Continuing my look at a maligned but underrated series…
Saw III is probably the strongest of all the sequels with Angus Macfadyen and Bahar Soomekh both excellent as Jeff and Lynn Denlon respectively. The strong performances from both actors plus the continued presence of Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith and Donnie Wahlberg along with the excellent plotting and breathtaking plot twists almost put Saw III on par with Saw.
The third Saw instalment also sees the introduction of Mark Hoffman albeit briefly who would go on to become the main antagonist in the later sequels.
The ending of Saw III in particular is a genuine tour de force with Jeff and Amanda failing their tests resulting in the iconic deaths of both Jigsaw and Lynn Denlon. The Saw franchise would struggle and indeed ultimately fail to match up to Saw III. Failing to sustain this level of quality only added to the harsh reception that the other sequels received.
Saw IV brings with it a lot of things that would become criticisms of the later sequels. Overcomplicated plotting, poor acting and the feeling that the Saw films now exist solely to provide a platform for the increasingly elaborate and brutal traps.
The argument that the Saw sequels are more than just a series of death scenes can be found in the aforementioned criticism itself. From Saw IV onwards the plotting is complicated. This is not to mask the lack of ideas however. When watched back to back it becomes clear that there is an ambition in the writing that is so often missing from horror films. As I touched on earlier the Final Destination franchise ended up being a series of death scenes punctuated with terrible acting and Saw tends to be thrown in with that kind of film but as the sheer scale of the storyline becomes more clear we see that Saw deserves to be treated with much more respect.
Even though only a year separates each Saw sequel, the plot is so hard to follow and so many new characters are introduced that a lot of viewers were left alienated. It is only when watching the films back to back that the story makes sense.
One thing to consider about Saw IV is unlike nearly all other horror franchise’s the main villain is not miraculously returned from the dead. Jigsaws death at the end of Saw III is final and it is a testament to the series that the four films that follow don’t really feel forced despite the loss of the antagonist.
Something else that sets Saw apart from its peers is the decision to have all the leads as adults rather than teens which is almost unprecedented for a horror franchise and also means the general standard of acting is improved.
The story continues with Saw V. Here we have confirmation of Hoffman as the new Jigsaw killer and unfortunately the first big misstep in the series with the decision to bring agent Peter Strahm to the fore. Scott Paterson’s Strahm and Costas Mandylor’s Hoffman are too similar both physically and in acting style and this was one of the factors that encouraged heavy criticism of the Saw franchise for the first time with one critic commenting ‘Saw V is a particularly dull and discombobulated affair, shot and acted with all the flair of a basic-cable procedural’.
Saw 3D aside, Saw V is the weakest of the franchise, although Strahm being crushed between two walls at the climax is the most memorable death scene since the difficult to watch pig vat trap back in Saw III.
Saw VI has the main plot focused around William Easton. The man who denied Jigsaw health insurance upon hearing of his illness. While the Easton story line is interesting and produces some of the best traps of the series (the shotgun carousel scene in particular), the tenuous link between Jigsaw and Easton grates slightly. Who is Jigsaw’s next victim? Someone who took his seat on a train in 1993? A man who once wore the same t-shirt as him at a party?
The sub plot of Hoffman and Jigsaws wife Jill Tuck continues the linear feel of the previous films nicely and the climax of Saw VI is unforgettable. There is an annoying tendency in the horror community to beatify foreign language or underground horror films as somehow more violent and gruesome as their Western and more mainstream cousins. The Saw films were viewed as something as a joke at this point. Upon revisiting the franchise though it is clear that the Saw VI was still pushing the boundaries in terms of visual horror and violence. There is nothing in much revered shock horrors like Inside or Martyrs that makes them more sickening than Saw VI and the conclusion is grim and difficult to watch rather than gimmicky or ridiculous.
It is such a shame then that the lasting impression most people have of the Saw franchise is Saw 3D. The final instalment feels like the dying breath of one of Jigsaw’s victims such is its lack of punch or even cheap shock value. The Hoffman/Jill Tuck storyline feels stretched out. Wheeling out Cary Elwes Dr. Gordon for the finale feels strained and daft and Saw 3D is in no way a fitting end to what is a brilliant franchise. The fact that people are already correctly starting to realize that re-emergence of 3D was not only a bad thing but also a fad that will once again fade as it did in the 80’s, only adds to the sense of disappointment when looking back at Saw 3D.
When considering the criticism of the Saw’s IV, V and VI it is important to put things into a bit of context. When compared to the later films in Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween, Hellraiser or Friday 13th franchise’s the Saw sequels can hold their head up high safe in the knowledge that in terms of consistency and ambition they deserve their place among horrors upper echelons.