw IV” (2007)
“Saw IV” picks up right after Kramer’s death and immediately tosses the audience into a gleefully gruesome autopsy scene that leaves nothing to the imagination. (Seriously, they pop his skull flap open like one of those Halloween store jelly candies.) But just because franchise newcomers Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan — the series’ screenwriters from here until “Saw 3D” — decided to double-down on the OG Jigsaw’s demise doesn’t mean they were done with Tobin Bell.
With more shameless flashbacks and bizarre scene transitions than any other film in the franchise, “Saw IV” has plenty to be ashamed and proud of; Scalping Seat anyone? But it’s best remembered as the movie that takes place during “Saw III”: a zesty timeline change-up that allows for more John Kramer and makes for one of the soapier final acts in the franchise (in a good way!) — but also lays the groundwork for the abysmally misguided plot of “Saw V.”
Hoffman finally rears his ugly head as one of the most boring slasher characters to ever run around in a raincoat (and that’s including the dude from “I Know What You Did Last Summer”), but at least we get to see Donnie Wahlberg freezing his little Wahlburgers off on a big ol’ block of ice. You win some, you lose some! Hence, number five. —AF
4. “Saw 3D: The Final Chapter” (2010)
While the much-maligned “Saw 3D” has long been regarded as a low point in the franchise, in hindsight it feels like a refreshing moment of self-awareness that holds up better than many of the films that preceded it. Yes, the film is inexplicably filled with pink blood. And yes, a 68-year-old Tobin Bell dons a backwards baseball cap to indicate a flashback. But if we’re being honest, it had been quite some time since a “Saw” movie had delivered a genuinely tense police procedural. “Saw 3D” owned up to that and opted not to try again, deciding instead to deliver a rollicking send-off filled with cartoonishly nonsensical traps like the infamous “Love Triangle.” This is the most fun you’ll ever have watching a “Saw” movie — and whether that stemmed from a genuine desire to deliver a “Last Waltz” for the franchise or a corporate mandate to insert as many cheap 3D gags as possible is beside the point. —CZ
3. “Saw II” (2005)
After the original “Saw” pulled off a twist for the ages, nobody would have blamed co-writers Leigh Whannell and Darren Lynn Bousman for eschewing misdirection altogether in “Saw II.” But they had the guts to attempt an equally shocking twist on the franchise’s second go-around, and ended up sticking the landing on another horror classic. While the original “Saw” remains in a class of its own, “Saw II” is arguably the most important entry in the series because it’s where “Saw” became a series. By choosing which elements from the first movie to revisit (like only playing the now-iconic “‘Saw’ twist music” when the twist is revealed) and which ones to sidestep, it established the formula that “Saw” sequels would revisit for years to come. It also features some of the best traps of the series, representing a perfect middle ground between the practical mechanics of the early films and the outlandishness that would follow. —CZ
2. “Spiral: From the Book of Saw” (2021)
It’s a painful reality of the scientifically documented memory hole that is 2021 that some horror fans are still surprised to learn Chris Rock did a “Saw” movie. And wait, Samuel L. Jackson is in this one?! Technically speaking, “Spiral” is a spinoff from the main storyline, seemingly taking place in a different generic city without a single Tobin Bell flashback. But the return of “Saw II-IV” director Darren Lynn Bousman — and a surprisingly strong showing from “Jigsaw” writers Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger — make it feel like a true-blue “Saw” film.
The franchise’s shitty people vs. torture devices formula remains intact, but this time it’s brilliantly streamlined to tell a straightforward tale of dirty cops taken down by a vigilante. Using a voice modifier that sounds eerily like the sort of thing you’d hear on TikTok and a distractingly cute pig marionette, this is the first Jigsaw copycat you could truly consider an antihero. Where Kramer, Amanda, Hoffman, and the other Jigsaw apprentices struggled to pin down a reasonable philosophy of justice, this killer knows exactly what they want and why.
Chris Rock’s starring detective performance and off-the-cuff comedy stylings won’t work for everyone. (The actor/writer screaming and holding his head while he squirms under the pressure from all these IDEAS and THEORIES and CLUES is, in a word, stupid.) And yet, the bonkers timing of this specific film coming out after the Black Lives Matter and defund the police movement of 2020 is undeniably effective. Sure, the traps aren’t all that great and the police procedural format could use some spicing up. But pound for pound, this is the most satisfying “Saw” movie ever made. The final trap will haunt you, and not for the reasons you’d think. —AF
1. “Saw” (2004)
The gap in quality between the original film and the galaxy of sequels that followed is much smaller in the “Saw” franchise than many comparable horror series. But the fact remains that James Wan’s first film is a feat that has yet to be surpassed. The elegant simplicity of its premise — two strangers wake up locked in a room together and are forced to perform depraved acts to appease their unseen captor in a quest to be the one who survives — is pure horror perfection. And the two-handed script allows for a perverse emotional bond to form between the victims that’s strong enough to excuse some hilariously bad acting. Much of the film’s brilliance lies in the way it slowly reveals details to the audience at the same time as the characters. In that sense, no sequel could have ever hoped to compete with the shock value that came from wrapping our minds around Jigsaw’s fucked up games for the first time. Everything builds up to what may well be the greatest twist in horror movie history — utterly shocking, yet hidden in plain sight. The fact that Wan went on to enjoy such a prolific horror career should have been a surprise to absolutely nobody. —CZ