It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Saw and the subsequent franchise it birthed. For most of the 2000s, you could count on a Saw movie to come out in late October and Jigsaw/John Kramer (Tobin Bell) seems to be the only horror villain since the 80s to have successfully joined the ranks of horror icons like Freddy, Jason, and Michael Myers. Without Saw we wouldn’t have The Conjuring universe or Insidious movies, last year’s The Invisible Man, and most importantly of all, I wouldn’t be writing this list.
This is a list that’s somewhat difficult to order given the significant differences in the Saw movies. The first three films (that’s right “films”), written by Leigh Whannell, each function as stand alone stories with recurring characters, but the fourth through seventh, written by Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan, are proto-MCU serialized movies that feel more like TV when watching them now. Not to mention the eighth film that came out seven years after all the other movies in the franchise.
And yet, here we are, on the eve of the release of the ninth Saw film and looking forward to the tenth, to discuss and rank (by the standards of Saw movies) all as of yet released Saw films.
8. Saw III (2006)
Director: Darren Lynn Bousman
The only truly bad Saw movie is the only one well over an hour and a half. Saw III clocks in at just over 2 hours, longer than the first movie by almost 20 minutes, and longer than every subsequent movie by nearly half an hour. While I agree with many that length isn’t the most legitimate complaint to make about a movie, I feel differently about a horror movie, and series, that’s so based on clocks counting down. It becomes an even greater issue when much of the movie is spent being frustrated with the protagonist for not helping people out of traps quickly enough. It’s a horror movie that’s meant to have momentum and tension but ends up feeling slow and boring.
To be somewhat fair to Saw III, it’s stuck in a strange place, in between the first two movies with their self contained stories and the serialization of all of the movies that follow. It gestures awkwardly at this serialization, by being the most focused on John Kramer (Tobin Bell) and Amanda Young’s (Shawnee Smith) relationship in the series to that point, without successfully making this work the way the following films do.
It’s also the first movie in the series to focus on a single character coming across others in traps, which just isn’t as compelling as watching a group of people, even if it’s just two, trying to work with or against one another to escape their predicament. The best thing I can say about Saw III is that Shawnee Smith is a delight as Amanda, and I wish she had continued to be as significant of a character in the later movies.
7. Saw 3D (2010)
Director: Kevin Greutert
Saw 3D (aka Saw: The Final Chapter, aka Saw VII) struggles with some of the same problems as Saw III. While it functions as a conclusion to the story of detective and Jigsaw acolyte Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), it introduces a new detective on Hoffman’s trail (after he murdered everyone else who was at all onto him in Saw VI) which leads to the movie feeling less like a continuation of the series that came before and instead feels like a poor attempt to keep things going after they should have ended.
The movie may also never fully recover from its opening trap that feels antithetical to both the (albeit ever-fluctuating) morality of Jigsaw and the dark and dirty aesthetic of the franchise up to that point. It takes place in broad daylight, in a public shop window no less, and involves two men and the woman who has been dating them both. It’s a genuinely infuriating trap not just for the sexism that up to that point hasn’t really had any place in the franchise (something worth celebrating in a long running horror franchise) but also for the break with the established look and feel of the series that we’ve come to love.
Saw 3D also barely makes use of its 3D beyond some guts flying at the camera in that opening trap which makes it disappointing in yet another way. But to The Final Chapter’s credit, it offers an absolutely wild retcon that goes back to the first movie, something that only the Saw movies can do and have it just feel right.
6. Jigsaw (2017)
Director: Peter & Michael Spierig
Jigsaw (the movie) certainly isn’t one of the best of the Saw films, but it’s impressive that it manages to be better than two of the original run movies. There are a few things that make it work, features that all the best movies in the franchise have: confusing timelines, solid traps, and most importantly a big twist at the end that retcons something significant into the story of the entire franchise.
It also deploys Tobin Bell as Jigsaw perfectly. Something that’s a bit difficult to do given that he’s been dead since the end of the third movie and this is meant to take place years after the original run. But the story builds in such a way that when Bell arrives he’s an iconic figure. Jigsaw (again the movie) also manages to function better than Saw III and The Final Chapter because it’s able to function as a standalone film and isn’t stuck between telling its own story and fitting into an ongoing narrative.
It also benefits from focusing on a group again, forcing a variety of characters to make life saving and/or ending decisions for themselves and each other in a way that keeps things exciting.
5. Saw IV (2007)
Director: Darren Lynn Bousman
Saw IV opens with John Kramer’s autopsy after he’s died at the end of Saw III. It’s an incredible sequence that delivers more gore than the previous three movies combined, but ultimately works against the movie as a whole because it’s the best thing that happens in the entire film, followed closely by the twist that reveals Hoffman as Jigsaw’s accomplice and apprentice. Sadly everything that happens between the best opening sequence in the franchise and the reveal of the new lead character is just okay.
Like Saw III and The Final Chapter, Saw IV follows an individual character who encounters others in traps as he goes on his Jigsaw led journey of self discovery, this time a journey that (somewhat bafflingly) takes him all over town. What makes this a bit better is that the individual character is Daniel Rigg (Lyriq Bent) who has been in the series since Saw II and thus the audience has some interest in and attachment to him. Along with focusing on a character from the previous films in the trap plot, and revealing Hoffman as the new lead of the series, Saw IV also introduces the FBI agents who go on to play a key role in the ongoing story.
The movie is notable for charting a new course for the series in the wake of the death of its lead killer in a way that somehow actually works. And the final reveal that everything here takes place concurrently with Saw III begins the series love affair with time in a way that rivals even Christopher Nolan.
4. Saw VI (2009)
Director: Kevin Greutert
Saw VI is a highlight of the series simply because it’s the movie where Jigsaw becomes a modern age Robin Hood waging war against predatory lenders and health insurance agents who value profits over people’s lives. It opens with a trap in which Jigsaw demands a literal pound of flesh from predatory lenders and two of the film’s three plot lines focus on the evils of health insurers.
In one of those plot lines, a flashback story focused on John Kramer being refused coverage, we get the expectedly as subtle as a hammer quote: “These politicians, they say … ‘Healthcare decisions should be made by doctors and their patients, not by the government.’ Well, now I know they’re not made by doctors and their patients or by the government. They’re made by the fucking insurance companies.”
Saw VI is also remarkable as a horror movie, because it’s one of the few where the horror sequences are by far the least engaging part. Again we’re following an individual on a journey instead of a group, but it’s not the failings of the traps storyline that make the horror the least interesting aspect of the movie, it’s that we’re getting lines like the above from Jigsaw, and that the Hoffman plot line is coming to a very violent head.
3. Saw II (2005)
Director: Darren Lynn Bousman
Saw II delivers on being a bigger (if not necessarily better) sequel by expanding the two people locked in a room premise of the first film into eight people trapped in a house. It also establishes big reveal twists as a hallmark of the franchise and gives the audience a real introduction to John Kramer through his conversation with detective Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg). It’s kind of amazing how much of this horror movie is just two people sitting at a table and talking, and more amazing that these scenes aren’t filler between the horror sequences, but in fact part of what makes Saw II one of the best Saw movies.
The horror sequences are also top notch. Saw II has some of the most memorable traps in the entire series, in particular the pit of needles and the box with razor lined hand openings. The dynamic that plays out among the eight characters in the house also keeps things thrilling as we don’t know who will die next or what decision one of them will make and how it will affect the others, again one of the best parts of this is the pit of needles.
Saw II proved that the first movie wasn’t a one-off and that this premise of a dying serial killer who wants to make people appreciate their lives could be the basis for more fun stories and horrifying traps.
2. Saw (2004)
Director: James Wan
The movie that started it all. As I noted in my introduction, it’s impossible to quantify the impact that Saw had on the 2000s horror landscape. It introduced a grimy aesthetic that was picked up not just by other torture focused films like the Hostel series but also influenced the look of many of the films in the slasher revival. It’s also James Wan’s first film as a director and there are some truly fantastic tension building sequences that have more in common with his haunted house movies than any of the later entries in the Saw series.
What really makes Saw so special though is its simplicity. There are two men chained in a room with a death body and no recollection of how they got there or why. The movie spends more than fifteen minutes with these two men in this room before expanding to include flashbacks and introducing the police officers who are on the trail of the “Jigsaw killer.” Saw develops beautifully, as more information is (mostly) logically revealed based on what came before, and often feels more like a thriller than an all out horror movie.
The fact that the two cops at the center of the B plot are actually somewhat likable and not violent abusers of power like Matthews or literally mass murderers like Hoffman also contributes to this feeling more like a thriller and makes their deaths more impactful. They’re characters that we’ve grown to care about as opposed to feeling simply like cannon fodder we can’t wait to see be dispatched in a creative trap.
But the first movie has its flaws, too. The acting is less than stellar across the board and Cary Elwes is especially bad as one of the two men trapped in the room. Wan’s talent for tension building is already on display, but his talent for action has a long way to go as is most apparent in the finale that includes one of the worst shot and edited car chases ever. And while it may be more tasteful and arguably “better” filmmaking to leave the extreme violence largely implied, the lack of on screen gore here is a bit disappointing for the movie that is tagged with starting “torture porn” (even if the creators disagree with that label) and for a series that came to be known for its over the top gore.
1. Saw V (2008)
Director: David Hackl
Saw V is where everything about the series peaks. It has the best trap plot line with the best cast of characters (played by the most recognizable and talented actors the series ever got outside the first film), it contains the best scenes with Jigsaw/John, the Hoffman plot is at its best, and the finale delivers one of the most brutal deaths in the entire franchise and is the best in the series after the original.
Saw V makes you truly question “when are we?” as we’re treated to flashbacks within flashbacks and things that you thought were happening in the current timeline are revealed to have actually happened at some point in the past but it’s never made clear exactly when. This is the movie where Jigsaw/John becomes something more than human with lines like “If you’re good at anticipating the human mind, it leaves nothing to chance.” It’s where Hoffman begins to toy with the FBI agent who’s onto him and we learn about how he became John’s apprentice in one of the best scenes of the series.
And it’s perhaps the only movie in the series where the trap plot focuses on a group of characters played by genuinely good actors. These actors are able to play the shifting dynamics in a way that pulls the audience into the puzzle of piecing things together about their characters. It’s also the only film in the series that wrings some real tension out of the traps, both in its opening sequence based on Poe’s The Pit and The Pendulum and throughout the main trap plot, while still delivering on the gore.
Simply put: Saw V is the best Saw movie because it’s the most Saw movie.
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