By Steve Newton
As most in-the-know horror-movie freaks are no doubt aware, the latest entry in the Saw franchise, Spiral: From the Book of Saw, opens this Friday (May 14).
As the designated horror reviewer for Vancouver weekly the Georgia Straight since the early ’80s, it was my journalistic duty to cover all the Saw flicks, whether it turned me into a gore-crazed sicko or not.
Here, posted together for the first time ever, just ’cause I feel like it, are my eight reviews of the Saw movies.
Eat your Jigsaw-ravaged hearts out, Siskel & Ebert.
Ten years or so ago, I was covering the local shoot of the trashy teen-from-hell flick The Crush for American horror mag Fangoria. It starred then-newcomer Alicia Silverstone as a hot-to-trot underaged babe willing to kill for the affections of a mild-mannered journalist, played by Carey Elwes. At the time, Silverstone was totally open to the request for an on-set interview, welcoming me into her trailer, while Elwes flatly refused to talk. It was as if he was worried that being featured in the blood-spattered pages of Fangoria might cast an unfavourable shadow on his career.
Either that or he was just ashamed of being in a low-budget potboiler like The Crush after starring six years earlier in the hugely successful Princess Bride.
Whatever the reason for Elwes’s decade-old shunning of the horror market, he’s certainly embraced it full bore with his role in Saw, the sickest, most sadistic fright flick to see a North American theatrical release since Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses. But the bad news for fans of gory, twisted films is that Elwes continues to be one of most unconvincing actors in the history of the silver screen. And I’m not just saying that out of spite.
In Saw he plays mild-mannered surgeon Lawrence Gordon, who wakes from unconsciousness to find that he’s been securely chained by one ankle to a post in a filthy, decrepit washroom, along with the equally astonished Adam (screenwriter Leigh Whannell), a scuzzball photographer who frantically explains: “I went home to my shit-hole apartment and woke up in a shit hole!”.
Sharing the putrid pisser with the two captives is the bloodsoaked body of a man who apparently shot himself in the head; he still clutches a .38 in one hand–and a mini-cassette player in the other. When the prisoners realize that personalized envelopes containing audio tapes have been planted in their pockets, they play them on Mr. Brainsplatter’s machine, hearing cryptic instructions that Gordon must kill Adam within eight hours or they both die (along with the doc’s wife and young daughter).
To add to the fun, the deranged abductor has left his bathroom-bound victims a pair of rusty hacksaws, which are too dull to cut through chains but might just do for primitive foot-removal in a pinch.
The message on Gordon’s tape makes it clear to him that he and Adam are the latest guinea pigs for Jigsaw, a psychopath who traps people and makes them play horrific games for a slim chance at survival. After we learn via flashbacks that Gordon had already been questioned by an overanxious cop (Danny Glover) in connection with one of Jigsaw’s grisly crimes, the twists and turns start ratcheting up.
But the mystery and suspense get continuously undermined by Elwes’s extremely hollow performance, which gets downright laughable just before the film’s awesome shock ending. What a shame. The filmmakers should have put more effort into searching for a decent lead actor and less into depicting torturous ways for people to die.
Saw II, 2005:
The original Saw had a pretty interesting premise, and one that kept the options wide open for gruesome, sadistic, squirm-in-your-seat horror. It was about a psychopathic genius named Jigsaw who trapped people and made them play horrific beat-the-clock games for a slim chance at avoiding a grisly death.
The weakest components of the original were actually its two main stars, Carey Elwes and Danny Glover, neither of whom were believable in their respective roles of imprisoned dentist and hard-nosed cop. For the sequel, the filmmakers made a smart choice: they dumped the name actors and concentrated on the devious hoops that Jigsaw’s guinea pigs are forced to jump through in order to try and save their skins.
The result is a grimy and relentless portrayal of high-tension cruelty that’s excruciating to watch but as riveting as a nail gun to the nut sack.
The opening scene sets the tone. We’re shown some poor sap with a gouged-up eye who wakes up to find that he’s been kidnapped and fitted with a rusty metal contraption around his neck that’s set with rows of sharp spikes. From a nearby TV monitor, Jigsaw calmly explains to the freaked-out captive that he gets one chance to find a small key that can release the wicked mechanism from his trembling shoulders.
Trick is, it’s been implanted directly behind his mangled eye, and he only has a short amount of time to retrieve it-with the use of a scalpel-before the springloaded “Venus Flytrap” snaps shut around his achin’ head.
Two scenes after that sick but suspenseful intro, it looks like Saw II might be garbage after all, because when hard-ass detective Eric Mason (Donnie Wahlberg) confronts his delinquent son Daniel (Erik Knudsen), a wayward boom-mike dips down into frame. That’s director-cowriter Darren Lynn Bousman’s only major screwup, though; most of his time during Saw II‘s whirlwind 25-day shoot was spent injecting a feverish intensity into the nasty goings-on, which, like Saw, revolve around a cop’s frantic attempts to save people from Jigsaw’s booby-trapped house of horrors.
Tobin Bell returns to steal the show as the soft-spoken and brilliantly twisted villain, channelling Rutger Hauer and veteran character actor Brion James, whom he closely resembles. All the lesser-knowns cast as Jigsaw’s tormented playthings do good work depicting their drawn-out suffering, not that the constant spitting up of blood requires much rehearsal.
Unless you’re a dedicated gore hound, there’s a good chance you’ll come out of Saw II feeling sickened and disgusted. But you could also look at it from an educational standpoint. For example, I learned that the sight of a musclebound man swinging a spike-laden baseball bat into the back of a living guy’s skull was infinitely less disturbing than the sight of a petite woman wrenching said bat from the back of a dead guy’s skull.
Who says horror flicks are for dummies?
Saw III, 2006:
Saying that the newest Saw movie is better than the last one is a bit like saying that your latest root canal was better than your last one. Either way, it’s all about the pain and suffering. Mind you, I had a root canal once and it didn’t hurt that much; the worst part is being glued to the dentist’s chair with your pie hole clamped open for several hours. Discriminating horror fans should be thankful that Saw III only keeps them in a similar state of uncomfortable boredom for 90 minutes or so.
I expected a lot better from the franchise, mainly because Saw II was such a vast improvement over the original. For one thing, it didn’t star the innocuous Carey Elwes. And it ramped up the twisted thrills by giving sadistic psycho killer Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) more deserving victims for his increasingly inventive deathtraps.
This time around, Jigsaw is bedridden and dying of brain cancer, and he has recruited a former victim (Shawnee Smith) to be his caregiver and to carry on his cruel “games”, which he figures teach people the value of life. But the too-cute Smith is barely believable in her role as the torturer’s apprentice. And the unhappy doctor she kidnaps to keep Jigsaw alive is played by another attractive actor (Bahar Soomekh) who struggles just to make her gasps of shock seem genuine.
The filmmakers—who apparently had to rush to get this guaranteed moneymaker in theatres before Halloween—try to inject some human drama into the plot by making the focus of Jigsaw’s latest game a father struggling to cope with the loss of his eight-year-old son. Is this tortured soul—strongly played by Angus Macfadyen—able to forgive the drunk driver who ran over his sweet child, the witness who didn’t testify, or the judge who passed a lenient sentence? Their fates (and the film’s nastiness) hinge on how quickly Macfadyen’s character can curb his seething vengeance.
Strangely enough, the most cringe-inducing moments of Saw III don’t involve limbs being slowly twisted apart by sinister machinery but someone voluntarily submitting to brain surgery. It’s a common medical practice, yet the sight of a person’s skull being sawed open to reveal the brain beneath is still an unbeatable salvo in the gross-out horror wars.
Saw IV: 2007
In Saw III, the murdering genius known as Jigsaw finally got his comeuppance. He was a dead human, with no possibility of a Michael Myers- or Jason Voorhees-style resurrection. But since when has a little thing like death stopped a horror franchise from cashing in?
Jigsaw is back–or at least his dead body is–and, boy, do his innards steal the show. As the flick opens, we see the chilled remains of Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) lying naked on a mortuary slab, soon to be the subject of a full-blown autopsy. Morgue attendants start by peeling the Jigster’s face back, sawing open his skull, prying it apart, and extracting his bulbous brain–all in gruesomely realistic fashion.
Then it’s time to slice open his chest, peel back his ribs (love those sound effects), and remove whatever’s there. “Let’s see what’s in his stomach,” one of the dissectors suggests before piercing the gelatinous pouch with a scalpel and revealing what appears to be a small bar of soap. Turns out it’s a protective case for a microcassette, which an FBI agent immediately inserts into a handy tape deck.
“It’s not over,” intones the raspy voice of Jigsaw, threatening mayhem from the grave, but discriminating horror fans will wish it was.
The Saw franchise lost its potency after Saw II, which–with its intense action and over-the-top wickedness–was quite a hoot, and a serious improvement over the original, which sported subpar acting by Cary Elwes and Danny Glover’s cookie-cutter characterization of a troubled cop. Saw III –which featured Jigsaw’s unlikely apprentice, Amanda (Shawnee Smith)–was a failure, and its follow-up is the same.
The focus this time is on SWAT–team member Rigg (Lyriq Bent), who gets run through the wringer, physically and psychologically, by one of Jigsaw’s most preposterous revenge schemes. Most of the convoluted plot is tied together with flashbacks from previous Saws and a back story involving Jigsaw’s pre-psycho days as a heckuva nice guy. There’s the obligatory twist at the end, which hardly makes up for the excruciating boredom viewers are forced to endure.
But, hey, if you’re paying for torture, expect to suffer.
Saw V, 2008:
The fifth installment of the Saw franchise doesn’t waste any time getting to the torture-porn aspect the series is known for. The opening scene sees a muscular, bare-chested man—a vicious killer released from prison on a technicality—find justice via the old pit-and-the-pendulum routine.
The added attraction here is that the spread-eagled convict is offered a way out; all he has to do is place both of his murderous mitts in two nearby vises and have them flattened into paste. Unfortunately for this guy, and luckily for the gorehound contingent, he who hesitates is toast.
Human hands are offered up for mutilation again later on in a drawn-out torture sequence that rivals the squirm-in-your-seat factor of Hostel’s infamous drill-to-the-eyeball scene—and this time the pain is self-inflicted!
Between these gruesome set pieces runs a convoluted plot that uses revisionist flashbacks to show how the sadistic death-trap games of evil genius Jigsaw (Tobin Bell, whose character died two sequels ago) are carried on by Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) while he’s pursued by another Saw IV survivor, FBI Agent Strahm (Scott Patterson, whose best acting involves puncturing his own windpipe).
The story line also follows the plight of five self-serving strangers who are kidnapped and forced to atone for their sins by running a gauntlet of decrepit rooms booby-trapped with nail bombs.
As the lowly Saw films go, this one actually ranks a close second to Saw II in overall effectiveness. The ultra-creepy score and eerie sound effects have a weirdly demented resonance, especially when used in harmony with Jigsaw’s whispered ramblings on the dark side of human nature.
But the best thing about this—and any—Saw film is the sick production design. Whoever’s responsible for creating these disgustingly grungy chambers of death deserves an Oscar for scuzziness.
Saw VI, 2009:
Saw VI is the sixth Saw I’ve seen, and maybe the sickest.
In the opening scene, a man and a woman are held captive with devices strapped to their heads that can screw bolts into their skulls. They’re told that only one of them will live, the survivor being the person who dumps the most pounds of their own flesh onto a scale in 60 seconds. An array of cutting implements are provided to get the job done, so the guy grabs a knife and starts slicing open his gut, removing vital organs.
What a schmuck. He shoulda known that one of the woman’s hacked-off arms would weigh more than his piddly liver and spleen.
Poor judgment and bad decisions are what earned the victims of Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) their slow, torturous deaths in the first place. The diabolical sadist died a few Saws ago, but thanks to the multiple flashbacks that the series increasingly relies on, it’s no matter. Saw VI’s second scene is a Saw V clip that reminds us how Det. Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) survived the previous flick by slipping into a glass-doored compartment to watch smugly while another guy got crushed into paste by a moving wall.
Saw VI earns one crummy star for making the focus of its cruelty that most deserving of today’s torture victims: an American health-insurance company CEO (Peter Outerbridge of TV’s ReGenesis). This heartless being prospers well until he’s shown, via yet another flashback, denying the ailing Jigsaw coverage for an experimental cancer treatment.
That’s when Hoffman, the torturer’s apprentice, sets up a complex obstacle course of suffering for the executive to run that includes forcing him to play God and decide which four members of his six-person research team—the weasels who troll for reasons to cut off sick people’s benefits—will be systematically shotgunned to hell.
Who says torture porn isn’t a valid art form reflecting the mores and mindset of society?
Saw 3D, 2010:
Saw 3D is the seventh Saw I’ve seen, and maybe the sickest—which is exactly what I said about Saw VI. They’ve also been calling Saw 3D “the final Saw” in the trailers, but I’m sure that’ll depend on box-office profits. Jason Voorhees’s fourth outing was titled Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, but that didn’t stop him from slaughtering folks on a spaceship six flicks later.
If Saw 3D is the last entry in the franchise, its makers are going out with a bang—as in an explosion of human suffering and flying body parts. The movie opens with a flashback to the original Saw as Dr. Gordon (Cary Elwes) drags himself along a grimy floor after removing his own foot with a hacksaw. Returning Saw VI director Kevin Greutert quickly demonstrates where he’s headed artistically by having the poor sap cauterize his fresh stump against a grungy, boiling-hot pipe.
The indecipherable “plot” revolves around celebrity author Bobby (Sean Patrick Flanery), who’s doing the talk-show circuit, claiming to be one of the few survivors of the twisted traps set by mad genius Jigsaw (Tobin Bell). But because that fiendish moralizer hates liars, Bobby is captured and forced to run an obstacle course to try and save the four people closest to him from being diabolically offed.
As always with Saw films, the real stars are not the actors themselves but Jigsaw’s intricate, over-the-top devices of pain and death. That said, a high-tech contraption that drives steel spikes into a bound victim’s neck at a speed determined by the decibel readings of her screams proves no more menacing than the common pair of pliers another victim uses to remove his own molars.
Hopefully, that type of realization will bring an end to this series’ mechanized torture porn and save us all from the potential anguish of next Halloween’s Saw: A New Beginning—Jigsaw’s Gettin’ Jiggy Again.
Back in October of 2010, after six straight years of hugely successful Saw films coming out on the Friday before Halloween, the seventh and “final” entry in the series, Saw 3D, was released. It made money–eventually raking in $136-million worldwide on a $17-million budget–but also garnered the worst reviews of any Saw flick, scoring 9% on Rotten Tomatoes. “Sloppily filmed, poorly acted, and illogically plotted,” reads the site’s Critics Consensus.
So of course they had to make another one.
After a typical cop/action-show opening where a fleeing scuzzball criminal gets shot and captured, the film takes on the expected torture-porn traits. Five freaked-out individuals are shown in a big room with steel buckets on their heads and thick chains running from the metal rings around their throats into a wall embedded with buzzsaw blades. As usual, the raspy voice of Jigsaw announces that it’s game time, and that each captive will be given a chance to confess to and atone for past sins—or die tryin’. The blades whirr, the chains pull, and the dumbest among the bunch gets taken out first.
While Jigsaw’s busy making up for lost time, a street-tough detective (Canuck film vet Callum Keith Rennie) gets on the case when the first victim’s body appears in the morgue. “He looks a little pail,” quips a foxy coroner’s assistant, setting the tone for hokey one-liners to come. When they remove the bucket we see that the guy’s been half-decapitated lengthwise, which is always the worst way to lose half a head.
The rest of the film flits back and forth between the police investigation and the torment of Jigsaw’s playthings, but doesn’t get half decent until the titular baddie, aka serial killer John Kramer, shows up in the flesh about two-thirds of the way through. Tobin Bell has always been the best thing about the Saw movies–even better than those wicked torture devices. He’s an electrifying presence, and his performance, a twist ending, and a final, hilariously over-the-top gore effect make the last half-hour of Jigsaw quite entertaining.
On the way out of the theatre after last night’s advance screening I overheard a guy behind me saying that he liked the ending but wasn’t impressed by the film’s showcase death machine, a large, funnel-like contraption with spiraling red blades powered by a motorcycle. I couldn’t help myself, turning around and adding my two-bits’ worth in a three-word comment.
“Yeah”, the stranger cheerfully agreed, “bogus meat grinder!”