“Live or die. Make your choice.”
Breaking into Hollywood is hard. For a pair of young Aussie filmmakers fresh out of film school, this was the exact predicament that James Wan and Leigh Whannel found themselves in. So, what were the boys, as a fresh-faced dynamic duo, to do? As both staunch lovers and utterly die hard supporters of the horror genre writ large, the eager-to-prove-themselves-wet-behind-the-ears pair of besties aimed to take a shot across the Tinseltown bow, in the only way they knew how.
Make a short film all their own, and hope it catches the proverbial fire. The short in question, simply called Saw (2003), showcased Whannel in the infamous Reverse Bear Trap recounting the traumatic event over a well-earned cigarette, and an attentive cop trying to gain more insight into what just transpired. Other than assuredly guaranteed PTSD. There’s that too.
The short blew up, and the feature film was born. In retrospective hindsight, the first Saw (2004) is remarkably tame in regard to its levels of gore. It’s a down and dirty, mostly two-person chamber piece, stripped bare of any genre gristle or overly elaborate excess. It’s cinematic shorthand for “that horror movie with the two guys stuck in a disgusting bathroom”. The aforementioned Reverse Bear Trap is the clear standout of the picture. A deliciously evil contraption devised and assembled by Wan himself. The best line in the film written by Whannel and perfectly delivered by Cary Elwes’ Doctor Gordon: “He doesn’t want us to cut through our chains. He wants us to cut through our feet.” Chef’s kiss.
Cool fun factoid for you, Tobin Bell did in fact lie there on the floor playing a dead body for the entirety of the shoot. They told him they could easily just use a dummy instead, but Bell adamantly refused. He got lathered up and literally laid there for an entire week. Now that’s dedication. Or... dead-ication, if you will. The big twist at the end of the film still hits, and hits hard nearly two decades later. Only emboldened by the utterly iconic theme “Hello Zepp”, which yes, still totally slaps.
The film became an instant mega-smash at the box office, on a relatively paltry production budget of 1.4 million. Low risk, high reward. A sequel was immediately greenlit for the following year. Saw II (2005) expands the world, characters, and overall mythos of John “Jigsaw” Kramer. Donnie Wahlberg takes point as the lead detective Eric Matthews. Whether it’s Saw, Dead Silence (another Wan film with a creepy puppet), or Blue Bloods, Wahlberg will always be there as a bitter and world-weary detective.
The twist ending in II is honestly just as brilliant as the first, but one that doesn’t get nearly as much credit due to understandably being utterly eclipsed and ultimately overshadowed by its immediate predecessor. Jigsaw truly is the ultimate troll. This time around, there’s far bigger and more elaborate traps. Shout-out to Shawnee Smith’s fully committed go-for-broke performance of franchise stalwart mainstay, Amanda Young. Just ignore the atrociously bad wig she’s forced to sport. While I do have a particular soft spot for The Razor Box Trap, I have to give the king of the moment, to The Needle Pit Trap, here.
Within the quick span of only two years, we were given a trilogy, as the third film was promptly released another full revolution ‘round the sun later. Saw III (2006) really starts doubling down on things. It’s at this pivotal point where you’re either off the ride for good, or in it until the very bitter, evil end. Storylines and character motivations become very muddled, and plots are less and less clearly defined. People who are considered “bad” and deserve to be punished by Jigsaw, are put in traps, and need to survive by any means necessary. Jigsaw wants you to cherish your life. While I do enjoy the brutal efficiency of the Shotgun Collar trap, I gotta go with my gut here and say the best trap in the third instalment is hands down, or up, depending on how you look at it, The Angel/Butterfly Ribcage. Absolutely iconic. Although John Kramer
himself would disagree as by his own admission, The Rack is his own personal favourite trap.
By the time Saw IV (2007) rolled around, it was pretty safe to assume that this was officially now its own franchise. “If it’s Halloween, then it must be Saw.” was a common tagline bandied about in horror circles and film enthusiasts alike. If you’re not pot-committed at this point, then I don’t know what to tell you.
IV is gleefully deranged and utterly unrepentant in its nastiness. It makes no bones about what it is, and I respect it all the more for it. The Knife Chair is so simple that you yourself could make one at home.
Power shifts and tides turn between cops, killers, civvies, and killer-cops. I absolutely believe in Hoffman Supremacy. Saw V (2008) really gives a showcase for Costas Mandylor to portray twisted and grizzled detective Mark Hoffman, with both equal parts brutal efficiency and brilliant Machiavellian deviousness. He absolutely owns every single scene he’s in. The best trap here has got to be The Water Cube. This scene also taught me how to perform an emergency tracheotomy with a pen. Never leave home without one, kids! But the runner up has to be The Pendulum, as I’m an avid lover of all things Edgar Allen Poe.
Saw VI (2009) has a Shotgun Carousel. That’s it. That’s the review. Need I say more?
In order to capitalize on the rebirth of the 3D craze, Saw: The Final Chapter (2010) was released. The Saw film to end all Saw films? Not really, no. Turns out that was a lie. It does have a great idea at its core, about a liar pretending to have survived a Jigsaw Trap. Bobby Dagen (Sean Patrick Flannery) wrote a book about how he supposedly survived his own test, by hoisting himself up two heavy chains. The heavy hooks themselves being punctured through his pectoral muscles. He’s the original clout chaser before it was cool. Bobby finds himself in the actual trap, hoisted by his own petard. Now he must hoist himself up and actually puncture his pecks. They really should have just called this Saw VII.
Speaking of VII, seven years passed as the filmmakers realized they needed to take a long breather before coming back to the trap-table drawing board. Jigsaw (2017) reboots the franchise in all the right ways. All of the traps are great, but I have a real soft spot for the simplicity of two people chained up and fighting over a sawn-off double barrel shotgun.
The less said about Spiral: From The Book of Saw (2021), the better. I give it props for The Finger Trap and a great performance from Max Minghella though. Credit where it’s always due. The alternate voice used here, instead of the gravelly menace of Tobin Bell, like in all the other films before it is nothing short of laughably cringe. And yes, they should have just called it Saw IX.
Two full decades since the original short, Saw X (2023) is now released in theatres. And what’s the verdict? Well, without giving too much away, it’s good. Like, really good. There’s actually a plot. Crazy, right? Less a horror film with all style and no substance, and more a revenge thriller with both style and substance out the orifices. Spiritually akin to the first film.
Don’t worry, there’s still more than enough traps, blood screaming, dying, and gore to go around. Four words. Bone marrow. Piano wire. Tobin Bell, the mastermind behind it all, gives undoubtably a franchise best performance here. It’s a Saw film with a ton of heart. Go see Saw X now in theatres, you’ll be glad you did.
“Live or die. Make your choice.”