“Would you like to play a game?” Words synonymous with the visage of the most famous horror villain of the twenty-first century, an icon so popular there was a new entry every single year for nearly a decade, a character that’s more than anyone behind the mask, and more than anything is soon to be celebrating it’s tenth and latest adventure.
I’m of course talking about the Jigsaw killer of the Saw series, of which I am a massive fan. Saw is by no means high art, but it is enjoyable, strange, and in it’s own way, creative. So sit back and enjoy a retrospective series that tackles this series, starting with the original three entries.
These will not be traditional reviews, as more than a handful of these are not good movies, they are entertaining yes, but genuinely good is another matter altogether, these will also contain spoilers in my musings on each movie. Live or die make your choice, and let the games begin.
Movie 1: Saw (2004)
For a movie that came out nearly twenty years ago, this has one of the best setups I’ve seen with two men waking up in a dark dingy bathroom surrounded by a corpse as they’re shackled to the floor with only one goal in their minds: escape.
It’s hard to say what exactly makes this first movie so classic to me and so many others but I think it’s a hefty mix of flashbacks aiding the narrative rather than telling the story in chronological order, the always charismatic Cary Elwes as Dr. Lawrence Gordon, or maybe it’s the fact that they show a few traps but never any too gruesome or at that for too long, giving us just a hint of what this sadistic villain could be capable of.
It’s a relic of a bygone era, but man, the fast editing with quick cuts and bright flashes, man what a choice, and it works beautifully in that iconic final montage set to the piece of music that would come to be used in similar scenes in all future entries, “Hello Zep”.
For how little he’s physically in this one, Tobin Bell leaves a hell of an impact between his deep imposing voice, his ruse with the corpse, his trickery to get the worst out of people, and the inklings of a philosophy that’s at the least hypocritical, and while he is good here, he really shines in what’s to come.
It’s no secret to see why this works as well as it does, but it’s in my opinion, not the best this series has to offer, that’s not to say it isn’t good, but man what a sample of the greatness to come.
Movie 2: Saw II (2005)
While the original is the more iconic visual of a setting, this is my favorite backdrop for this trilogy. Unlike the original, there’s also a lot more Tobin Bell as John Kramer here, which is excellent, that man can do no wrong on screen, he makes literally everything better, even if the philosophy Jigsaw promotes is inherently flawed as characters like recurring character Det. Eric Matthews played by Donnie Wahlberg, who’s introduced here, points out.
In addition to that, the traps this time are a lot more graphic and while the editing is still very prime in its 00s phase, they feel more comfortable lingering on the gore and the corpses this time, especially with the peephole revolver trap and the opening trap, the death mask.
There’s also still a real neat feel of them just going for it and trying anything, regardless if it’s bound to work or not, especially with the broken chronology, which really comes into play in this one in a reveal so creative I still think it’s a genuinely great reveal.
In terms of recurring characters, this one also shines more of a focus on Amanda Young who is one of if not the most famous of the Jigsaw apprentices in the public eye, and for good reason, her speech at the end, which was designed to intentionally mirror Kramer at the end of the first film as John is seen in a sickly dying state smiling approvingly cemented her as a worthy inheritor… until Saw III came along.
This is pretty solid all things considered, maybe my favorite straight-up sequel to the original, Tobin is great, Wahlberg is great, and the reveal is even better than the one in the original, just a whole lot of fun all around.
Movie 3: Saw III (2006)
It’s a strange thing to say, but this is the first entry that I’ve got mixed feelings about, and I think I can explain why.
Throughout the first two movies, the audience follows flawed but relatable characters with a will to survive and help others do the same, but here we follow a guy who frankly doesn’t deserve to be here, a grieving father, who’s put in traps of “forgiveness” where he has to rescue the people that led to his son’s death, which on paper sounds exciting and tense, but the problem is the lead here.
Jeff is so self-centered and lackadaisical that he lets three people who are frankly innocents in this die just because he’s indifferent to it, and it’s not like it’s a character moment they discuss, that he’s letting them die, no, he’s just kind of pathetic.
This movie also places a lot of focus on the medical standing of John Kramer as rather than have a focus on a cop subplot, that’s replaced with a one-of-a-kind “surgeon subplot” as a kidnapped doctor Lynn operates on Kramer’s skull to alleviate pressure.
However, I will say, again there is a really good end reveal set to a mix of Hello Zep, and it somehow works in the arcs of Dr. Lynn, Jeff, Amanda, and John Kramer himself in there, although the next movie again mucks this one up.
In a strange way, this movie is the end of an era, where John Kramer and his most loyal apprentice both die horribly, so where do we go from here? This is far and away the weakest of the original three, however, it’s also got some of my favorite traps, such as The Rack as well as the Bullet Collar, there’s a really morbid sense of creativity that I have to admire.
After the original Saw came out, a new release came out every year until 2010 with Saw VII: The Final Chapter 3D, which says a lot about not just how popular they were but how easy to produce they were back then.
Saw is by no means a good series, and I say this as a fan, John Kramer is a hypocrite with an axe to grind, and that’s great, entirely because it means more Tobin Bell, and that man can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned.
The movies get so much more insane, and as many others before me have said, it becomes very soap-opera-esque, and that becomes truly apparent when the next handful of movies, without exaggeration, open on “previously on Saw“ segments.
These are landmarks in the horror genre and the reignition needed in a genre dying to self-aware slashers aping of the success of Scream, while not everything it brought about was great, it knows what it is, and it’s happy to play it’s game, and until Part 2, Game Over.