I did a brutal 7-film Saw-a-thon because I “cherish my life”

Read my thoughts on how this grimy psychological horror morphs into an ultra-violent police procedural.

9 min readOct 20, 2023


My heart still races as the plot spirals near the end.

This is the Saw franchise’s most sincere attempt at “horror”; it’s so patient compared to the latter entries, choosing to build suspense with long, scary kidnappings shrouded in darkness — before our main characters wind up chained to rusted pipes in the now-infamous bathroom. The budget’s miniscule, but Saw’s retconny writing style, sinister music, and overall vibe are already in full swing. Unlucky individuals are strapped into various nightmarish contraptions that will maim or kill them, unless they make a sacrifice to survive — with a newfound appreciation for their lives.

The set design, lighting, and cinematography — quite by chance—become Saw’s irreplaceable signature visuals moving forward: deep green lighting, fuzzy tapes on old TVs, sinister puppets, puzzle pieces, pig people! Much of it arrives this early in the series. And yet, there’s still huge potential bundled up in it all. Charlie Clouser’s soundtrack helps bind the many non-linear segments, despite Kevin Greutert’s chaotic editing style, which James Wan (director) uses for hopping back and forth along the timeline to recall story milestones from different perspectives.

Some of the effects and acting can be wonky. Cary Elwes opposite Leigh Whannell shouldn’t work as well as it does and we get superb performances from Danny Glover and Michael Emerson (Ben Linus from Lost). My heart still races as the plot spirals near the end, alongside Clouser’s awe-inducing main theme. Tobin Bell was cast as a dead body on the floor of a disheveled bathroom and went on to become a horror icon — what good fortune!

Saw II

It’s slathered with twists and ever-increasing tension.

Lionsgate wanted a sequel in time for Halloween and got one. But only because director Darren Lynn Bousman had already written the screenplay — for a completely separate movie. Execs noticed parallels with Saw (such as its notorious twist ending) and decided that they could easily inject the Jigsaw character as well as all the other iconography and call it Saw II. Uncanny really, when you consider that so much of the mythos around John Kramer (Tobin Bell), comes direct from this entry — retired engineer turned cancer-stricken psychopath.

We learn what motivates him in captivating conversations with Detective Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg), who’s been told he must simply sit and listen, but remains in constant angst over the disappearance of his son. His son — we think — is in trouble, trapped in a house that’s full of dangerous criminals and filling with nerve gas. And so begins the very start of Saw’s unwavering devotion to hoodwinking its audience. Amanda — the most notable returning character—steals the limelight and brings with her many new questions about the world of Saw which won’t be answered until later.

So, Saw II is clearly an exercise in franchise-building and a step away from undiluted horror, but it’s quintessential Saw. It’s slathered with twists and ever-increasing tension; it explores much more of Jigsaw’s philosophy and even features hunky eye candy (I’m eternally grateful to the casting director for giving us Franky G as the muscle-clad maniac, Xavier Chavez).


Muck and filth and contempt and hypocrisy, every step of the way.

The plot thickens! Brace for the most depressing and hopeless of all the Saw films. Saw III, also from Darren Lynn Bousman, piles misery upon misery upon misery. This film feels as if its reel had been literally dragged through the sewers. Everything is green-brown, dirty, squalid, and sad. Muck and filth and contempt and hypocrisy, every step of the way. God help us.

We lose track of the cops for the majority of this one’s runtime — the longest before Saw X — in favor of two equally grim plot threads. One is about Lynn (Bahar Soomekh), a doctor who’s been kidnapped by Amanda to operate on John’s brain (with an explosive collar round her neck which has been rigged to blow if his heart stops beating). The other follows Jeff (Angus Macfadyen), a man stuck grieving, neglecting everything else in his life. He’s forced to face the people involved in the loss of his son and save them from hideous traps — such as being strapped by the neck in the bottom of a vat gradually filling with liquidised, rotting pig carcasses. Nice!

Finally — John’s philosophy is slammed by his most cherished test subject: Amanda herself. She’s not fixed, like he insists, and she tells him in no uncertain words. This leads to a whole, horrid chain of events that absolutely devastates the Saw landscape and, in any other universe, would have brought this franchise to a grinding halt. Truthfully, it’s a bit implausible. How many tapes does Jigsaw pre-record, and for how many different scenarios? But Saw III emphasises emotion more than its predecessors, which allows for some suspension of disbelief.

Saw IV

A non-savvy Saw fan would say this is nonsensical.

We wondered, in Saw III, where are the cops? Now here’s your answer. The Saw franchise barrel rolls out of its catastrophic crash landing at the end of Saw III into a backwards somersault with added pompoms — Saw IV. This is where the series goes all in on its own timeline, flashing back and forward, to stun us with increasingly complex revelations. This involves a wider cast of characters clashing, betraying each other, and twisting the plot in all manner of directions.

In Saw IV, Officer Rigg has an obsession with saving people and therefore has to not save people in order to… save people? To achieve this — or not — he has to run about the town, to a hotel, a school, and eventually to a strangely familiar setting, and watch people suffer Jigsaw’s tests. It’s convoluted. A non-savvy Saw fan would say this is nonsensical — which isn’t strictly true when you consider Jigsaw’s philosophy is fundamentally flawed (as established in Saw III).

HOW? Jigsaw’s dead. He had his throat cut in Saw III. We all saw it happen. Jeff did it. Where’s Jeff? Well, we should all know better than to ask questions. Darren Lynn Bousman pulled the rug out from under our feet enough already — and he does the very same thing here. In effect, successfully resetting the franchise and propelling it forwards, into another trilogy fronted by Jigsaw 2.0 — or Detective Mark Hoffman — (Costas Mandylor), Agent Strahm (Scott Patterson), and John Kramer’s ex-wife, Jill (Betsy Russell).

Saw V

A vaguely linear return to the basic formula.

I didn’t particularly like this one back in the day but now recognise that the series needed to slow down again after the manic pace of Saw IV. Where that was stuffed with dramatic cuts, the relentless pressure of time, and a complexly jumbled bunch of overlapping plots, Saw V slows to a crawl and attempts a vaguely linear return to the basic formula: a handful of morally corrupt subjects are forced into an ultimately winnable array of torturous games. And — as not to disappoint fans of the flashbacks — more history unfolds as we explore Hoffman’s connection to John Kramer.

It comes off as a bit hokey at times, what with most of these flashbacks thrown in as if “imagined” by Agent Strahm, who roams around the crime scenes from previous movies. I empathise with casual audiences, who might find it hard to differentiate between Hoffman and Strahm. That aside, the film takes a gradual, brooding approach to sealing their fates, culminating with a twist that posters in 2008 boldly claimed: “You won’t believe”. Clouser also restrains himself here with darker and deeper drones than before.

Surprisingly, the central torture plot isn’t very gory— the “fatal five” have found themselves caught up in a nasty real estate scandal. One of their tasks is to smash glass bottles and find hidden keys. Hardly an equivalent to Saw III’s dead pig juice. But it’s better this way. These movies hit the hardest when the “games” are as psychological as they are physical — with ironic interplay between the two. There’s more of that here than in Saw IV, but it’s not explored thoroughly. In this way, and by leaving a lot of little cliffhangers, this entry effectively laid the foundations for Saw VI.

Saw VI

Every scene is built to maximise tension.

In an ideal world, the series would have ended here — on a high. Saw VI was the best-received Saw film, critically speaking, since the first. Sadly, it didn’t perform well at the box office in 2009 (against Paranormal Activity). It’s a shame, as there are huge payoffs plot-wise, building on events established since the very start of the franchise and, especially, in Saw III, IV, and V. Not only this, longtime editor turned director (Kevin Greutert) cunningly subverts the formula in small and creative ways.

We open with one of the most shocking and brutal Saw traps ever and, soon after, experience one of the quietest. But first: we’re introduced to Vice President of Umbrella Health Insurance, William Easton (Peter Outerbridge); a man who threatened to deny John Kramer coverage if he sought experimental treatment elsewhere (big whoops). He’s put through a terrible ordeal, pitted against his colleagues with a series of puzzles that demand he use the company’s policy to decide whether they should live or die. These dilemmas produce some of the best dialogue in any Saw movie and, uniquely inventive traps.

Every scene is built to maximise tension. By the end, it seems as if William is a hollow, drained, shell of his former self — yes — but a changed man. A superb performance. All the while, Perez and Erickson appear oddly suspicious of Hoffman who, when given no alternative, chooses indiscriminate violence. Through scenes laden with unbearable stress, he finally becomes the hateable villain this franchise sorely needed. Clouser’s music is banger after banger — an undeniable highlight is his accompaniment to the taxing carousel trap — underlining the emotional weight carried with every twist.


Filmed for the 3D gimmick of the time.

What a fall from grace. Not only does this look like a cheap TV movie (due to the crummy way it was filmed for the 3D gimmick of the time), it squanders almost every opportunity to extract terror out of the now-understandably bitter rivalry between Hoffman and Jigsaw’s ex-wife, Jill. The writers also appeared to browse the online Saw forums, lazily, for inspiration on what to do with a certain legacy character — a revelation that fans either love or hate.

Déjà vu: Bobby Dagen (Sean Patrick Flanery) must rescue his colleagues from a series of traps — but without the emotional gravitas of Saw VI. Interestingly, most Saw movies are filled with testosterone and machoism — unlike a lot of horrors, it doesn’t throw in jiggling tits and screaming blondes at every turn. Saw II comes the closest, with notably scantily clad female characters who don’t hold much control over the direction of the plot. But Saw VII takes the cake; nearly every trap here involves some kind of misogynistic premise.

The story is an intriguing idea: a fake Jigsaw survivor writes a book. Of course, Kramer (who goes to the signing in a backwards baseball cap to make vague threats) doesn’t take kindly to this. But he waits an oddly long time to take revenge. Hoffman, on the other hand, is busy starring in his own slasher movie. And if you’re wondering why Kevin Greutert dropped the ball so hard: contractually, he was forced into this at the very last minute — he was supposed to direct Paranormal Activity 2.

Saw V (2008)

What about the others?

If you’re wondering why I haven’t talked about Jigsaw or Spiral — it’s because those movies suck. But more importantly, they’re not part of the original saga, which begins and ends in that now-infamous bathroom (parts I to VII).

I will devote some time to rewatching them, but not until after I’ve gloried in what could be the series’ most spectacular return to form… Saw X? Oh yes, there will be blood... 🩸