2004's Saw introduced audiences to the torturous traps of John Kramer, known as the Jigsaw killer, an individual with a penchant for judging the actions of others and bringing them to justice via his brand of punishment. The brainchild of then-recent film school graduates (now major film-making moguls) James Wan and Leigh Whannell, the low-budget original flick became a financial and critical hit, ushering in a new era for the horror genre. For the next six years, each October would see the release of another chapter in Kramer's soap opera.
With every successive instalment further building up the mystery and mythology of Jigsaw, the franchise is now one of the most successful horror series of all-time, raking in over $1 billion at the box office.
Clocking it at nine movies in the franchise – and a tenth on the way in the shape of Saw X – there's bound to be variation in quality, especially considering the fast production turnaround on most of the sequels. Bearing that in mind, we've revisited the entire series and present to you our ranking of every Saw movie.
9. Saw VII: The Final Chapter / Saw 3D (2010)
The best thing this sequel has going for it is the fact that its subtitle was somewhat accurate. While Friday the 13th's fourth instalment brandished the same and was anything but, Saw VII concludes the main storyline and no movie since has picked up its one dangling thread. Perhaps because it's impossible to care anymore about Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor)'s fate? At this point, the franchise villain could be catapulted into space, and no-one would be surprised or bothered. He plays chase with Jigsaw's ex-wife Jill (Betsy Russell) while a fame-hungry buffoon Bobby (Sean Patrick Flanery) who claims he was once in a Jigsaw trap is tossed into a game for real.
This slipshod sequel is a perplexing late entry. Despite enjoying a $17 million budget, none of that cash appears onscreen in any meaningful way, instead funding the 3D visuals. It carries very little of what made the earlier entries enjoyable and instead beelines for extravagant trap gore at the expense of everything else, including a script.
Due to contractual obligations, Saw VI's Kevin Greutert was forced into the director's chair, ceasing work on Paranormal Activity 2, two weeks ahead of filming. While he intended to rewrite the script, according to the screenwriter Patrick Melton there was only so much he could do, leading to this chaotic, nonsensical bumble. It's hardly his fault, and frustrating, since his previous Saw outing is a fine entry, but throwing in Dr Gordon as a survivor-turned-sympathizer is a step too far.
8. Spiral: From the Book of Saw (2021)
Anticipation for this new chapter in the series was mixed due to its somewhat odd casting. Chris Rock, whose performance oscillates between shouting at full volume to shouting a little less loudly, tackles the part of a detective whose entire department loathes him. While his past actions – he fingered a bunch of crooked cops – are meant to generate sympathy, he’s so unlikeable it’s impossible.
The story goes that Rock approached Lionsgate with ideas for a Saw spin-off, which Jigsaw writers Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger morphed into a successful pitch. Part of Rock's initial plans were to infuse comedic elements with the franchise, and while that notion whiffs of jumping the shark, he did rework the script to suit him. Is it this tinkering that ruined any good components? It doesn't matter, either way the end result is weak.
Here's the kicker: Spiral's concept is a good one. An ostracized officer (Rock) is forced to work with a rookie (Max Minghella) to crack a new string of Jigsaw-inspired murders. Where most of the previous entries are hardly pro-police, this new killer only targets cops, a pointed way to tackle systemic issues within law enforcement which feels like it's a long time coming for the franchise. But, like Rock's character, you won't care for any of the characters, cheering on the final crunch of their traps. The absence of Tobin Bell's iconic villain is sorely felt.
7. Saw V (2008)
One of Saw V's major hurdles is that its narrative bounces between the present day investigation of Special Agent Strahm (Scott Patterson), whose floppy hair is always in his eyes, and the past, unhinged actions of Detective Hoffman, whose floppy hair behaves similarly. Take your eyes from the screen for a moment and you might be baffled as to who's doing what.
With the latter revealed as a Jigsaw acolyte, the movie flashes back to his involvement in every earlier Saw movie beginning with the opening trap where a convict's stomach is sliced open by a razor pendulum. His innards bubble forth and spill onto the floor, nudging the series further into the realm of gratuitous. Gone is any hint of subtlety, any nuance of Kramer’s intention to force his victims into redemption, replaced here by Hoffman’s unrelenting form of punishment.
His brand of trap pushes the franchise into a nastier era, signaled by new talent behind the screen. Long-time Saw production designer and second unit director Kevin Hackl steps into the director's chair, and his strongest part is the film's main game. This trap gauntlet involves a group of participants including Julie Benz and Meaghan Good who discover their inaction caused a fatal fire. Their trial is the film's highlight, directed by wicked traps pushing them to act in ways that indicate their true, selfish selves.
6. Jigsaw (2017)
It took seven years for a new sequel in the wake of Saw VII, with Jigsaw slated as a soft reboot. Aside from Kramer himself, the most recognizable Saw component is the twisted timeline which permits him to, once again, be both alive and dead. Luckily, this fractured continuity grants us multiple mercies – meaning Hoffman is out. Instead we're introduced to another shifty cop, Detective Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie), who along with his partner Detective Hunt (Cle Bennett) is tasked with investigating a string of murders modeled after Jigsaw which take place at an abandoned pig farm.
Franchise newcomers the Spierig Brothers bring a bit of visual verve that's a welcome departure from the lifeless grime of other installments. The central game is one of the movie's strongest changes, a trial by trap with a hint of substance. The reason this chosen group is selected harks back to the early years of the franchise, when selfish, inhumane actions are singled out.
Some of the staging for the victims is placed within terrific set pieces – a jogger discovering a strung-up body, for example. But ultimately its insistence on hooking back into the earlier stages of the franchise prevent it from breaking free and crafting a fresher chapter in the saga.
5. Saw IV (2007)
The first sequel without Whannell on scripting duties marks a clear move into the franchise's soap opera era. Saw IV dives into Kramer's storied past, spending a considerable chunk of runtime revealing the circumstances which led him to torture people.
Speaking of torture, the movie reintroduces Donnie Wahlberg's cop – Detective Matthews – who spends the entire film strung up in a trap with Detective Hoffman, while Officer Rigg is made to confront a slew of people Jigsaw deems unworthy. This marks the tipping point of the series that feels like it's beginning to run out of steam. Rigg's "problem" that Jigsaw wishes to correct? He's too eager to help people.
Saw IV pushes hard into violence and brutality. And while that might sound like an odd criticism to level at a torture horror franchise, its mixed messages fail to add meaning to Jigsaw’s justice. One minute we're forced to watch a woman's scalp slowly removed, the next, we watch a rapist torn apart. Conflating the two feels like a tip into flat-out misogyny, which is perhaps the point of a sequel intent on becoming a vulgar tableau of society's downtrodden, exploited into bloody, squelchy splats.
4. Saw VI (2009)
At long last, the heartless, capitalist agenda is on the receiving end of Saw's torturous dealings in the form of an insurance company executive. Saw VI is that rare late-franchise sequel which gets everything right and doesn't scrimp on delivering what Saw fans love. Gross traps? Check. Soap opera drama between Hoffman and Jigsaw's ex-wife? Check.
It cuts its time between these two plot strands, intertwining to craft a highly entertaining splatterfest with some of the series' most inventive torture sequences to date. While the FBI eventually begins to close in on Detective Hoffman, elsewhere William Easton (Peter Outerbridge) is captured and tossed into a game wherein he must sacrifice himself to save the lives of his colleagues.
This features truly Freddy Krueger-inspired boiler room visuals, cloaked in smoke and grime, that adds to how repulsive the brutality is. The movie opens on two mortgage lenders (take that, 2008!) forced to remove pounds from their own bodies in order to survive.
As vile as that is, that's nothing compared to the shotgun carousel, as Easton's lackeys plead and beg for him to take punishment instead of them. The final twists are cleverer than you'd expect, closing out with Easton pumped full of acid. This entry knows precisely what it's aiming to accomplish, and achieves a nice pulpy mash of Saw drama and Saw gore.
3. Saw II (2005)
A worthy successor that’s seldom given the credit it deserves for introducing most of the franchise’s signature components. With Wan focusing on Dead Silence, newcomer Darren Lynn Bousman came on board as director, landing the gig after impressing producers with a spec script he'd been trying to get off the ground. It's that original screenplay, The Desperate, which Bousman reworked along with final polishes from Whannell and Wan to properly integrate it into the Saw universe.
Picking up immediately where Saw leaves off, the sequel brings in Donnie Wahlberg as a crooked cop made to play nice with John Kramer while his son (Erik Knudsen) is imprisoned in a booby-trapped house with a group of strangers.
That batch of Jigsaw victims includes returning survivor Amanda Young whose appearance signals her switch to apprentice late on in the movie. That doesn't exclude her from the unpleasantness of the traps; she's subject to one of the most memorable, the needle pit. It's easy to forget with the torrent of flashbacks in later sequels that a Saw film exists where John Kramer is alive in the current timeline – but we get it here.
Kramer is 'captured' by police but has the upper hand at all times, bantering away with Detective Matthews. Tobin Bell is having the best time here as the cloaked, mysterious figure, running circles around the police.
2. Saw III (2006)
Retconning, brutal gore, flashbacks, and a dedication to making every shot as desaturated as possible, Saw III is the epitome of what the franchise does best. With a story and script by original screenwriter Leigh Whannell, this second sequel was intended to be the final nail in the coffin and wrap up Kramer’s story for good.
It’s a blisteringly clever sequel, tying in threads from the earlier films to capture the ethos of Jigsaw without relying solely on exposition. The meat of the story revolves around the capture of Dr. Lynn Denlon (Bahar Soomekh) who is placed in a torture device rimmed with shotguns rigged to fire if Kramer dies before another victim finishes a game. Amanda is on deck as Kramer's apprentice, carrying out his deathbed wishes, their toxic father-daughter relationship forming the twisted foundation for this sequel's ticking clock.
Meanwhile, Jeff (Angus Mcfadyen) is forced into a game of dishing out punishment to those responsible for his child’s death. These traps vary between cruel and disgusting; an all-timer features a judge imprisoned inside a slop of rotten pig corpses. Once the refrain of Hello Zepp, the classic Saw reveal music, kicks in and delivers a roundhouse of revelations, the plot threads unravel in a manic masterclass. The only downside of Saw III is the loss of Dina Meyer's Detective Kerry, who falls victim to an unwinnable angel device.
1. Saw (2004)
Looking back at the 2004 original, it's surprising to note that it carries little of what made the Saw franchise so infamous: gore. James Wan and Leigh Whannell's script is less concerned with making audiences wince, instead focusing on psychological torment.
It was a scant budget that forced them to anchor the action mostly in a single location– a warehouse bathroom. It's here that two seemingly disconnected strangers, Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) and Adam Stanheight (Whannell), wake chained in a dingy, dirty room with a dead body between them in a pool of blood. Simple components such as the cassette message, Billy the puppet, and the pig mask, are introduced as totems of terror, sinister props to send chills down the spine. And, while future installments rely on them, they're seldom used to such frightening effect.
What Wan and Whannell achieve with the plotting, feels almost simplistic, the cutaways from Gordon and Stanheight to past actions, to Kramer's history, to Gordon's family. These narrative choices serve the story, creating a carefully-curated tale that comes together in the final moments. Where later films feel beholden to this concept out of loyalty to the franchise formula, Saw uses the twist in the tail better than any other. A masterclass that'll make you want to rewatch it again as soon as the credits roll.