If life was fair, I’d be frantically doing the Thursday preview box office math in relation to Spiral: From the Book of Saw while (ideally) declaring that the Chris Rock-produced/Darren Lynn-Bousman-directed installment was closer in quality to Saw II than Saw V. But not even John Kramer and/or one of his 4,183 apprentices were able to defeat the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, so Spiral will instead open on May 21, 2021. So, in honor of the release date that wasn’t, I’m instead using math, science and dark magic to correctly rank the eight (!) Saw movies that we do have. As always, my list will not be your list, because what fun would that be? And now, without further ado, let’s play a game!
Budget: $10 million Worldwide box office: $104.2 million
This failed attempt to jolt the franchise back to life after a seven-year sabbatical feels like a weak cover of a popular rock tune. It knows the music, but lacks the rhythm and soul. Moreover, like Scream 4, this revival offers little in the way of how a new installment in the respective franchise might play a decade later. It offers paper-thin new characters and a halfhearted recycling of the franchise’s “police procedural” format that is afraid to either stand out on its own or revel in the franchise’s ridiculously convoluted continuity. Jigsaw fails to be a Saw picture for Saw fans or for newbies, coming off instead like a direct-to-DVD knock-off of the once great horror series. And if you just want a Saw rip-off, well, Sony’s Escape Room is pretty great.
Saw: The Final Chapter (2010
Budget: $17 million Worldwide Box Office: $133.7 million
Would you rather be offended or bored? That’s a choice worthy of John Kramer himself. Saw 3-D is a gloriously offensive would-be final chapter, but it’s not boring and it has far more production value than Jigsaw. The (allegedly truncated) series finale goes all in on genuine “torture porn” and misogyny in a way the franchise had otherwise avoided. Tobin Bell is barely in it, and Costas Mandylor’s Mark Hoffman has morphed into the Joker in terms of being able to set up incredibly elaborate traps. Sean Patrick Flannery (a guy who lied about being a Jigsaw survivor) and Chad Donell (the new cop on the case) are weak anchors for this alleged finale, even if the “it all ends here” beats are confined to a closing montage.
Saw V (2008)
Budget: $10.8 million Worldwide Box Office: $118.2 million
This frankly cheap-looking installment feels like a direct-to-DVD Saw movie, and it suffers from being the first sequel without Tobin Bell as its primary anchor. Scott Patterson goes from supporting player in Saw IV to the protagonist, now as a hero cop trying to expose a colleague’s extracurricular activities. On the plus side, the gore is slightly toned down, the opening traps are pretty neat (the pendulum is an obvious but inspired choice) and there are moments where characters actually survive a given Jigsaw trap, which offers a bit more suspense to the proceedings. However, with Bell consigned to an extended cameo and most of the major players of the first few films now dead, Saw V feels like a “in name only” franchise continuation.
Saw IV (2007)
Budget: $10 million Worldwide box office: $135.8 million
Following the rather startling cliffhanger of Saw III, this is where the franchise starts to descend into self-parody. Lyriq Brent’s hero cop gets a promotion to the main target/victim this time, highlighting this franchise’s willingness to promote from within. His sin is, uh, caring too much about the victims, and the “present tense” plot barely holds together. However, the movie looks aggressively stylish, the finale offers several potent twists and reveals, and there is plenty of meaty flashback material for Tobin Bell’s antagonist allowing the character actor-turned-horror-icon the chance to just play a regular guy undercut by extraordinary circumstances. Scott Patterson is terrible here as a crusading cop, but at least he’s not the star of the show this time.
Budget: $1.2 million Worldwide Box Office: $103.9 million
I was not and am still not a huge fan of the first James Wan/Leigh Whannell endeavor, although it has aged well as a singular high-concept horror flick. It looks quite good considering its $1.2 million budget and boasts a robust cast (Cary Elwes, Danny Glover, Monica Porter, etc.). The film still plays like a rough draft that never got rewritten (the centerpiece sequence, featuring Shawnee Smith in a ghoulish bear trap, has no narrative reason to exist), and it’s amusing watching Whannell act out his own bad dialogue badly (he got better). Like the Star Trek series, the first Saw is something of an outlier in terms of plot and visuals compared to its more “action-ish” sequels, and honestly it’s not the movie’s fault that I guessed both villains simply because I recognized the actors.
Saw III (2006)
Budget: $10 million Worldwide Box Office: $163.9 million
Saw III is the best of the “a single victim walks from room to room encountering ironic horrors in each location” sequels, with Angus McFayden offering a terrific central performance as a man tormented by the hit-and-run death of his young son. However, as compelling as this is, it presents a contradiction. The hook is that McFayden can find absolution by forgiving and saving those involved in the crime. But if he does that, well, we Saw fans don’t get to see folks killed off in expectedly grotesque ways. It’s a classic “rooting against action” scenario. This is still probably the best-acted Saw movie (Bahar Soomekh is terrific as well as an imprisoned doctor), and the relationship between John Kramer and his newly-revealed apprentice offers unique shadings.
Saw II (2005)
Budget: $5 million Worldwide Box Office: $152.9 million
The Wrath of Khan of the Saw series, this “breakout sequel” turned the franchise from a cult favorite to a mainstream horror juggernaut. It also defines the formula and highlights the characters who will be our anchors for the rest of the ride. It correctly calls “bulls***” on Kramer’s “I’m not really killing people, I’m helping them” philosophy while working as an acting two-hander for Donnie Wahlberg (as a cop whose son is among the handful of new Jigsaw victims) and Tobin Bell himself, elevated from plot twist cameo to leading role. Oh, and the “fun house of horrors” plot is just that, offering plenty of gore but deaths that are more fun house scary unwatchably painful. This is probably the most “fun” Saw film, and it also has the franchise’s best plot twist.
Saw VI (2009)
Budget: $11 million Worldwide Box Office: $69.7 million
Like Star Trek, the Saw franchise hit a creative low point with the fifth chapter only to bounce back with part six. There is plenty of past-tense Tobin Bell material and a “funhouse of horrors” plot that gets unexpectedly political. Jigsaw is declaring war on the for-profit health insurance industry, which gives the “Who will live and who will die?” traps an added kick, as well as suspense since the traps this time are designed to create both victims and survivors. This is Costas Mandylor’s finest hour, as he gets embroiled in a classic “I have to investigate the crime that I actually committed” plot which intrigues even during the now-standard police procedural moments. Saw VI is just firing on all cylinders, and it would made an ideal series finale.