Between October 2009 and October 2011, I reviewed every film in the Saw franchise. As it’s Halloween again, it seems a good time to re-post them all to this new blog — one per day in the last week, because I timed it cleverly. Think of this as a kind of personal last hurrah for the ’00s horror staple.
And staple it was, providing one film every year, at Halloween of course, between 2004 and 2010. Indeed, by the time of Saw IV they were using the tagline, “If it’s Halloween, it must be Saw”. The series was at the spearhead of the low-budget high-gore era of horror — the once-ubiquitous term “torture porn” was coined to describe 2005’s Hostel, but it was retroactively applied to Saw. The filmmakers refuted the label, and at the series’ best they’re right. The original film is a small-scale thriller with gory/scary moments — it’s actually a pretty good film, deserving to transcend the reputation its long-running follow-ups have attracted. At its worst, though, the series does plumb the depths of extreme gore for its own sake. Saw III is perhaps the worst example, but that doesn’t excuse some of the other films.
Another factor that marks the films out is their continuing story. Perhaps this will one day be viewed as A Thing of the ’00s — witness how many TV series (especially in the US) moved from obsessively standalone storytelling to serial nature, led by the likes of 24 and The Wire, and cemented by the huge success (in the US at least) of Lost. Though every Saw film presents a standalone story — what I call the “Game of the Film”, as each is a deadly set of tasks (a game) constructed by central villain/anti-hero Jigsaw (or one of his disciples) for some deserving guest character — they quickly become obsessed with their own mythology, doling out variably-sized doses of backstory each time. The early films pretty much stand alone, but by the third and fourth the series is beginning to disappear up its own rear end as it obsessively fills in all the blanks.
The Saw series, unlike so many long-running horror film franchises, really is a series — you can’t dive in and just watch any entry; not if you want it to make sense, anyway. The first two movies are the exception, but the third and fourth take place concurrently and then the franchise moves forward (mostly) through an on-going investigation. Fortunately they were allowed to wrap it up, with Saw 3D (the seventh and final film) bringing the drawn-out story threads to a conclusion. It’s not a wholly satisfying ending (as you can read in my full review), but at least it is one.
The once mega-hit series was killed off by low-budget-filmmaking’s latest fad, the found-footage movie: where once Saw was dominant at Halloween, the sixth film was out-grossed by newcomer Paranormal Activity. That cut short long-term plans for the series (as my review of the fourth film mentions, they once promised at least eight movies), and Paranormal Activity has trundled on as an annual Halloween staple for the 2010s (the fourth was released a fortnight ago). Personally they don’t interest me.
Neither did I think the Saw movies would, really. I’m no gore fiend, nor even a massive horror fan — there has to be something else going on than simply scares to really hold my attention. This is where the first Saw is a real success, because I’d argue it’s actually a thriller with horrific elements; kind of like a B-movie rendition of Se7en, perhaps. Even when it sinks to nasty depths at points that follow, the series retains this thriller element, the (almost-)never-ending story all but ensuring the viewer’s need to continue watching. Even when some of the middle entries dipped, there was always the promise of redemption — the sixth film is perhaps the series’ second-best, for instance. Sadly they couldn’t maintain that momentum for the final entry.
I’m glad the Saw movies came to an end, because with that on-going mythology they really needed an ending. But now they’re done, I kind of miss them a little. Not necessarily enough to sit through it all again… but maybe one day.
My full original reviews of each film, first published between 2009 and 2011, follow: