Halloween Madness Top 10: Ranking The ‘Saw’ Franchise

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If it’s Halloween (or Halloween Madness for us), it must be “Saw.” That was the promotion over more than half a decade for one of the horror’s most interesting franchises. With the release of “Jigsaw” (review here), last weekend bringing the series back to theaters now felt like a perfect opportunity to bring back a themed Top Ten Tuesday. Yes, today we’ll be ranking the films in the “Saw” series, which now number eight strong. What started as a small independent horror movie has grown into one of the most densely plotted franchises ever. Fair warning, there will be some spoilers in this piece, so keep that in mind.

Before we get to the actual ranking, it’s worth noting that this series is decidedly not for everyone. If you don’t have a strong constitution for gore, it can be a struggle. Likewise, if you weren’t a fan of the first one, you could end up lost a sequel or so in as the plot folds in on itself. The ranking will keep things as simple as possible, so even curious newbies can get something out of it, even if the franchise was anything but simple. From “Saw” to “Jigsaw,” the mythology here is as dense as any series cinema has put forward. Read on for more…

Here is how the “Saw” franchise stacks up to date:

8. “Saw IV”

Beginning audaciously with Jigsaw’s autopsy, this sequel follows Lieutenant Rigg (Lyriq Bent) as he goes from sidekick to previous protagonists to player of a deadly game. His desperate search for the missing Detective Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg) coincides with the FBI stepping in to work with police to figure out just what the hell is going on.

The weakest of the series is still a passable entertaining horror flick. As a “Saw” sequel, it performs one of the more ambitious twists since the first one, with the events of the film happening at the same time as “Saw III“. This was the point where the original creators, James Wan and Leigh Whannell, stopped having any hand in the proceedings. It also marked director Darren Lynn Bousman‘s final appearance. Finally, it’s the first to take place after John Kramer’s death. It’s admittedly a mess, with too many plot lines competing for attention but none really being compelling. In terms of filmmaking, it’s a low point for the franchise.

7. “Saw: The Final Chapter”

Originally meant to be the end of the series, this one sees a purported Jigsaw survivor in Bobby (Sean Patrick Flannery) put to a test after profiting off his lie. At the same time, Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) is in the final stages of eliminating his enemies, with John Kramer’s wife, Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell), at the top of the list. The end result is what was meant to be the franchise’s conclusion, though obviously that wasn’t the case.

Besides a poor use of 3D, this felt slightly rushed to wrap things up. Originally, there was supposed to be a two-part ending, so that feeling is warranted. Bringing back Dr. Gordon (Cary Elwes) was satisfying fan service, though focusing on a new villain, Detective Hoffman, on a revenge mission leaves something to be desired. Still, bringing things into the daylight at times was a nice change of pace, while the gore feels slightly more old school than usual. Something this has in common with “Saw IV” is a forgettable series of traps.

6. “Saw V”

In opting against having much of a twist, this is the most generic entry of the franchise. It works well enough on its own terms, but the special sauce is missing, hence its middle placement on this list. While Hoffman attempts to throw the Feds off of his tail, Agent Strom (Scott Patterson) pieces together the clues. At the same time, one of the best games of any sequel is occurring. A group is trapped and forced to work together in order to survive. At least, that’s Jigsaw’s intent. As per the victims in this franchise, they’re oblivious to the smart way to go about things.

Having this one take place all over the series’ chronology is a bit much, but it really doubled down on the complicated backstory. The film continues to see timelines fold in on themselves, making the A to Z of “Saw” a pretzel shaped path. The main trap was among the most moral of any, though it’s an egregious example of the “game” being the least essential to the plot. “Saw V” joins “Saw IV” and “Saw: The Final Chapter” as the lesser installments, though fans mostly get what they want. From here on, it’s the better moments in the series!

5. “Saw III”

The end of Act I in the franchise marked a transition point. We see John Kramer (Tobin Bell) meet his fate, Amanda (Shawnee Smith) in all her glory as his accomplice, and a game that actually hits emotional notes. The struggle of Jeff (Angus Macfadyen) is never about his physical pain, but the emotional scars he needs to work through. The ending is among the cruelest in the series, though it was also a moment that the sequels would return to later on.

Something you notice here is that there’s a shift in the games. No longer are people being tested based on something they’ve done. Now, some are pawns in a larger game, with their survival based on the actions of the game’s “subject.” Wan and Whannell were involved with the script for the last time here, keeping it somewhat closer to the spirit of the original, even as it was finding its new rhythm. After this entry, most of what follows and still marks the sequels’ MO can be traced back to here.

4. “Jigsaw”

The review up here on the site details more of the plot to the latest film, but obviously a new game is going on. Long after the events of the original seven movies, a new series of deaths leads a city to speculate that Jigsaw is back. Here’s a bit from our take last week: “‘Jigsaw’ is a smoother and less rushed production than what’s come before it. In the process, it improves on some aspects while fumbling others. In that regard, it fits in with the previous sequels. Your mileage may vary, though it’s hard to imagine a fan hating this. Likewise, it’s almost impossible to imagine a detractor being swayed. A specific audience is being catered to once again.”

The passing of time could move this one down a peg or two, but consider it tied with “Saw III” right now. Again, to go back to something from the review: “Compared to the other films in the franchise, this is middle of the road stuff. Of course, it can’t reach the heights of the first one, which launched a sub-genre and featured some shocking originality. Likewise, it doesn’t fall into the lesser outings’ trap of creating the unnecessarily obtuse backstory.”

3. “Saw II”

Picking up shortly after the original, this builds on the relative quaintness of what’s come before. Detective Matthews finds Jigsaw and learns that his son Daniel (Erik Knudsen) is part of a group playing a new game, a group that includes previous survivor Amanda. For the first time, we see structure messed with, mainly in terms of withheld information and chronology of events.

A quick sequel after the surprise success of “Saw” the year before, this is better than it has any right to be. Essentially retconned from an original idea by filmmaker Bousman into a “Saw” production, it does a lot right. The traps are strong, the twists are surprising, and you get all the Tobin Bell you can ask for. If there’s a weakness, it’s that the game players are forgettable, with one (Beverley Mitchell) having the most disappointing fate of any character in the franchise. There’s also a repetitiveness to the game, something that would be corrected in future installments.

2. “Saw VI”

Jigsaw gets political! Going the social commentary route, this is a look at the pre-Affordable Health Care Act insurance situation in America, though obviously with a “Saw” spin. Insurance executive William (Peter Outerbridge) finds himself choosing which of his employees live and die, while Hoffman continues framing Agent Strahm for his work. Letting the movie have something to say elevates it above all of the sequels.

Giving the series a metaphor was a wise decision. Morality plays have always been a staple of the best moments in the franchise. As such, going all in with a political agenda adds a layer here. Plus, for the first time, the game player is someone the audience really has no interest in seeing live. Conversely, the other subjects in each trap are the ones you care about. There’s even a dark sense of humor to the choices William needs to make. It’ll never top the original, but it’s head and shoulders above all the other installments.

1. “Saw”

The one that started it all. The genius of the movie is found in its simplicity. We begin in a grungy bathroom, one that Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Elwes) and Adam (Whannell) are trapped in. As they learn about their situation, we see that a serial killer known as Jigsaw is testing those who he feels do not appreciate life. Dr. Gordon, once considered a suspect by Detective Tapp (Danny Glover), must kill Adam or have his family put to death. It all builds up to one of the great twists of the past 20 years. Yes, it’s that good.

A modern horror classic, this is not without its faults. Compared to all of the sequels, it’s very cheap looking. Still, the amount of elbow grease and genuine cleverness put forward by Wan and Whannell is worthy of applause. The structure is rock solid, the twist is an all-time great, and it remains entertaining to this day. You often see a franchise, especially in horror, peak with the original, and that’s the case here. Without as much narrative corkscrews, it’s as straightforward as “Saw” gets. The rest may be guilty pleasures of sort, but this is a defensible strong film.

Thoughts on the “Saw” franchise? Discuss in the comments!