Here’s the thing about the October Challenge: sometimes, you end up wading through a lot of really awful films when you’re trying to get through 16 first time views. And then sometimes you’re me, who does it on purpose, with films that aren’t first time views. Hence…SAW SUNDAY. [SPOILERS AHEAD]
A bit of backstory: I started buying the Saw series years ago, but had stopped after the third one, because I watched the fourth and was really disappointed. I’d always meant to eventually get the whole series, because I liked the sixth entry and figured if I liked a little over half of the franchise, then I might as well get the whole thing for completion’s sake. And then, unintentionally for sure, Zack Handlen tweeted a very helpful thing:
Wow i can get the complete SAW movie collection for 18 bucks that’s like what a billion movies for less than 20 dollars, sweet.
— Zombie Handlen (@zhandlen) October 14, 2014
And so I did! And then I spent an entire Sunday watching them all back to back, because I hate myself and want to die. Let’s see how that went!
Saw (2004, dir. James Wan; repeat view) – Dr. Lawrence Gordon and Adam (Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannell) wake up in a filthy bathroom, each chained by the leg to pipes and left to figure out how they got there and why. Also with them is a man, face down, dead of an apparent gunshot wound to the head. I hate it when that happens. In what becomes a consistent device throughout the series, much of the film takes place in flashback; here, the flashbacks eventually meet up with the a-plot as twists unfurl and the big surprise reveal before the film slams the door in our faces. There’s a lot to admire from this early James Wan feature: it mixes mystery and the police procedural with some genuine horror. It’s also far more tame than the subsequent six films, which try and succeed in upping the gross-out factor. Saw remains the best of the series, despite some real ham sandwich acting by both Whannell and Elwes.
Saw II (2005, dir. Darren Lynn Bousman; repeat view) – Kicking off with a twist on the previous film’s reverse-bear-trap trap, Saw II takes place several months after the events of the first film. This time the story is divided between a police detective (Donnie Wahlberg) in a game of words with John Kramer (Tobin Bell), now known as Jigsaw, the man behind the deadly traps. Also going on is a larger-scale game with eight players caught in a house that’s slowly filling with poison gas. Among these people are the detective’s son, and Amanda (Shawnee Smith), who survived the aforementioned reverse-bear-trap from Saw. The twists are pretty neat here, and the story comes back around to the first film’s original grimy bathroom setting. We also get more Tobin Bell, who adds real menace to a character who previously spent 99% of the film motionless on the floor. Frankly, the series could have ended at this point, but when you have a Halloween cash cow on your hands, why stop now?
Saw III (2006, dir. Darren Lynn Bousman; repeat view) – A deeply grief-stricken man who lost his son in a car crash is put through a series of tests to see if he can forgive the people responsible for letting his son’s killer get away with a light sentence. Meanwhile, a skilled but distracted doctor is abducted by Amanda to keep John “Jigsaw” Kramer, who is suffering from inoperable cancer, alive. Here is where the series starts to get convoluted, introducing both Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor, doing a great impression of a block of wood) and Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell), Jigsaw’s wife. We get more information on Amanda’s relationship to Jigsaw, and yet another twist ending involving the two leads, this one telegraphed relatively early on. I like the first three films, and wish that the series had ended here. It could have, considering that Jigsaw dies at the end (uh, spoiler warning?), as does protege Amanda (uh, another spoiler warning). But no!
Saw IV (2007, dir. Darren Lynn Bousman; repeat view) – Police lieutenant Rigg (Lyriq Bent, appearing here for the third time) is sent through a series of tests (sound familiar?) to learn how not to barge through unsecured doors and to learn the inner workings of the Jigsaw killer. Heads up: he fails, by barging through an unsecured door. This time around, the story gets even more loopy, first by playing out at the same time as the previous film (actually kind of clever as twists go), and also by adding more characters and backstory to the mix. We learn more about John Kramer and his wife Jill, and this also sets up who takes on the Jigsaw mantle after his death. Heads up: it’s Hoffman, which sucks for us, because good lord Costas Mandylor is a horrid actor here. Saw IV also introduces Scott Hoffman as FBI Agent Strahm, who bears too much of a resemblance to Mandylor, making the story even more confusing as you try to remember which one is which. Good luck.
— mausoleum neeson (@whynotanna) October 26, 2014
@whynotanna I agree!
— Darren_Bousman (@darren_bousman) October 27, 2014
Saw V (2008, dir. David Hackl; repeat view) – Expanding on and filling in the details of how Detective Hoffman became Jigsaw’s first apprentice, this fifth entry to the Saw series spends splits its time between a group of five seemingly-unconnected people and Hoffman’s efforts to cover his bloody tracks. As we should have learned by now, everyone is connected and unfortunately just because Bousman isn’t directing this time around, it doesn’t actually make Saw V a good film. This marks the first time where there isn’t really a twist or a gotcha! moment in the series; rather, the film just ends with Hoffman lookalike Strahm getting crushed to death while Hoffman gets away. I hate to say it, but Saw V makes Saw IV look like a halfway decent film. It’s a depressing follow-up, making me long for the days when there were three Saw films with a storyline that wraps up quite nicely. It also suffers from a severe lack of Tobin Bell, who only appears here in a few very brief flashbacks.
Saw VI (2009, dir. Kevin Greutert; repeat view) – Having learned a lesson about leaving out the most compelling character in the franchise, Saw VI wisely brings back John Kramer (again in flashback; he dead, remember?) in this surprising sequel that’s the best since Saw III. This time there’s another personal-journey-style series of traps that doubles as a harsh but blunt indictment of the health insurance industry, here leveled at William Easton (Peter Outerbridge), an insurance executive in the business of making money over saving lives. Easton turned Kramer down for an experimental cancer treatment that could have saved his life, and also essentially sentenced another man to death for failing to disclose an oral surgery that might have caused his heart disease. After the horrendous fourth and fifth entries, Saw VI is like a breath of fresh air after being trapped in a fart box. Well, a breath of…non-fart air.
Saw 3D, a.k.a. Saw: The Final Chapter (2010, dir. Kevin Greutert; repeat view) – Finally, the Saw films end here (one hopes), wrapping up the loose ends (were…there…any?) while introducing a new character, self-help guru and supposed Jigsaw victim Bobby Dagen (Sean Patrick Flanery, who’s probably forgotten he was even in this by now). Bobby concocted his phony story of survival with the help of friends, all of them benefiting from book deals and national appearances. Naturally, that means he’s sent through an actual set of traps, working to save his accomplices. Meanwhile, Hoffman-as-Jigsaw has captured a group of racists, putting them in what is easily the franchise’s most egregious and disgusting trap. Up until this point, the people in the traps have typically shown up later or been involved in the story on a greater scale; the skinheads have nothing to do but die here. Not that I care — they’re skinheads and also it’s a movie — but this felt really over the top and senseless in the grand scheme. Anyhow, there had been greasy message-board rumors up to this point that Cary Elwes would be coming back to reprise his role as Dr. Gordon, and sure enough, he does appear here in the most fan-service-y way possible. Actually, I can’t say boo to it, because he serves justice to the horrorshow that is Costas Mandylor, just as I wished. Thanks, Westley! You’re a peach.
Okay, that’s a wrap on this whole miserable experience. I did have some drinks along the way, which is the only way I can recommend anyone watching all seven Saw films in one sitting. The one thing I really appreciate about the series is that it does an outstanding job with continuity between films. Each film more or less builds on the last one, creating one huge overarching storyline. Granted, that sometimes makes watching the films on their own out of order a confusing experience, but compared to several other horror franchises, this shows a kind of commitment from the writers that’s lacking elsewhere. Does that make it better than the Halloween or Friday the 13th films? Perhaps not. But it does set the Saw films apart, and that counts for something.
Were I to rank the franchise, I’d go with: Saw > Saw III > Saw II > Saw VI > Saw IV > Saw 3D > Saw V. Would I do this again? Actually, yes, maybe in a few years. I think I’m all squared away for quite a while. You can read more of my comments from this marathon on twitter by searching #SAWSunday. October Challenge Final Tally to come soon!