The SAW Series, For Better Or Worse

A look back at the unique horror phenomenon.

Warning: spoilers for the Saw series.

The new millennium has not been kind to horror franchise fans, not like we enjoyed in the ‘80s and ‘90s. There have been great horror films, particularly on the indie scene, but few series you can really count on to deliver over and again on a relatively timely basis, not to mention one that can join a rightfully earned place among other horror icons. Those Insidious movies are PG-13. The Purge has become an action series. The little gas Paranormal Activity had ran out quickly. The Final Destination movies (for my money the clear best of the bunch) seem all done.

But then there’s Saw. For years James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s weird gift that kept on giving for more than half a decade served as a horror standard-bearer, popularizing (correctly or no) a new subgenre and giving horror fans iconography that could stand next to the likes Freddy and Jason. Not just Jigsaw either, Saw’s entire modus operandi is definitive. From the traps to the ridiculous continuity to the dolls to the b-movie acting - the Saw series is a solidly baked horror series, through and through. While varying in quality, they all stay within set parameters.

Many horror series stumble on their second outing before nailing down their moves with a third entry. Saw had that shit on lockdown almost immediately, starting with the twist ending of part one and then immediately expanding its cast and scope in part two to include various cops and accomplices that would impact the rest of the films. People talk a lot about the series’ focus on continuity, not just because it’s interesting or because it’s a refreshing response to so many series that ignore such concerns, but because for the Saw sequels continuity is narrative. By keeping everything (and I mean everything) from the first three films meaningful and immediate, the Saw series miraculously manages to generate its own steam.

It’s not perfect, of course. In fact, it’s not even close to perfect. Vocal fans point out a falling in quality between Saw III and IV, between when Jigsaw is alive and dead. While I see a bigger line between parts IV and V, they do have a point. A million flashbacks can’t make up for the lack of Tobin Bell as a major player, particularly when his replacement, Costas Mandylor’s Mark Hoffman is such a vapid waste of charisma. Sneering and cruel, the character offers none of that Jigsaw charm. While that ends up being part of the character’s point, we’re still stuck with him as villain for four films. Plus, we already saw a similar arc play out so much better with Amanda in Saw III.

About Jigsaw: he is likable and feels right, but he’s also super full of shit. His entire philosophy of teaching people to appreciate their lives through tough-love trauma is psychotic considering all the abductions and torture it takes. Because of his wisdom and unquestioned brilliance, there’s a tendency for the series to treat him as an anti-hero, the only guy who can orchestrate these games without getting corrupted by the violence. There’s a lot of “You’ve done to this yourself” with Jigsaw, but if he wants to get cute with semantics at being called a murderer, I’m going with “forced suicide facilitator”. This is especially true in the later films, particularly Saw IV which finds its protagonists making choices about who lives and dies using people who have no agency in the game. It gets a bit murky, however, since we don’t 100% know how responsible Hoffman is for those aspects of the game. Fucking Hoffman.

And yet, Jigsaw is so great! I rail on him being full of shit only because the veracity of his message and tactics supply one of the series’ early cornerstones. When there’s a perceived “cheat”, it irritates. This is why Saw III is so great. The broken rules and gore-servicing unwinnable games end up being crucial to the overall plot. Jigsaw’s character relies on cartoon logic, but this is a fantastical horror series and a little variety goes a long way. It’s nice having an antagonist defined by principles, altruism and a distaste for violence, even if it doesn’t make a goddamn lick of sense.

Watching all these films in a row is also a truly unique experience. I was surprised to discover how little regard people have for Saw V, but I also didn’t have to wait a year for it to come out. For me this entry, which acts more like an episode of Saw TV than any other, just felt like more Saw. The cat and mouse game between Hoffman and Strahm, two hilariously dumb and similar-looking characters, wasn’t all that different from how they were in IV and the big game, while almost completely removed from the rest of the movie, had a fun twist that brought back some of that old, totally fun but nonsensical Jigsaw “hey man, don’t be an asshole” logic. If V really is the worst, we have to at least tie it with Saw 3D, which plays almost like a parody of a movie at times.

Conversely, I didn’t think Saw VI was the series best people frequently think. It is quite good - it has a cool, thematically-strong plot and interestingly blunt traps (hello, shotgun merry-go-round!) - but it just seems like more Saw, another byproduct, I think, of watching a bunch in a row for the first time. I didn’t have to wait a year for the bad one, and I didn’t have to wait a year for the good one either. It’s all one big Saw soup.

I think this is actually a compliment to the clear efforts made to make all these films run together and seem like a unified, albiet insanely convoluted story. I realize when I’m watching one that is better or worse, but it doesn’t really matter much. I’m here for the traps, gore, and Tobin Bell scenes, and they all have those.

After a seven-year wait, we’re finally getting another Saw film this weekend. I’m insanely curious to see how they manage to tie it in with the previous entries, though I’m discouraged by our own Brian Collins’ summation that you don’t need to see the old films to enjoy this one. As he notes, that could be good or bad, but for what I’m after, I don’t see how that could be anything but disappointing. Regardless, the first seven offered horror fans something special and unique that I think sometimes gets taken for granted (and you know how this series feels about taking things for granted). They’re all on Netflix right now if you’d like to fold them into your Halloween schedule. I did, and I don't regret a single second. Well, maybe that Jigsaw autopsy scene.