4. Saw IV (2007, Darren Lynn Bousman)
Saw IV marked the franchises steady decline in popularity, as box office totals began showing that perhaps audiences weren’t all that inclined to live out Jigsaw’s legacy, and torment. This time around, Lieutenant Riggs (Lyriq Bent, really giving it his all) is taken off-duty and placed in the meat grinder; made to unite him with Saw II’s missing Detective Matthews (Donnie Whalberg, looking very Cast Away). Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan, working on both the story and script, inject Saw IV with enough anaesthetic exposition that by the time our Lieutenant enters the game, we’re just about numb to what it all really means. This is where we meet Jigsaw’s ex-girlfriend Jill (Cheerleader Camp’s Betsy Russell), a clinical doctor who might feel more comfortable doing rotations at a general hospital in another world. She works to flesh John out, giving rhyme and reason for his madness, though she seems as lost as we are to the who and what’s, that we can’t help but feel exhausted in compartmentalising. What manages to keep Saw IV spinning is the presence of Riggs, newcomer Agent Strahm (Gilmore Girl’s own Scott Patterson) and his partner Agent Perez (Athena Karkanis), all who wind up grabbing control of a film that feels the need to excessively rely on expository flashbacks, a dependency that rusts any angle it might attempt.
3. Saw V (2008, David Hackl)
The third director in the franchise to come aboard must have had a do-or-die note left pinned to his director’s chair that instructed he leave the hyper-kinetic MTV-style editing that’s prominent in each film, because it’s as copious as the blood. Every victim is treated with the same visual flair, as chaos and confusion surround not only them, but our senses. However, by the fifth entry, the franchise begins to understand that the films work best when presenting a desperate group making desperate decisions in a tension timed box of mechanised terrors. They might not all be moralistically inclined players, but when tossed in with others, there will always be someone who outshines the others staggeringly indecent life. Meanwhile, Jigsaw continues his reign of terror despite never making it off the hospital gurney from the third entry, offering up more insight and flashbacks into his pre-gaming. In between unnecessary trips down exposition lane, we’re tagged along with Agent Strahm, who continues to bring a certain level of brute charm to an otherwise garish scene of characters, most notably Detective Hoffman, who continues to litter crime scenes with pursed lips and a stiff demeanour. Still, the level of cat and mouse that is ratcheted up and played to exhaustion is at times gripping, effectively utilising the overly linear police procedural established in the first Saw. We root for Strahm to uncover the true identity of Jigsaw, and in a series that rarely gives us anything to root for outside of carnage, it’s a welcoming breath of fresh air.
2. Saw (2004, James Wan)
Introducing us to the dilapidated, rusted bathroom that exudes the disgust, grime and filth perpetrated by our now iconic horror figure Jigsaw, is the entry that started the game. Our key players, Doctor Gordon (Cary Elwes) and Adam (Leigh Whannell), are characters that intersect outside the confines of their tiled prison as two moralistically imbalanced pawns in Jigsaw’s game of chess. Operating in the same vein as Hitchcock’s Rope, or Schumacher’s Phone Booth, Saw centres around a very specific location using limited key characters, though don’t let it fool you into thinking it can hold a conversation nearly as well; Saw dabbles in gore-play over word-play, which is precisely why it finds itself grappling for our attention in between moments of genuine fear. Layers of the story are peeled back in idiosyncratic ways, relying heavily on flashbacks that feel as forced as the acting. Both Elwes and Whannell deliver lines in an oddly captivating albeit rusty manner, and unfortunately for us, we spend a large chunk of time with these two, getting to know the ins and outs of how they got there. Even Danny Glover’s ex-detective archetype comes off as a mumbling shell of the policeman we once knew in Lethal Weapon, staggering through darkened set pieces like a junkie actor looking for another hit. Though it isn’t quite the sharpest Saw in the series, it maintains an effective use of practical effects, and still packs a wallop with its climatic reveal, wrapping itself in a story it gloriously commits to.
1. Saw II (2005, Darren Lynn Bousman)
Stepping out of the first films claustrophobic bathroom – Saw II opens the door into a larger, messier labyrinthine home of horrors, offering up rooms of technical wizardry. Instead of 2 players in Jigsaw’s seemingly never-ending game, we are offered up 7, each one reeling from a shady past and only a few cutthroat enough to survive. There’s a police procedural on the outside of this, though I’d be lying if I told you any of that actually mattered. Sure, Detective Matthews (Donnie Whalberg) offers up some tepidly heartfelt scenes, and doesn’t completely leave the game even after we think he’s hung his badge, but the real film lies in the Cube inspired maze. While the dialogue is the bottom of the barrel primetime television fodder, there’s tension to be had around every corner. A mechanised gun, a Suspiria inspired pit of dirty syringes and a coffin-esque boiler are just a few of the pieces to the puzzle, and though brutal to the point of masochism, they are welcoming additions to what began as a one-dimensional crackerjack scenario. Each player isn’t worthy of Jigsaw’s game, and Saw II knows that, offering up key character’s that have some of the more redeemable qualities in the franchise, specifically Amanda Young, the lone survivor from the first film. There’s a desperation and certainty to her; low-key qualities that represent a final girl in the making. We want her to succeed, to come out scathed, screaming and stronger, and for the most part she does. That is, right up until the climax that ruins everything by creating an accomplice to Jigsaw’s macabre. Still, Saw II manages to create a toy box of surprises – and despite its hollow characters – offer enough depth to satiate just about any horror fan.