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From Worst to Best: The Saw Franchise

May 14, 2021 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
Saw Shawnee Smith

From Worst to Best: The Saw Franchise

Greetings, fellow fanpeople, and welcome to From Worst to Best! I’m Jeremy Thomas, and I’m here to take a look at a franchise and place the entries from…well, worst to best. Yeah, the title basically gives the format away, doesn’t it? Anyway, keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You’re free to disagree; you can even say my rankings are wrong but stating that an opinion is “wrong” is just silly.

This weekend, the Saw franchise makes its return with Spiral. The Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson starring film hopes to kickstart a series that was a hallmark of horror the mid- to late-2000s. Saw is a dense franchise that most fans have probably seen several times; for good or ill, it almost requires you do so in order to understand what’s going on. With that in mind, we’re going to look at the famously polarizing franchise and rank the films from the wretched worst to the bloody best.

Warning: It is absolutely impossible to discuss this franchise in a holistic way without discussing a lot of the twists and plot details. As such, keep in mind that there are spoilers in this column.

#8: Saw 3D (2010)

While I think that some entries of the Saw franchise are overly hated, Saw 3D is absolutely not one of them. How do you even get into how much this movie fails? The Saw films obviously aren’t for everybody, but even for franchise fans Kevin Greutert’s second time behind the camera is the proverbial trash fire. There’s almost nothing good in this film, in which screenwriters Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan immediately turn their backs on everything that made that was good about the sixth entry. The biggest problems with the later parts of the franchise come in the replacement of Tobin Bell’s John Kramer with Costas Mandylor’s Mark Hoffman, and this film puts the focus right back on him while replacing FBI agent Peter Strahm from Saw IV and Saw V (we’ll get to him later) with a character that’s even worse in Chad Donella’s IA agent Matt Gibson. Gibson is another poorly written cop in this universe, made worse by the fact that Donella is unconscionably bad here. Gibson is poorly written, but Donella exacerbates that with awful choices like occasionally displaying something approaching a generic Southern accent but oftentimes completely forgetting it and giving awful delivery of lines like, “Jill! It’s a safe house. Safe house. Safe house, get it?” I’m not kidding; that’s an actual line from this movie.

Oh, but that’s not all that ruins this movie. This is the film where they just decided to wrap everything up, no matter how illogical it was to shoehorn things in. By that I am talking about the return of Cary Elwes to the franchise. Elwes’ Dr. Gordon makes no logical sense in how he fits into this movie, particularly toward the end. It’s telling that he shows up very early on and then suddenly vanishes; it feels like Melton and Dunstan want us to forget about him after that so his appearance at the end is shocking. But we don’t, because everything else here is interminable to watch. Betsy Russell tries admirably, but she can’t do much with Jill Tuck as the character suddenly starts making stupid decisions after being quite bright in her previous entries. And the “game” this time around is an interesting idea, testing Sean Patrick Flannery’s “survivor” self-help guru Bobby Dagan. But it’s just window dressing for one or two really nasty traps and a host of half thought-out ones. We don’t care about Bobby because it’s clear from early on that, unlike William from the sixth film, he doesn’t matter, and the film doesn’t want to try and make us care about him.

As good as Greutert was behind the camera on Saw VI, I’m shocked at how uninspired he made this one. The gore effects — which, let’s be honest horrorhounds, is a lure for this series — are not particularly good outside of one sequence involving a bunch of racists (this is, by the way, literally their only trait in the film). The blood is really bad looking in particular, right from the first trap (which is admittedly inspired in its audacity). It’s another visually ugly entry in the franchise too, and I’m not talking about the grimy, dirty aesthetic. It looks bad, not just gross, and that’s obviously a problem. Was this due to the 3D conversion? I suspect so, but it’s honestly hard to say. Put it all together and you have a film that is, without question, the worst of the franchise.

#7: Saw V (2008)

While Saw V doesn’t hit the high bar for being garbage that Saw 3D does, it comes fairly close. The first four films in this series have their flaws, but generally hit a consistent level of quality that we’ll obviously get into shortly. It’s clear now that a lot of that credit goes to James Wan and Darren Lynn Bousman as the directors because without their hand guiding things, Saw V is a disaster. Melton & Dunstan made their second outing as screenwriters here, but they’re just rewriting old scenes for the most part because this is the equivalent of a Saw clip show that rehashes the greatest hits of the first four films without adding anything of value. Instead of Jigsaw’s grand design, we get two boring-ass characters playing a dull cat and mouse game in Hoffman and Strahm.

The franchise’s switch from John Kramer to Hoffman is the biggest sin this series ever committed. Hoffman is completely lacking in anything approaching a compelling arc or interesting character traits throughout this series, and his being placed centrally in the events here makes it crystal clear how much the series relied on John. Part of that is on Mandylor’s often comatose performance, but it’s also simply the writing that makes him a generic evil cop without any of the intellect or even the sadistic ingenuity that set the bar for the Jigsaw killer.

Despite the obsessive need to revisit old scenes, we do a new game because of course, we have to. This is by far the best part of the film, simply because it actually offers something new. But it’s also a complete side note with no overarching relevance, and it’s clearly never anything but that. Julie Benz deserves better than her character but the combination of her, Megan Goode, and Carlo Rota makes for some interesting interplay. Sadly, the traps of this game are uninspired for the most part and work only in the context of how they add up to a greater whole. Add in the fact that David Hackl’s direction makes for ugliest film in the series from a visual aesthetic and fails to add any tension and barely any mystery to the proceedings, and awful mess this earns its spot as the second worst Saw movie.

#6: Jigsaw (2017)

After the utter abomination that was Saw 3D, it would have been difficult for Jigsaw to have been anything other than an improvement. And indeed, the eighth film in the franchise, reviving the series after seven years, does manage to raise the floor-low bar left by the last film. However, that does not mean that it’s great or even particularly good. Pretty much everything in this Spierig Brothers-directed entry improves on what directly preceded it.

That starts with the script by Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger, which manages to create more interesting characters. We get all the hallmarks of the franchise and there’s not a lot to the people being tested in their barn prison or the cops trying to figure out if John Kramer is somehow alive ten years after he died; they’re all pretty shallow in characterization. But they’re played by some pretty solid actors including Laura Vandervoort, Paul Braunstein, Mandela Van Peebles, and Brittany Allen in the game. On the outside we have Callum Keith Rennie and Cle Bennett as the detectives chasing the game, Matt Passmore as the medical examiner helping them out, and the gem that is Hannah Emily Anderson as Eleanor Bonneville, the medical assistant. Eleanor is the star of this entry — outside of Tobin Bell, who does appear as John Kramer once again.

That all said, there are some definite problems. Some of the twists — the big ones — do fall flat. This is set ten years after the last film — but if you’re a Saw fan, you know it’s not going to be as simple as that. And therein lies part of the problem. Look, if you’re going to see Jigsaw, you’ve probably already seen at least a few, if not all of the previous entries. And while there are a few misdirects here and there, it pretty much follows the formula to a fault. As such, anyone who is savvy in Saw lore will be able to see the twists coming a mile away, and that destroys any of the potential tension here. There are some fun moments in this, and the traps are effective. If it wasn’t for the fact that the script thinks that it’s far cleverer than it is, this would be a pretty solid entry. Instead, it’s probably the most benignly forgettable entry in the franchise.

#5: Saw (2004)

I might be courting controversy by putting the first Saw film this far down on the list. Indeed, the James Wan-directed film ranks technically in the bottom half. But that’s not entirely fair, because the top five in this series are actually all pretty good and the gulf of quality between this and Jigsaw is incredibly wide. The franchise certainly got off to a sadistically fun start with this decidedly B-movie featuring a brilliant, unique villain within its otherwise average horror trappings. Leigh Whannell’s script keeps a pretty tight focus on its high concept “two men trapped in a room” game quite nicely — which is wise, because when it wanders away from that the film loses itself a bit.

There is a lot to enjoy in this. Jigsaw was a great concept from the get-go, a serial non-killer who terrorized people but offered them a way out. That alone put him in the top-tier of cinematic horror villains, and we’re not even going to get too deep into Tobin Bell’s brilliant performance until later entries. Most of the of the hallmark elements are established here, and James Wan does some fantastic work shooting this film with high production values in a very low budget for a mainstream horror film. He’s also able to wring a lot of tension out of the situation, delivering some vicious little traps and establishing the film’s aesthetic well.

I wish I could say this movie was a bit better than it was — and again, I must emphasize, it’s not bad. Entries #5 through 3 on this list are all about the same level for me and it was just my own preference. But there are absolutely flaws here, and they come in part with how the film meanders when it’s not looking at Dr. Gordon and Adam in their trap. It’s hard to get interested in Gordon’s wife and kid because it’s a bit tedious, for example. The other big flaw comes in the acting, and surprisingly not on Whannell’s part as Adam. Listen, I love Cary Elwes, but the way he overacts almost completely destroys the final moments leading into the climax. It’s funny bad, and there are films that can make that work but not this one. Fortunately, the brilliant twist reveal at the end covers for that and makes this a hell of a first go for the franchise.

#4: Saw IV (2007)

One of the reasons that Saw fans are anticipating Spiral is that it is the return of Darren Lynn Bousman to the director’s chair. Bousman directed the second to fourth films in the franchise, which are without a doubt the series’ best era. Bousman’s third time at the helm does have problems to be fair, mostly in the fact that it’s difficult to continually top itself with its traps, and this film’s implements of death fail to match up to the inspired viciousness of earlier traps. In addition, the script is a little too clever for its own good, telegraphing some of its surprises and getting a touch lost in the convolutions of its time gimmick.

However, those problems aren’t enough to drag this down too far. There’s an audacity to this entry that I appreciate, as Melton & Dunstan (up to the plate for the first time) do an admirable job of figuring out how to keep John Kramer involved through some of the series’ first flashbacks. Tobin Bell’s presence is of a huge benefit to this film, and he matches up well with the fantastic Betsy Russell as Jill Tuck. John and Jill keep many scenes afloat that would otherwise fall short, and they make the constant jumps back and forth through time worth following along with.

Bousman does good work behind the camera, keeping continuity with the visual aesthetic and finding creative ways to film the sequences that Officer Rigg (a very serviceable Lyriq Bent) is put through by Jigsaw. While it’s harder and harder to care about the increasingly shallow victims, Riggs’ story remains improbably engaging to watch. The return of a Donnie Wahlberg as Eric Matthews character is handled decently enough and while the other plot involving Agents Strahm and Perez looking for Jigsaw’s other apprentice) is a bit harder to care about, it wisely does not get much of the focus. There’s fraying around the edges here, and it’s easy to understand why people were getting tired of the whole thing at this point. But there’s still plenty in Saw IV to make for a fun watching experience for franchise devotees.

#3: Saw III (2006)

Part of Saw IV’s biggest problem to be honest is that the bar had been set impossibly high by its two immediate predecessors. Take for example Saw III, which may not be the absolute best in the series but is perhaps the most important. With the third film, franchise creator Leigh wrote a script that codifies some of the most significant elements of the series that were set up in the first two. We have the big twists, the time tricks, and a new, even more vicious direction to Jigsaw’s games. But perhaps most importantly, Whannell takes steps to move past the era of John Kramer and set up his legacy for others to follow. (It’s not his fault that Dunstan and Melton screwed it up with Hoffman.)

That said, we’re not in the post-John era yet. And that’s great, because this film gives Tobin Bell a ton to work with to its benefit. Bell and Shawnee Smith are the beating heart of this series, and their interplay in this film is an absolute highlight while Bahar Soomekh matches up with them well as Lynn, the doctor kidnapped by Amanda to try and keep John alive while his latest game plays out. The three of them easily make the most compelling half of this film.

And sure, the second half is a bit more pedestrian as we see a man making his way through Jigsaw’s latest game. Angus MacFayden is fine here, and he keeps it moving through some really ingenious and brutal traps like the Rack and the ice shower. It’s enough to keep us going until we get to arguably the best climax in the series, where the cast knocks it out of the park and the surprises are legitimately shocking. Saw III hits all the high notes it needs to be one of the best entries in this series.

#2: Saw VI (2008)

The end of the yearly installments of this franchise are obviously not good — look up at the worst of the list to see that much. But amid the high-unwatchable Saw 3D and the awful Saw V, there’s a weird anomaly in Saw VI which is one of the strongest Saw films. Melton and Dunstan’s ability to advance the storyline past the moments leading up to and surrounding John Kramer’s death reaps benefits. The result is a film that is not only entertaining and good for the franchise’s mythology, but also makes some surprisingly topical points.

Let’s face it; you don’t expect a gore-heavy horror franchise on its sixth film to delve into real-world topical issues, but here we are with some unsubtle if effective statements about the broken healthcare system in America. Peter Outerbridge makes a pretty decent victim as William Easton, an insurance executive who gets tested to realize how messed up his system really is. It’s all very on the nose, but that doesn’t make it less potent. Director Kevin Greutert makes the traps really nasty this time around, but in ways that all seem very relevant and not just gratuitous. It’s a breath of fresh air for a franchise that just one movie ago was literally just rehashing old scenes of trap sequences and coasting on the newer traps.

While the other half of this story — Hoffman’s continued story — is the weakest part, even this is better done. Hoffman is still dull as dishwater, but the increased presence of Jill Tuck really makes this work. Betsy Russell kills it here, making Jill an absolute force of nature (thus making her dumbing down in Saw 3D all the more infuriating). Add in some more relevant flashbacks with John Kramer and Amanda, and you have enough good here to mostly outweigh the bad. Even if the ending goes on for probably about a minute longer than it should have and makes Hoffman’s fate clear instead of leaving some ambiguity, it’s otherwise a top-notch closer and helps make Saw VI not only a surprisingly effective return to form; it’s one of the absolute best entries.

#1: Saw II (2005)

While I understand why some people prefer the original Saw or Saw III, for my money Saw II is the peak of where this franchise has hit. While Saw set the stage for the horrific traps and high-concept puzzles that are the hallmark of this franchise, it’s this second entry that refines the concept and expands things. Bousman’s first time behind the camera ups the bar with far better acting and a more polished set of production values.

Where the first film benefited from being small and fairly self-contained, Saw II stretches its legs and opens up a bit to great effect. The biggest and most immediate benefit is that we have Tobin Bell for the full film. I said it before, John Kramer is the twisted heart and soul of Saw, and the franchise is never quite its best without him. Shawnee Smith’s greatly expanded role as Amanda, going through another series of traps along with a group of ne’er-do-wells, is another major plus. Amanda makes for a great horror character and Smith is fantastic in the role. The rest of the cast is serviceable at worst and good at best, even if their characters have much less depth to them.

This one is also helped significantly by the increased budget. Bousman, who co-wrote, clearly relishes the chance to do more than James Wan did in the first film and he makes some truly nasty moments. Amanda’s forced trial is brutal to watch, and several other traps shine. Bousman is a bit less experimental here than Wan was, but he’s also codifying the hallmarks that this series will follow. This is the essence of the franchise distilled into its purest form before the mythology and time convolutions get too dense, and for me it’s the best that we got from our good buddy Jigsaw.

And that will do it for us! I hope you all enjoy Spiral (I’m keeping my fingers crossed) and don’t forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at! JT out.

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From Worst to Best, Saw, Jeremy Thomas