Horror franchises tend to be looked down on by most mainstream film critics, and this goes double for the Saw films, a franchise which has been dismissed and derided as “torture porn” time after time. Using a highly lucrative annual Halloween release model for close to a decade, the series created by Leigh Whannell and James Wan in 2004 currently ranks fifth in most profitable horror franchises of all time at the American box office (behind Halloween and ahead of Scream).
The Saw franchise tells the story of John Kramer AKA the Jigsaw Killer (Tobin Bell), a terminally ill vigilante who imprisons society’s undesirables and forces them to play lethal games incorporating his deadly home-made traps, believing they will be morally redeemed if they manage to escape with grievous physical and mental scarring. The later central franchise entries see Kramer succumb to cancer and his fanatical acolytes take over his crusade with the help of his meticulous plans and convenient forethought to record a lot of instructional cassette tapes in advance. The films became infamous for the gruesome set pieces where Jigsaw’s victims were killed by intricate and twisted “traps” after he’d proclaim over taped recording, “I want to play a game”.
Seven instalments were released every October between 2004 and 2010, with belated follow-up Jigsaw released in 2017 and Spiral, starring Chris Rock and Samuel L Jackson, released in 2021.
In this edition of Ranked, we’ll be looking at every Saw movie to date, and ordering them from worst to best in terms of creativity, tension and morbid spectacle. These are the Saw Movies Ranked.
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9. Saw IV (2007)
Saw IV is pretty much business as usual for this franchise, inviting viewers to grimace at a series of devious, grotesque “games” designed to teach undesirables the errors of their ways. But this one somehow feels much nastier and more mean-spirited than the rest.
By this point Jigsaw is dead, but that doesn’t stop him orchestrating his unique brand of justice from beyond the grave. Some fairly interesting flashback scenes featuring Kramer aside, the film trudges through its runtime without any clear focus. The games are still inventive, and disconcertingly hold your attention if you’re able to detach yourself from the gruesomeness of it all, but Saw IV only works on a single level – as a gore-filled sideshow with little to offer but rubbery-looking bodies being brutally destroyed by nightmarish DIY death machines.
This is probably the only entry in the series that unequivocally qualifies as “torture porn”.
8. Saw: The Final Chapter/Saw 3D (2010)
Saw VI was meant to be the series finale, but Lionsgate and Twisted Pictures weren’t ready for the games to be over just yet.
You should always be worried when a sequel gets the subtitle “3D” because that’s clear evidence that it’s not being made to last, that it’s in it for the short-term gimmickry first and foremost. It’s also the reason why so much of this one takes place in daylight or brightly lit rooms, and why the blood seems so vibrant.
There’s a twist at the end of every Saw film, and you’ve got to give them props for the particularly audacious one here; one even more shocking but admittedly a lot more stupid than the original. We’re in full-on carnival attraction mode with Saw VI, the series aiming to go out with a bloody flourish in 3D. There is admittedly spectacle to be appreciated, but very little else – even the potentially interesting idea of a Jigsaw survivors’ group is wasted.
7. Saw V (2008)
Repeated instalments do little to lessen the impact of Jigsaw’s games.
New director David Hackl makes every scene look appropriately unpleasant, and there’s a nice “Pit and the Pendulum” sequence to open proceedings.
The FBI are closing in on Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) who has adopted Jigsaw’s mantle to carry on his legacy. Hoffman may be less scary and complex than Kramer, but Mandylor does serviceable work from here on in the franchise, despite the explanation for his monstrous actions being that he becomes a serial killer because he had a bad day (the old Joker justification). Every one of Tobin Bell’s scenes in flashback – a staple of the series since his character’s death – adds further depth to his character and is an undeniable treat. The victims in this film are all thoroughly unlikeable, two-dimensional and annoying, which makes it all the funnier that this group actually have a decent chance of survival – that is, if they would just stop throwing each other under the bus.
The plot is far from dull, and meets the quota for grisly thrills, but we’re still back-treading to retroactively explain events that have come before, with clumsy commentary on crime and punishment along the way (“Anyone who survives my method is instantly rehabilitated!”). At least the ending of this film is visually striking and memorable.