I’m not sure which is more difficult to watch: The extreme gore in the Saw movies (which feature people digging around in their own bloody eye sockets, two different guys getting their jaws ripped off, faces being torn open, and about a half dozen scenes of flying human entrails), or the bonkers chronology. I had heard that the chronology in this horror franchise was a little off-the-wall, but I wasn’t prepared for this. I had a notebook at the ready through all seven films, trying to keep track of the actual sequence of events, and while I do think I finally sussed out a proper history, my notebook was a mess of arrows and hastily transcribed notes trying to keep track of it all. It’s amazing how much Jigsaw, the series’ central killer, appears in these films after he had died.
Consider how I left off last week in The Series Project. Saw IV, if you’ll recall, began with Jigsaw’s autopsy. We saw his brain being removed. That means he’s dead for sure. Saw IV then proceeded to take place largely in flashback so that Tobin Bell, the actor who plays Jigsaw, had as much screentime as any other actor.
The MO of the killer(s) also seem(s) to change. Jigsaw originally, in the first few movies, put people in elaborate timed death machines, forcing them to commit some horrible act of mutilation (to themselves or to others) in order to force them out of their complacency and find a new appreciation for life. He kidnapped drug dealers or apathetic people who had committed mild acts of self-destruction, and made them focus. I argued last week that the extreme violence easily overshadowed any altruism inherent in that setup, but at least it could be said that Jigsaw had something on his mind. These last few films kind of undo all that. For one, we have a new bad guy in the series (as played by Costas Mandylor, whom I will refer to either as Hoffman or as "Jigsaw II"), and even though he is occasionally setting up deathtraps on the dead Jigsaw’s behalf, the flavor is different. Now the MO seems to be a kind of ultra-violent revenge against people who had wronged Jigsaw (which is the entire plot of Saw VI). Either that, or it’s a superhero-like punishment for criminals who have gotten off light. Like if The Punisher used mazes and spring-loaded neck-stabbers instead of guns.
Despite all my quibbles about the convoluted chronology and shifting motivations, I have to say that there’s something solid about the Saw franchise. Sure, they only exist for those five-minute intermissions where we watch a complete stranger being torn to shreds by an automated flaying device, but it was surprisingly ambitious of the filmmakers to keep the continuity so strong. Since each of these films were made only with a year gap in between them, I’m guessing the filmmakers had little other choice than to just pick up where the last film left off, and come up with some sort of new twist for the same characters. There were no attempts to take the series “in a new direction.” There were no double-backs that erased any of the previous continuity (indeed, the continuity just continued to accumulate and is still accumulating). It was just a straightforward soap opera with tons of blood. I admire the series for going there. This is the only horror franchise I can think of, actually, where there wasn’t some sort of attempt to change course during the journey. Child’s Play went comedic. Jason went to space. And don’t get me started on The Howling. Saw, by contrast, is as solid as Harry Potter.
But to the movies themselves. At the end of Saw IV, we learned that it took place over the same time frame as Saw III. Jigsaw II, a.k.a. Detective Hoffman (Mandylor), was now making death machines in place of the original Jigsaw, and a guy named Strahm (Scott Patterson) was getting close to discovering Jigsaw II’s secret…
Saw V (dir. David Hackl, 2008)
So Saw V picks up where Saw III left off, with the central cop Strahm discovering Angus MacFadyen, now dead, and continuing to snoop around in the creepy basement where Jigsaw had died. I know we already saw Jigsaw’s autopsy, which must have been, at the earliest, the following day, so we’re flashing back for a sec. It turns out Strahm was intended to snoop around that basement, and Jigsaw II/Hoffman intended to lock Strahm in a death machine and then hog all the credit for rescuing MacFadyen’s daughter, who was left to die at the end of Saw III. Strahm, however, manages to escape his trap (a box around his head was to slowly fill with water, but Strahm thinks to stab a pen into his own throat, giving him a makeshift tracheotomy. So he survives. This makes Hoffman nervous, as he has already tried to cover his crimes in the past.
The bulk of Saw V will be Hoffman’s attempts to stay ahead of the law, and continue to make his death traps. And, yes, there is a prominent plot about five people, all trapped in another death house like in Saw II, who have to work together to survive. Also like in Saw II, we find that these people are selfish bastards, and one person is killed in each “level” of the game. Unlike the other games in the series to date, though, the death games in Saw V feel escapable. This is the first time in the series when I wanted to yell advice at the victims. Yes, the room will fill with fire unless you each climb into a locked tube in the next 30 seconds, but, dang man, those tubes are huge. Three or four of you could fit in a single tube! You don’t all need to grab your own keys, right? Eventually all the people in that particular trap die. They’re only tangentially connected to the rest of the story, though, so their game, more than ever before, feels like gory padding to the rest of the movie. Especially when we see two people using rotary saws to sever their own arms… lengthwise.
Another subplot. Jill (Betsy Russell), Jigsaw’s ex-wife, is back. She has been given an elaborate box as part of her husband’s will. We see that it contains a series of envelopes that she delivers to various locations, but whose ultimate contents we won’t learn until the next film. There are other things in the box as well, but, again, not ‘til next movie.
And, since we can’t have a Saw film without Tobin Bell, there are plenty of flashbacks detailing how Hoffman came into Jigsaw’s employ. With Amanda (Shawnee Smith) in the previous films, it was explicit; she joined him because he actually helped her escape her complacency with her game. Hoffman was just a jerk who wanted to kill criminals. Once he’s given the know-how about death machines, he, just like Amanda, went rogue, and started making his own death machines that were pretty much not intended to be escaped. Jigsaw II is more of a proper serial killer, who, like in the show Dexter, just happened kill criminals.
The first machine we see in Saw V, by the way, is finally a callback to what is perhaps the primary inspiration for the Saw movies: Edgar Allen Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum. A guy is strapped down, face up, to a table. A swinging bladed pendulum then slowly descends from above, growing ever closer with every swing. And while the victim was allowed the option of mutilating his own hands to escape the device, it eventually kills him. Yes, dear reader, there are flying entrails that land on the walls with sticky wet thumps. Hoffman, we see, spies on this machine through a hole in the wall.
The possibility of escape was what made the first few Saw movies somewhat interesting. In these late sequels, where escape is not possible, not only is the tension sort of gone, but the filmmakers reveal their own insidious purposes: To do nothing more than make the audience squirm. These late Saw movies are less about fears and more about gross-outs. Why bother watching people saw lengthwise up their arms when their deaths would have no impact on the plot?
Eventually Hoffman/Jigsaw II lures the ever-approaching Strahm into a trap, and this time kills him. Hoffman also torches a police office to cover his tracks, effectively giving himself away to the surviving police force, and forcing him underground. Strahm’s death, by the way, wasn’t as gut-wrenching or as ironic as at deaths at the end of any of the previous chapters. Hoffman just manages to kill the one cop who was closest. Whatever. The only cool thing about all this is Costas Mandylor, who looks pretty badass and threatening throughout.
And then, for the first time, we’ll get a sequel that just continues where the last film left off without any twists or ret-conning.
Saw VI (dir. Kevin Greutert, 2009)
If you’re going to jump into the series at part 6, you’ll be totally lost. Indeed, these later Saw movies are only for fans who have been following closely. I was lucky I watched them all so close together. Even then, only taking notes allowed me to follow them. As I said last week: complicated myth-building trumps storytelling.
Saw VI’s plot just extends the happenings of Saw V. Jill (Betsy Russell) is still poking around inside the box that John Kramer/Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) left for her. Hoffman/Jigsaw II (Costas Mandylor) is still trying to elude police, and is trying to frame Strahm for his own Jigsaw killings. The cops now know that Jigsaw II is lurking about, and they seem to know that it’s Hoffman, even though Hoffman has been using Strahm’s severed hand to plant fingerprints in various places.
Much of Saw VI takes place in flashback, and, if you’ll recall from earlier films, John Kramer was dying of brain cancer. In Saw VI you’ll see John’s attempts to get medical insurance for a radical procedure that would likely work. The procedure, however, is not covered by his insurance plan, and there is a meaningful scene wherein John confronts his insurance agent William (Peter Outerbridge), and accuses him of a lack of empathy. You know what that means, right?
Well, yes, it means that William, now that John is dead, will have to be trapped in a death game of his own. This was one of the stipulations of John’s will. We see in flashbacks, further, that Jill knew both Hoffman and Amanda (Shawnee Smith is back), and that the three of them worked together to build William’s multi-roomed death house long before John’s death. William has to complete several games in order to rescue his family, who lie trapped at the other end. There is also a muckraking reporter (Samantha Lemole) involved in this death game. The twist will be that the “family” William was trying to rescue was actually the family of a man he killed by denying medical coverage, and the muckraking reporter is actually his sister. Not much of a twist, but a twist nonetheless.
It’s William’s machines that reveal a new weakness in the Saw altruism. Throughout the previous films, Jigsaw took great pride is never having murdered anyone. He would only ever force others to kill themselves, or occasionally others by their own hand. Jigsaw had never made plans to actually kill anyone. Saw VI undoes all that by providing machines that will kill one person in favor of another, as decided by William. One really dumb game has six people on an automated carousel, each scheduled to be blasted by a shotgun at regular intervals. Only William can stop it by mutilating his own hand. Except the game is set up so that only two people can escape. That means Jigsaw will have murdered at least four people no matter what William does. Jigsaw, rather that teaching William a lesson, was just getting revenge for bad medical coverage. I guess that’s a good lesson for the post-2008 financial crisis that sprang up since the last film.
William’s fate is eventually put in the hands of the family mentioned earlier. He is injected with acid, and his bottom half melts onto the floor in a great bloody mess. It’s one of the grossest scenes in the whole series, and that’s saying an awful lot.
Jill helped set up this death house, or at least knew about it. She also, we learn, was given envelopes to give to Amanda in order to take down Hoffman, whom John knew was going rogue. Eventually Jill manages to find Hoffman’s secret hideout, and trap him in a death device. It’s a similar device as the one used in the first Saw, wherein a jaw-spring will rip your face open. Jill thinks this will kill Hoffman, and leaves him alone to die, but he manages to shove the mask in between the horizontal bars of a barred window, and only tears his face open a little. The last shot of the film is Hoffman wailing in agony as his mutilated face bleeds down his front.
That Hoffman survived is, I guess, a cliffhanger.
Saw 3D (dir. Kevin Greutert, 2010)
a.k.a. Saw: The Final Chapter.
Most of the films have had different directors, but they all have the same grimy aesthetic. They’re all dirty, covered with rusty spots, and well-lit in a sickening off-green color. I’m not sure if Saw was the first film to do this, or just that one that popularized this look, but most modern horror films have a grimy greenness to them.
Also, didn’t Saw learn anything from Jaws, Piranha, and Amityville? It’s the third film in the series that’s supposed to be in 3-D. Not the seventh. But by 2010, 3-D was everywhere, so it should make sense that the final hurrah in the series should be the spectacular one. The close of the Saw series brought up that ambivalence again. I wasn’t so interested in the series while it was being released, but I was glad that at least one theatrical horror franchise could survive in the modern era. I was kind of hoping, even though I wasn’t watching them, that those Roman numerals would only increase. Why not Saw IX, Saw XII, Saw XXVII? But, no, this was as far as they were ever going to go. Saw 3D, puts a button on the series, and ends it once and for all. Yes, I know that the fourth of the Friday the 13th movies was also called The Final Chapter, and that series ended up having 10 ½ movies and one remake. But I suspect this is all we’re ever going to see from Saw. We’ve now saw it all.
The story of Saw 3D is actually pretty much identical to Saw VI, only this time focusing on Jigsaw’s dubious legacy. This is the first film that recognized that The Jigsaw Killer would actually be something of a media phenomenon, and not just a mystery for the police. In the world of Saw 3D, not only have there been multiple books written about John Kramer, but there are support groups specifically designed for Jigsaw’s victims. We see some familiar faces at these meetings, including a woman who chopped off her own left arm at the beginning of Saw VI. The meetings are led by a guy named Bobby (Sean Patrick Flannery) who claims to be a Jigsaw survivor, but who is actually a fraud, and who has been a fraud for many years. Indeed, there’s a flashback wherein we see John (Tobin Bell, what a sport) confronting Bobby at a book signing. This was another game left for Jill (Betsy Russell) and Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), and which was set up years ago, and is now being played out for the benefit of a single victim. However, since Hoffman had his faced ripped open a bit in the last film, now all he wants is revenge on Jill.
So we cut back and forth between Bobby’s bloody games, the cops investigating Hoffman, and Hoffman’s quest to not only find Jill, but to continue making bloody games. Saw 3D, seeing as it’s the final film in the series, knew it couldn’t disappoint in the gore department, and features the goriest games yet. I’m still trying to unsee the game where a guy had to rip off his own back skin in order to prevent a car from running over his girlfriend’s face, and chains pulling off his best friend’s face. His back and both faces meet a grisly fate. Lots blood here. Lots. Seriously, lots. There’s also a game that is played out in public (!) as a buzz saw must eventually kill one of three people. I’m guessing these extra-gory games were the work of Jigsaw II, though, and not Jigsaw.
And another subplot to bring the series full circle: Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) is back! At the end of the first Saw, you may recall that he dragged himself from his cell, sans a foot, going for help. I thought the implication was that he was going to die. But no, he was able, we see in flashback, to cauterize his foot wound, and was eventually nursed back to health by John Kramer. Oh no! Jigsaw convinces Dr. Gordon to also help in the games, and we see a few ret-conned flashbacks where Cary Elwes was present for some of the scenes of Saw II and Saw III. This means that Jigsaw had four disciples who were helping him out. Amanda, Hoffman, Jill and Dr. Gordon. It’s sad, though, that the endgame of Jigsaw’s work ended up being bloody revenge on a self-help guru and an insurance guy. I was kind of hoping for a global game of some kind. Like where Jigsaw demanded that an entire city change their ways or perish. But maybe a global game would reek too much of James Bond. Never mind. That’s a dumb idea.
To speed things along: The final shot of the film involves Hoffman finally catching up with Jill, and placing the exact same jaw-spring machine used on Amanda on Jill. Only this time Jill doesn’t escape, and we finally, after seven movies, get to see what that machine would do to a human head. Hint: it’s really gross. This head-tearing scene is a weird form of closure. Over the course of the last seven years, Saw fans have seen that jaw machine as a central icon of the series, even though we never saw it in action. Now we do.
Also, Dr. Gordon finally catches up with Hoffman (using some unrevealed disciples of his own, gad) and traps him in the very same bathroom used in the finales of both Saw and Saw II. There are still two corpses in there from the previous films, and there’s even a wistful shot of Elwes looking at his own severed foot, now completely skeletonized. Hoffman is chained to the wall, and the saw is left well out of his grip. This is not a game for him to escape. This is just a chance to let him starve to death. Well, unless he was to eat mummified human jerky, and I wouldn’t recommend that in too many situations. The last line of the series is, perhaps predictably, “Game over.”
The triumph music in all these movies is pretty cool.
And that’s it. The cycle of gore has ended. It was gut-wrenching and harrowing. It was grosser than it was scary. And it was SUPER convoluted. Indeed, look at this picture of my notes, wherein I tried to keep track of everything.
And that’s not even everything. I gave up halfway through Saw VI, and resorted to taking notes on my laptop. Here, then, is, as far as I could manage, the actual chronology of all the Saw movies. I wanted to put actual dates on them, but couldn’t really figure that part out. The Roman numeral after each event is the film wherein we saw that event. I also included a few filler events that are not dramatized, but can be assumed.
John Kramer a.k.a. “Jigsaw” (Tobin Bell)
Jill (Betsy Russell)
Amanda (Shawnee Smith)
Detective Mark Hoffman, a.k.a. Jigsaw II (Costas Mandylor)
Agt. Strahm (Scott Patterson)
Det. Allison Kerry (Dina Meyer)
Rigg (Lyriq Bent)
Jeff (Angus MacFadyen)
Dr. Gordon (Cary Elwes)
Starting sometime in the late 1990s:
John Kramer and Jill meet. (Before IV)
Jill gets pregnant with John’s baby. (IV)
John has his car wreck, changing his view of the world. (IV)
Cecil (Amanda’s boyfriend) and Amanda plan a heist. (VI)
Jill miscarries at the hands of Cecil. (IV)
John is diagnosed with cancer by Dr. Gordon. (IV)
John pleas with William, the insurance guy, for coverage. He is denied. (VI)
John begins working in his workshop, builds his first death machine. (IV)
John becomes known as “Jigsaw” (Sometime around 2003)
John makes the “fan” trap, seen in flashback. (VII)
Bobby decides to pose as a victim, after seeing a TV report on Jigsaw. (VII)
Jigsaw games with Amanda. (I)
Jigsaw builds the house seen in “Saw II.” (Sometime in early 2004)
Det. Mark Hoffman sees his sister die at the hands of a criminal. (V)
Dr. Gordon nearly has an affair (I)
Jigsaw confronts Bobby at a book signing. (VII)
Jigsaw, knowing he is to die, makes his video will for Jill and Amanda. (V)
Jigsaw makes a video for Dr. Gordon, also part of his will. (VII)
Jigsaw makes the breathing game for his insurance guy. (VI)
Jeff loses his son in an accident. (III)
Jigsaw is investigated by a cop, played by Danny Glover (I)
Hoffman builds a Jigsaw-like machine, but hasn’t yet met Jigsaw. (V)
Jigsaw confronts Hoffman for use of his machine, and recruits him. (V)
Jigsaw recruits Amanda as well, and sets up Dr. Gordon in the bathroom. (III)
Jigsaw introduces Amanda to Jill. (VI)
Amanda and Hoffman help Jigsaw set up Jeff’s game. (VI)
Danny Glover is killed. (I)
Dr. Gordon and Adam are trapped in the bathroom, Dr. Gordon saws off his own foot. (I)
Dr. Gordon cauterizes his foot wound, is recruited by Jigsaw. (VII)
Jigsaw and Hoffman set up the house in “Saw II.” (V)
Dr. Gordon preps the eyeball game from the beginning of “Saw II.” (VII)
Jigsaw makes a video for Donnie Wahlberg. (II)
Amanda begins making her own machines. (III)
Jigsaw is beaten nearly to death by Donnie Wahlberg. (II)
Donnie Wahlberg is locked in the basement by Amanda. (II)
Alison Kerry is killed by Amanda’s machine. (III)
Jigsaw is kept alive in a basement by Amanda. (III)
Jigsaw enlists Hoffman to set up a game in Saw V. (V)
Rigg begins his game. (IV)
Jeff begins his game. (III)
Rigg finds death machines planted all over town. (IV)
Jigsaw swallows a tape. (III)
Donnie is rescued from the basement, and then held captive on a block of ice, put there by Hoffman. (IV)
Hoffman blackmails Amanda because he knew about Cecil. (VI)
Jigsaw dies, Amanda dies. Shot by Strahm. (III)
Jigsaw support groups begin. (VII)
Jeff finishes his game. (III)
Rigg kills Donnie by accident. (IV)
Strahm is put in a trap by Hoffman, escapes with a hole in his throat. (V)
Jeff’s daughter is rescued by Strahm. (V)
Hoffman sets up Strahm’s game. (V)
Jigsaw’s autopsy. (IV)
The five-person game. (V)
Strahm is killed. (V)
Hoffman keeps making games, using Strahm’s severed hand. (VI)
Jill delivers a tape to Dr. Gordon. (VII)
Insurance guy’s game finally plays out, instigated by Hoffman. (VI)
Hoffman’s associates investigate him while he watches. (VI)
Hoffman kills his fellow cops. (VI)
Hoffman’s face is ripped open by Jill. (VI)
Hoffman erases his identity. (VII)
Hoffman games Bobby, the fraud guy. (VII)
Jill dies. (VII)
Cary Elwes locks Hoffman in the bathroom. (VII)
Come back next week for The Series Project: Death Wish!