Ranking the “Saw” Movies (Pre-“Spiral”)

The “Saw” franchise has long been one of my personal favorite horror series, but I’ll admit my interest in its continuation has weaned greatly over the years. Now eight films deep and a ninth installment to release this weekend, the “Saw” series has grossed over $976 million worldwide making it one of the highest grossing horror franchises in history and the third-highest grossing modern horror series behind only the “Resident Evil” series and “The Conjuring” Universe. Over the course of its history the “Saw” movies have proven to be highly influential even sparking the modern popularity of “torture porn”, a controversial term used to describe horror with a deliberate focus on graphic violence and gore, and popularizing the trend of Halloween season releases other franchises would imitate. Focusing on the Jigsaw Killer John Kramer and his apprentices who put victims through elaborate tests and traps to test their will to live or punish them for their misdeeds, the concept of the series has always intrigued me, and it is common to find me revisiting the franchise as a whole, especially around Halloween.

This weekend the “Saw” legacy will continue with “Spiral: From the Book of Saw” which compelled me to reexamine all eight current films once more and what I found is that some films have aged much better than others while several remain entertaining and engaging experiences both as standalone movies and as part of the larger “Saw” lore. Today in preparation for “Spiral’s” release I’ll be taking a closer look at all eight films in the franchise and ranking them from worst to best in my eyes in terms of how entertaining and rewatchable I think they are rather than simply examining them through a critical lens. This list is solely focused on the “Saw” franchise specifically with all movies prior to “Spiral” represented starting with the least watchable in my opinion and ending with my favorite movie in the series to return to time and time again. Let’s get to it and rank all eight “Saw” movies as of 2021. Also I will be discussing major plot points so there a HUGE SPOILERS ahead. You’ve been warned.

8. “Jigsaw”

My least favorite film in the series is the most recent one prior to “Spiral” and that’s very likely due to the 2017 continuation feeling like a forced rebirth of the franchise. Much tamer than its predecessors, “Jigsaw” contains plenty of the twists and surprise reveals that the franchise is known for as we get a glimpse at one of John Kramer’s earliest games cleverly disguised for the audience as a potential new challenge with a new Jigsaw in play. It’s easy for me to forget this movie even exists as the deaths, effects and story are subpar compared to the previous movies which always seemed to up the ante and gore with every new entry. This film feels like a huge step back and has always been the black sheep of the series for me trying to bring fresh relevance to a series that used to pride itself in showing us realistic deaths and traps with context rather than the random mess we get here. Still it’s worth mentioning it has the highest audience score on Rotten Tomatoes of any “Saw” film so that’s something and clearly I appear to be in a minority.

7. “Saw 3D” aka “Saw: The Final Chapter”

One of the first movies I saw in a theater by myself, “Saw 3D” is a fun but underwhelming finale to the original “Saw” storyline. It feels confused as to exactly which story it wants to follow, the challenges presented to a new victim in self-help guru Bobby Dagen who is posing as a Jigsaw survivor or the cat-and-mouse game between Jigsaw’s wife Jill and Jigsaw apostle Detective Hoffman. The result is a relative mess of a film that, like many 3D movies, focuses too much on literal in-your-face moments and fails to capitalize on both its new elements and the series staples it embraces. While it should be noted that the “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” format of the traps is neat and whole idea seems to be a movie about Jigsaw’s legacy being done right, it just lacks the shock value I appreciate from the rest of the series and that brazen bull trap at the end of the film took me right out of it as it felt like too complex a mechanism for even Jigsaw to hook up properly.

6. “Saw IV”

This movie always struck me as a bridge movie, one of those entries made because they knew they had to put something out on a yearly basis in time for Halloween. This was also the first movie not to feature Leigh Whannell in the writer’s chair and it shows with new series writers Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan taking over from here until the end of the franchise’s initial run. Occurring concurrently with the events of “Saw III”, “Saw IV” follows one of several police officers targeted by Jigsaw during the series, Officer Daniel Rigg, who is basically forced to set up traps for Jigsaw as Kramer attempts to justify his methods to Rigg via video cassettes. While it does serve as an intriguing examination of the man behind the madness and sets the baseline for the rest of the initial series, including introducing Detective Hoffman as a Jigsaw apprentice, “Saw IV” just lacks to memorability to go along with its brutality and served as the start to the relatively underwhelming post-Whannell continuation of the franchise.

5. “Saw V”

Considered to be the worst film in the series based on critical scores on Rotten Tomatoes, I actually somewhat enjoy “Saw V” more than most. In addition to containing one of the most infamous traps conceived for the films, the glass box trap that Agent Peter Strahm escapes that was actually considered highly dangerous in real life, I enjoyed “Saw V’s” B-story where five victims who are all connected to each other in an unknown way have to work together to escape traps one at a time where it seems like at least one of them has to die in each room only for the final survivors to realize they could have all survived if they truly worked together. This story alone and its fun mix of both basic and complex traps make this movie a preferred entry. It also sets up Detective Hoffman as the new primary Jigsaw setting the stage for what was to come in the series’ final hurrah of its initial run.

4. “Saw VI”

Some called “Saw VI” as a return to form after the fourth and fifth entries, myself included. It’s one of the rare movies in the franchise that has a genuine theme behind it that feels relevant to the world at large putting the focus on insurance executive William Easton and his employees who are complacent in his company’s dubious business practices screwing over clients who are considered high risk. Healthcare was a hot topic back in 2009 and is still among the top political issues today. The film brings John Kramer’s wife Jill Tuck into the mix as a new potential Jigsaw apostle and features some of my favorite traps including the carousel and boiler room race, although this was also when the traps started to shift from John Kramer’s more fair experiments in survivalism to Hoffman’s less forgiving trap formats where at least someone has to die which takes a bit of the fun out of seeing how people creatively escape their fates. Regardless this is one of the few movies in this franchise I can personally watch on its own any time and still enjoy it.

3. “Saw III”

While I enjoyed the first two movies (evident by the fact that they are still to be represented on this list) “Saw III” was where I definitively fell in love with the franchise. Serving as the final film for Leigh Whannell and the final feature to have John Kramer as the primary Jigsaw, “Saw III” upped the blood, creativity and brutality in ways that no other movie in the franchise has done so effectively to date. Several iconic traps are presented in this movie as we see John Kramer and apprentice Amanda Young work with Dr. Lynn Denlon to save Kramer’s life while the newest Jigsaw victim Jeff faces several people connected to his son’s death all in their own traps. These include the freezer room (one of my personal favorites) and the Rack, one of the most famous traps in the entire franchise. The spectacular package of twists at the end leaves the audience guessing at what comes next and capped off a solid initial trilogy that sadly the rest of the franchise would never live up to.

2. “Saw”

And the most controversial placement of the day is the original “Saw” movie as the second-best film in my opinion, well at least in terms of rewatchability and entertainment value. On any other list “Saw” would have been number one based on its legacy and ending twist alone. However when considering which one I’d want to watch again on a whim the original had the disadvantage of being the very first setting the stage and standard for a franchise that could only go bigger and bloodier from there. This tiny little film became one of the most iconic modern horror movies nearly overnight introducing us to Jigsaw, who is revealed through one of the most epic twist endings in all of horror, as well as numerous franchise regulars. Seeing the body stand up in those final moment before yelling “Game Over” will never get old. What keeps this movie from being my favorite in the franchise is how tame and slow paced it feels compared to the rest of the films, but even when compared to most of the series the original still holds strong as a deserving piece of horror cinema history.

1. “Saw II”

My favorite “Saw” movie is actually the one that introduced me to the franchise. “Saw II” takes all the things the first film establishes and doubles down introducing us to a larger group of potential victims with more creative and memorable traps and set the standard for how the rest of the series would play out evolving from a small-scale, single-room experience to large set pieces and more creative and personalized tests and traps that feel more fitting of their respective victims. Traps like the fly trap, needle pit, blade box, the oven, and the door gun were all introduced in this movie and remain among the most memorable traps in the “Saw” lore. If I had to choose one movie in the franchise to return to and recommend this would be the one I’d pick as for me it’s the most memorable and fun overall experience of them all. While it’s hard to deny the original movie’s legacy and the beauty of its simplicity, it’s even harder to ignore the shameless, blood-soaked entertainment I still get watching the initial sequel.

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