Catching Up On the “Saw” Series

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With one of my favorite franchises of all time returning to the big screen this weekend I decided to try something new here on “Cinema Spotlight”. It can be tough for viewers to jump into a franchise out of nowhere without being up to date on what happened before. Well that stops now. In my new segment “Catching Up…” I will attempt to bring my readers up to date on where franchises stand as they enter new entries. I won’t be doing those for every franchise, just mainly those that have had major timespans between their latest films or are knowingly entering their final movie. I’m pleased to make “Jigsaw” the first film to benefit from this new feature. So lets get started.

The “Saw” franchise started off with humble beginnings and is arguably responsible for the new age legitimacy of horror films in the 21st century setting the stage for many of the modern horror classics that have come to be since the first movie became a surprise success in 2004. The original film brought James Wan to the forefront and made Lionsgate and Twisted Pictures legitimate producers of horror. The series spans seven films to date between 2004 and 2010 and at the time was a Halloween season staple. In 2010 “The Final Chapter” was released in an attempt to close the series for good, but now “Jigsaw” will reboot the franchise, remaining within the same continuity with a new story unfolding.

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For those unfamiliar with “Saw” the series features a character named the Jigsaw Killer who traps his victims in “games”, forcing them to endure mental or physical torture to test their will to live. Sometimes these games involve a single person, sometimes they involve multiple people, and many times not everyone makes it out alive. Each “game” or “trap” victim has a past and a sin that Jigsaw wants them to suffer for. The reasons for his spree of torturous tests are explained as the character’s backstory unfolds and each film usually involves a clever twist that reveals a hidden agenda for the traps or even people who are helping Jigsaw in his mission.

So without further ado let’s lay out the cinematic story of the “Saw” franchise to get you caught up on what has led to the newest film in the franchise, “Jigsaw”. This will be a very summarized look at the events that made up the first seven films. If you want the whole story you should watch the films themselves. If you’d like to forgo those viewings, this is a good place to start. As you can imagine the whole nature of this list is to provide spoilers so a SPOILER ALERT for those who would rather experience the films themselves. Here we go, let’s catch you up on the “Saw” series!

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The “Saw” films focus on antagonist John Kramer, a cancer patient with an inoperable brain tumor who after a failed attempt at suicide found himself amazed that his body could recover from those injuries but not from cancer. With his days numbered Kramer, an engineer by trade, decided to test those he felt had a fatal flaw or character problem that kept them from cherishing the life they were given.

Prior to his cancer diagnosis John Kramer was a happy man in a happy marriage with his wife Jill, who ran a drug recovery clinic. However John’s life changed forever when a man named Cecil, one of his wife’s clients, caused the loss of the Kramer’s unborn son causing the marriage to break up in a divorce and John’s personality to deteriorate. After his failed suicide attempt John began his quest to challenge his subjects to cherish the lives they were given, using Cecil as his very first test subject as shown in “Saw IV”.

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It was then that Kramer perfected his traps, dawning the iconic pig mask and creating the spiral cheeked puppet Billy, which he often used in video tapes and traps to send messages to his subjects. Several victims fail Kramer’s opening tests with the media labeling John the Jigsaw Killer, a name given to him due to the puzzle piece be carves from those who fail his tests and games. While John Kramer admitted this was not a name he himself necessarily accepted, he did explain that the puzzle piece was meant to represent that this victims lacked an important piece of life, the survival instinct. The first to survive a game is Amanda Young, a drug addict who was fitted with the iconic reverse bear trap.

As police tried to close in on the Jigsaw Killer’s identity evidence left at traps led them to label Dr. Lawrence Gordon as a suspect. Gordon was the doctor presiding over John Kramer during his cancer diagnosis. While at Gordon’s hospital Kramer met an orderly named Zep. Using Zep as his next target, sighting the man’s inferiority complex, Jigsaw poisons the orderly and orders him to take Dr. Gordon’s wife and child captive. Having learned from Zep that Dr. Gordon planned infidelity Jigsaw made the doctor his next victim along with a photographer named Adam thus putting into motion the events of the first “Saw” film.

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Dr. Gordon and Adam were then trapped in a bathroom and forced to compete with each other for survival. Jigsaw hides himself in the center of the room as a man who had supposedly shot himself in the head, providing tools with his body for the two men to use. The game ends after Dr. Gordon cuts off his own foot to escape the chains confining him to the room. Following Jigsaw’s orders Zep arrives to finish off Dr. Gordon, who had failed to kill Adam before his time ran out, only to be killed by Adam who had previously been shot by Dr. Gordon in a last ditch effort to save his family and win the game. After Dr. Gordon leaves the room John Kramer awakens and reveals to Adam, and the audience, that he is the real Jigsaw Killer before locking Adam in the bathroom and yelling “game over!”

The second film, “Saw II”, picks up immediately after the bathroom game with Eric Matthews, a detective who has planted evidence to convict numerous people, becoming Jigsaw’s newest target. After another fatal Jigsaw test is discovered Matthews is led to Jigsaw’s hideout where he and his fellow officers locate not only John Kramer, but also a series of televisions showing another ongoing game with numerous people in a house, including Matthew’s son and Amanda Young playing her second Jigsaw game. Kramer warns Matthews that he is playing a game of his own and all he has to do to save his son is talk to Kramer for a certain amount of time.

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The toxic house game begins with each members of the party challenged in order to receive antidotes to the nerve gas in their system. Eventually they comes to realize they are all previous victims of Matthews bad practice and that they are in the home with Matthews’ son. One by one the victims die in traps or as a result of the gas or violence as one player decides to take matters into his own hands. The younger Matthews and Amanda team up to survive while Detective Matthews loses his patience, savagely beatings Jigsaw and forcing him to bring him to the house where the test is taking place.

Upon arriving at the house Matthews makes his way to the same bathroom from the first film only to be knocked out by a mystery assailant revealed to be Amanda who, after her first test, became John Kramer’s apprentice to carry on his legacy. We then learn that the game shown on the monitors occurred hours earlier and that Matthews’ son had been in the same room as the officers the entire time, locked in a safe with oxygen keeping him alive. Amanda is shown locking Detective Matthews in the bathroom, presumably securing his fate.

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“Saw III” explored a bit more of the backstory of Jigsaw and Amanda, revealing the origin of the pair’s relationship after Amanda’s game. Amanda is revealed to be very possessive and protective of John Kramer after kidnapping a doctor named Lynn Denlon, who worked in Dr. Gordon’s hospital, to help Jigsaw on his death bed as his cancer has gotten worse. Denlon is fitted with a shotgun collar that would go off is Jigsaw died before a second test was completed. That test involved a man named Jeff who lost his son due to the act of a drunk driver. Jeff is challenged with three games, faced with saving the lives of a witness, the cases judge, and the man who killed his son in an attempt by Jigsaw to teach Jeff forgiveness.

Meanwhile Dr. Denlon succeeds in keeping Jigsaw alive, in one case performing brain surgery, but we discover that Amanda is not playing by Jigsaw’s rules and has been creating unwinnable traps seen earlier in the film. Those traps resulted in the death of one of the officers, Detective Kerry, from the first two movies and the introduction of Detective Mark Hoffman, an investigator on Jigsaw’s case. More on him later. With Amanda seeing no redemption in any of Jigsaw’s victims, and showing emotional distress from several items she receives over the course of the film including a mysterious envelope with her name on it, Amanda kills Dr. Denlon seemingly out of jealousy, just as Jeff finishes his own game. Jeff is revealed to be Dr. Denlon’s husband who shoots Amanda in the neck causing Jigsaw to reveal to Amanda that Denlon was Amanda’s test even though it seemed Jigsaw was testing the doctor instead. Amanda dies, but Jeff’s test continues and he is challenged to spare Jigsaw. However, Jeff fails and slices John Kramer’s throat thus killing his wife as the shotgun collar goes off with Jigsaw’s final breath. Before dying Jigsaw plays a tape revealing to Jeff that only he knows where Jeff’s daughter is, revealing that Jigsaw’s long running theme of the game about Jeff’s child was not only talking about Jeff’s deceased son, but the daughter Jeff neglected as a result of that loss.

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“Saw IV” explored many of the origin concepts I explained earlier and happens concurrently with “Saw III” as Detective Daniel Rigg, the final member of the original law enforcement team who investigated Jigsaw in “Saw II”, is put through his own multi-level game to teach him to stop trying to save everyone. Jigsaw themed each test in this game to show Rigg’s his perspective on why the Jigsaw victims deserve to be challenged with life or death traps as one by one Rigg watches games unfold, some fatal but all symbolic. All the while the film also plays on the possibility of a second accomplice to Jigsaw as it is deduced that many of Amanda’s traps required a second person to pull off which wouldn’t have been the bedridden Jigsaw. Rigg’s test creates the illusion that Rigg could be the new Jigsaw to authorities while we, the audience, see him as a disciple in training while we are meant to believe a lawyer named Art is the new Jigsaw after he survived a previous trap. John Kramer’s wife, Jill Tuck, also becomes a major player in the overall story as she begins to receive questioning by authorities into her ex-husbands actions with Agents Peter Strahm and Lindsey Perez of the FBI entering the series as a result. This film sheds light on many of Jigsaw’s victims and why they were chosen, including many of the nerve gas house victims being patients at Jill’s clinic and Art being a previous business partner of Kramers. The film solidified that the victims weren’t random, but carefully planned.

After going through his tests Rigg finds that Detective Eric Matthews is alive, having been placed in a final trap alongside Detective Hoffman. However by entering the room where Matthews is located Rigg kills the detective and seemingly kills Hoffman only for it to be revealed that Detective Hoffman is Jigsaw’s other accomplice. With Rigg bleeding from a sustained injury, Hoffman leaves him to die. Meanwhile Agent Strahm finds and follows Jeff Denlon from “Saw III”, revealing that the games are happening at the same time, and kills Jeff when he approaches Strahm about the location his daughter. Hoffman traps Strahm in Jigsaw’s sickroom with John Kramer’s now-dead body by his side. The final scene (mirroring the first in “Saw IV”) shows Hoffman locating a tape during Jigsaw’s autopsy warning him that he too will be tested at some point.

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“Saw V” serves as basically a big cat and mouse game between Strahm and Hoffman. Strahm escapes an early trap set for him by Hoffman, the infamous water cube, and goes on a crusade to hunt down Hoffman after deducing the detective could be a Jigsaw apprentice. The film reveals that Hoffman posed as Jigsaw to kill the man who murdered his sister, using an inescapable trap to do the job and frame Jigsaw. As punishment for such a crime Jigsaw blackmails Hoffman, forcing him to become an apprentice. Hoffman is shown to be a major player behind the scenes for nearly every major game shown in the series to this point. Hoffman eventually became a willing participant in Jigsaw’s plans. Meanwhile Jigsaw’s wife Jill becomes more involved, receiving a box from her ex-husband through his will. Meanwhile the fifth films main game takes place with five people trapped in a game with a series of tests. The five are all revealed to be involved in a recent deadly fire and had to work together to complete their unified test with each game winnable by either sacrificing one or working together in different ways to benefit all.

This fifth film is an important one for those looking for answers to mysteries of the first four. We learn Hoffman’s police connections made gathering info on the Jigsaw victims, like the victims of the nerve gas house in “Saw II”, easy and that Hoffman worked as an inside agent for Jigsaw’s benefit. Hoffman works to cover his tracks by setting up evidence to frame Strahm as the Jigsaw Killer. Eventually Strahm catches up to Hoffman but is challenged to let Hoffman live. When Strahm fails, throwing Hoffman into a glass box, a pair of doors close, killing Strahm and leaving Hoffman free to continue Jigsaw’s work while Strahm remains the primary suspect.

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“Saw VI” was a more symbolic entry in the franchise focusing on insurance executive William Easton, a man who denied John Kramer health coverage for his cancer. Easton experiences numerous tests symbolic of the decisions he and his colleagues make every day with the lives of others in their hands before his own life is put in the hands of a family whose matriarch died due to the questionable decisions of Easton’s company. Easton is killed by the family as a result despite his sister being present to beg for his life, symbolic of how Easton’s actions were never wavered by the begging of families before.

In the larger story Hoffman continues to play his part in the investigation into Jigsaw as investigators draw closer to proving Strahm is the man behind it all. It’s revealed that Hoffman has worked to take control of the games through many acts of his own even before John Kramer’s death. In a flashback Amanda is shown to have been the one who convinced Cecil to perform his act that led to the death of John Kramer’s unborn child and that this knowledge was presented to her in the envelope in “Saw III” that sent her over the edge to kill Dr. Denlon. Hoffman had blackmailed her that he would tell Jigsaw the truth if she refused to kill the doctor, thus forcing her to fail her test. We also learn John’s wife Jill is in on the games but that Hoffman has forcefully taken over Jigsaw’s legacy from her. As investigators learn that Hoffman is the true Jigsaw successor the detective kills those he believes knowledgeable of the investigation and returns to Easton’s trap only to be ambushed by Jill who reveals she was charged by John to perform a test on Hoffman, as promised in the tape in “Saw IV”. Jill places Hoffman in the Reverse Bear Trap and leaves only for Hoffman to escape, albeit with a torn open cheek, setting the stage for the conclusion to the original series.

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“Saw 3D”, initially co-titled “The Final Chapter”, brings the initial story of Jigsaw and his followers to a close as Bobby Dagen, a man posing as a Jigsaw survivor, is put to the test with a game themed after the three monkeys, “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”. Before Dagen’s test we get cameos by many previous survivors of Jigsaw’s games, including Dr. Gordon whose fate had been left in question to this point in the series, as a nice homage to the legacy of the series. Dagen fails to save any of the four other victims in his own personal game and becomes the first person to fail every aspect of his test in a Jigsaw game.

The main story of the series is also brought to a close as Hoffman hunts down Jill as revenge for the trap at the end of the previous entry. Hoffman, aware that his secret as a Jigsaw apprentice is compromised, even offers an internal affair officer to end the games if Jill is turned over to him. Hoffman goes all out, killing anyone in his way, to get to Jill and eventually apprehends her, strapping her into her own Reverse Bear Trap which she does not survive as Hoffman leaves her no means of escape. It’s the first and to date only time the most recognizable trap in the series actually kills someone and it’s brutal. Seemingly free to continue his work as the new Jigsaw, Hoffman burns his workshop but is subdued by three individuals wearing Jigsaw’s iconic pig mask. One is revealed to be Dr. Gordon and flashbacks reveal he not only survived after cutting off his own foot in the first movie, but was cared for by John Kramer in the aftermath. Gordon became a secret partner of Jigsaw, taking part in many trap setups in the background, and was instructed to protect Jill upon Jigsaw’s death. Gordon brings Hoffman to the bathroom where it all began and chains him to the pipes as Gordon was in the beginning. However, this time Gordon refuses to give Hoffman a fighting chance, throwing away the same saw Gordon himself used in the first movie and leaving Hoffman to die in the locked room, concluding the movies with a similar shot to the ending of the first and seemingly implying that Dr. Gordon and others will keep Jigsaw’s legacy alive for years to come.

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So there you have it. That’s a (somewhat) brief summary of the “Saw” franchise to this point. It’s long, convoluted, and gory, but it’s a lot of fun to watch if you’re into that kind of stuff. But how will “Jigsaw” play into the continuity? We don’t know yet. There are still many unanswered questions from the series to be addressed, partially because the original series was meant to be eight films instead of seven, but fans like myself are hoping this new film will answer those questions. It will be fun to see who is continuing Jigsaw’s legacy, especially seeing as we know Dr. Gordon was in on it and that there are at least two more unnamed disciples whose identities were not revealed in the end of “Saw 3D”. If you’d like to see the full story then watch the series. It’s an interesting one with a complex and intriguing underlying narrative with pretty decent attention to detail considering each film was written independent of the others. There’s a reason the “Saw” films make up the highest grossing horror franchise ever and why fans to this day enjoy making the series a Halloween tradition. We’ll see if that success continues with “Jigsaw” this weekend.

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