Traps! Torture! Twists! It’s fair to say that when the original Saw sliced onto screens in 2004 it helped usher in a new era of horror cinema: gone were the polished 90s slashers with smart meta-scripts and glossy teen leads; this was post-millennial terror, a reaction to the 9/11 attacks, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and public debates about the morality / efficacy of the “enhanced interrogation” being perpetrated by the USA and her allies. The world felt altogether a darker, more dangerous place, where the rules were being irrevocably rewritten before our eyes.
In this, the game-playing machinations of John Kramer a.k.a. The Jigsaw Killer were the perfect projection for such global anxieties. And though the original – a grimy, hungry little picture made by the-then-unknown James Wan and Leigh Whannell – the series soon spiralled into a massive machine, churning out new instalments every October to the baying masses. As the marketing at the time intoned: Halloween belongs to Saw.
However things gradually grew quiet in Jigsaw’s torture chamber; with a seven year break between the erroneously titled Saw: The Final Chapter and 2017’s Jigsaw, along with waning box office receipts, it seemed like audience blood-thirst was finally sated. But this year sees franchise reboot Spiral: From The Book of Saw, and the games are about to begin again.
So listen carefully, as we run through our Top 10 Moments from the Saw-Verse so far…
10. “He helped me”: Amanda’s reverse-bear trap in SAW
One of the original (and best) traps was the reverse-bear, first seen via flashbacks in Part I when Amanda is brought in by police after surviving her game. A concept taken from Wan and Whannell’s original proof-of-concept short, the premise of the metal headpiece is simple: when the clock runs out, plates inside your jaw snap open to tear your skull apart. Although Amanda makes it through her test – by gutting a fellow captive no less – the trap was so popular it came back in the final moments of both Saw VI and VII, where one person survived (Hoffman) and another (Jill)… not so much. All the scenes are effective, but arguably the first time we saw the reverse-bear was the best.
9. “This room will forever be your tomb”: the ending of SAW V
Special Agent Strahm has been having a hell of a time, undertaking a DIY tracheostomy and hunting down Detective Hoffman as the new heir to Jigsaw’s blood-soaked throne. But just when he thinks he has the corrupt cop cornered – tossing him into a glass coffin – the walls start to close in and Strahm realises too late that the box was the only safe place in the room. All he can do is scrabble fruitlessly as Hoffman watches his nemesis get flattened like a pancake, leaving an open road to continue John’s legacy.
8. “Six ride the carousel”: SAW VI
The Saw-verse is replete with social commentary, but perhaps none-more-so than in the satirical sixth instalment. Raging against the health insurance system which let him die John posthumously orchestrates an education in ethics for those who denied him vital cancer care, most notably the carousel of death. As the funhouse wheel starts to spin office boss William must decide which of his employees to save as they beg for their lives and try to win his favour. With the automated shotgun blowing them away one by one the metaphor’s clear: America’s healthcare system is broken and ordinary people are paying the price.
7. “He wants us to cut through out feet”: SAW’s original dilemma
Though nowhere near as gory as later instalments the central conceit of the original film remains powerful: would you saw your own leg off to save yourself? Spurred on by hearing the screams of his wife and child Dr Lawrence Gordon decides the answer’s “yes”, forming a makeshift tourniquet and putting that medical training to good use. Whilst not that explicit, Adam’s screams and Gordon’s wild eyes help really sell the moment. At least he’s a doctor.
6. “Your rage and your vengeance will only hurt the ones you love”: the ending of SAW III
What makes John Kramer different from other serial killers is his (admittedly murky) moral compass, a point particularly evident in the closing moments of Part III (the last of the franchise written by original scribe Whannell). After forcing Jeff through a series of confrontations with the people he holds responsible for the death of his son, John asks for his forgiveness… and warns him of the cost of revenge. For a moment it looks like Jeff might be the bigger man, until he takes a circular saw (see-what-they-did-there?) and slices John’s throat clean open. The kicker? A heart-beat monitor that’s preventing Lynn’s trap from firing clicks, so as John dies her head goes bang. And if that’s not bad enough a recorded message reveals that John also kidnapped Jeff and Lynn’s daughter, so with him gone no one knows where she is. Yikes: but also, he did try to warn them.
5. “The games have just begun”: SAW IV’s time-bending finale
Not the best, Part IV nevertheless ends with a super-smart twist: it’s not a sequel to its predecessor but actually takes place simultaneously. Setting up Hoffman as the new Jigsaw and sealing the fate of Detective Matthews are great beats, but the real ace is when Strahm bursts into Part III’s hospital room and guns a distraught Jeff down (“Where is my daughter?!”). Though not the first instance the Saw movies played with time (see No.2 on this list) and certainly not the last (Jigsaw), making the majority of the film take place within another film was classic, and cemented the franchise wide trope of interconnected, labyrinthine plotting.
4. “It’s not my game”: Saw VI’s switcheroo
By Saw VI the formula was established: a protagonist plays a series of gruesome games to pay for sins past and learn lessons for the future. However this sixthquel ripped up the rule book with its final trap, revealing that William wasn’t the main subject at all but was slowly being manoeuvred into a position of vulnerability for someone else’s game. Responsible for denying her husband’s medical treatment, it falls to Tara to decide if William lives or dies: she chooses mercy, but her son Brent (Diary of a Wimpy Kid’s Devon Bostick) is less forgiving, pumping Will with gallons of acid that turn him into a melting man. Intercut with shots of Jill strapping Hoffman into a suped-up-reverse-bear trap that tears his jaw open and VI delivered big time in its closing moments.
3. The needle pit: SAW II
Though not as elaborate as others (we’re looking at you brazen bull) the trap which gets the most consistent audience reaction is probably Part II’s needle pit. As with most of Jigsaw’s lessons there’s an ironic twist to the torment: so when it’s drug-dealer Xavier’s turn to play he’s supposed to dive into a pit of syringes to search for a life-saving key. Problem is Xavier isn’t a nice guy, so throws recovering addict Amanda in instead. The fact Amanda is soon after revealed to be one of Kramer’s accomplices does nothing to diminish the yuck factor as she screams and rifles through hundreds of dirty sharps that pierce her skin from top to toe.
2. “It’s not live”: the ending of SAW II
When Detective Matthew’s boy Daniel is kidnapped John instructs him that “all you have to do is sit here and talk with me: do that and you will find your son in a safe and secure state”. But Matthew’s is a wildcard and goes instead for option No.2: beating John to a bloody pulp and dragging him to go and get Daniel directly. It’s a bad move, the SWAT team soon discovering that the “live feed” of the main game is actually running off remote VCRs, and when a timer pings a safe in John’s lair opens to reveal Daniel was locked nearby the whole time. It’s too late for Matthews though, his hot-headed violence landing him in the dirty bathroom of Part I, and – added to the reveal that Amanda has been aiding John all along – it’s a finale that hits with a rib-cracking gut punch you’re not likely to forget.
1. “Game over”: the ending of SAW
It had to be. Few other films have had such a seismic impact or delivered twists of such ferocity that the audience’s jaws shatter as they hit the floor. Despite being warned that Jigsaw likes to watch his games play out, Wan and Whannell play a perfect sleight of hand by getting the audience to forget about the cadaver on the bathroom floor… until he stands up.
It’s a moment made all the more effective by three tropes which would become series staples: Tobin Bell’s melliferous voice work as John; the rapid cut finale which reinterprets all we’ve seen so far; and Charlie Clouser’s now iconic “Hello Zepp” shredding the soundtrack, a horror anthem arguably now as iconic as John Carpenter’s “Halloween”.
Did Adam deserve to die there in that bathroom? Maybe not. But although most people are so ungrateful to be alive when you watch John slam that door shut, not you. Not anymore.
- Pig blender – Part III delivers a rotten pork smoothie that threatens to drown a neglectful judge.
- Twist and shout – Another trap from III answering the age old question: how bendy is the human body? Answer: not enough.
- Dr Gordon! – Long a source of fan speculation Part VII confirmed that after the original film Gordon was indeed recruited by John, helping him set up many of the traps across the franchise.
- “Right before your eyes” – Riffing on the reverse-bear, Part II opened with a death mask gag and a challenge for Michael to pluck out his own eye to escape. Spoiler: he doesn’t manage either.
- Head flower – A little more high-tech, Jigsaw acolyte (yes, another one) Logan uses surgical lasers to carve up crooked cop Halloran’s melon like a birthday cake. Talk about a splitting headache.