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The highest grossing horror franchise is sadly coming to an end. In 2004, Saw solidified a new form of modern horror that exploits torture as a central stomach-turner. Produced for very little money, Saw turned heads with a hands-off killer in John Kramer who is a mere mortal dying of cancer aiming to teach people the value of life (or so he says). Jigsaw, as he is otherwise known, sets up elaborate games to make his “subjects” adopt a new way of thinking. I’ve been given the glorious task of identifying the most memorable trap of each entry. Let’s start from the beginning (spoilers throughout).
Production Budget: $1.1 Million
Gross: $103 Million
Love it or Hate it: The original Saw is a modern horror masterpiece and by far the best of the franchise. The film was primarily shot in one location due to budget constraints forcing the filmmakers to rely on good storytelling in its place. The story revolves around John Kramer, a man depressed to the point of suicide by the knowledge that he has untreatable cancer. After a near-fatal car accident, Kramer has a renewed value for life. He decides that he will use the rest of his life to teach others the lesson he learned.
Meanwhile, Dr. Gordon, Kramer’s doctor, and Adam, a sleazy photographer wake up in a dingy bathroom with tapes, hacksaws, and a stinking corpse between them. In what will be a recurring device, both men listen to their tapes to receive the instructions of their games. Adam must escape the bathroom and Dr. Gordon must kill Adam or Kramer’s orderly, Zepp, will kill his family.
In the midst of coherent and converging subplots, Detective Tapp, played adeptly by Danny Glover, is on the hunt for Jigsaw. Frantic as the clock is running out Dr. Gordon hacks through his foot and promises to return with help. In what will be remembered as one of the most brilliant and unforeseen twists the “corpse” lying in the middle of the floor arises revealing it was Jigsaw in the room all along. He locks the still trapped Adam in the bathroom coldly telling him “game over.”
Memorable Trap: Reverse Bear Trap
Early on in the series audiences were aware Jigsaw was no high-school dropout. The man revealed the sickest designed trap right at the outset. A druggie named Amanda had the misfortune of catching Jigsaw’s eye. She woke up strapped sitting in a chair in a dark room with a giant contraption atop her head. The reverse bear trap resembles old school headgear for braces. Unfortunately for Amanda, her game wasn’t about fixing her teeth. A tape alerts her that she must find the key to her helmet in the stomach of a man lying paralyzed on the floor. If she is unable to get the trap off in time it will snap open pulverizing her jaw and skull. Amanda narrowly survives.
Saw II (2005)
Production Budget: $4 Million
Gross: $152 Million
Love it or Hate it: Twice in the franchise, group traps are used. Saw II is the first attempt and "V" the other. Although Saw V is undoubtedly the worst of the franchise it better pulls off the collective game than this entry. Many will disagree. Anyway, Amanda from Saw and a group of criminals wake up in a room with numbers on their necks and no recollection of how they came to be in the house. It is revealed by a captured John Kramer to Detective Eric Matthews that the house is filled with a poisonous gas that will overtake the captives within two hours. It happens that one of the brood is Matthew’s son Daniel.
Amanda attempts to guide the group alerting them that Jigsaw wants them to beat the game and escape. But the group inevitably turns on one another and they die off one by one. Jigsaw tells an increasingly agitated Matthews to simply sit and talk to him and his son will be found safe. That doesn’t make for good cinema so Matthews finds himself locked in the dirty bathroom failing to realize the events taking place on security camera are from hours earlier. His son was perfectly safe. It is at this point that the Saw films begin to delve heavily into nonlinear format. While at first confusing, it all makes sense as loyal fans move from one installment to the next.
Memorable Trap: Nail Helmet
With the exception of the first film, all the film open with a trap. At the outset of the first sequel, a police informant for Detective Matthews finds himself entrapped in an open mask. On both sides of the frame are six inch nails ready to impale his head. The informant is instructed to use a scalpel to get the key to the helmet from behind his eye before it snaps shut. He can’t bring himself to do it and is lobotomized instantly.
Saw III (2006)
Production Budget: $10 Million
Gross: $163 Million
Love it or Hate it: There is a lot of character development in this installment. Amanda’s personality and Jigsaw’s anguish are richly explored amidst the games. This would also be the first installment of three where the central game player has an opportunity to free multiple people throughout his own game. Saw IV and Saw VI utilize the same device. In this case it was Jeff, a man whose child had been killed in a car accident and the negligent driver got off with a light sentence. Jigsaw gives him an opportunity to save those who contributed to the death of his child or leave them to die in horrendous traps.
In the meantime Jigsaw is on his deathbed and has captured a doctor to ease his pain by driving a drill through his head in an unconventional surgery. Amanda is at his side but she is distracted at the presence of the pretty female doctor. In a twist of events, Amanda confesses that she has created unbeatable traps and is a murderer. Jigsaw informs her that it was she that was being tested as she dies of a gunshot wound from Jeff. It turns out Jeff and the doctor are married. Not for long though since when Jeff kills Jigsaw his wife’s trap blasts bullets into her brain at point blank range.
Memorable Trap: Chill Room
It was hard to choose between this trap and the crucifix trap, but in the end this won out because of the sheer slowness of the death. Jeff confronts Ms. Scott, the woman who witnessed the accident yet refused to testify. If she had, perhaps the driver would have gotten a stricter sentence. Jigsaw leaves her hanging chained up in a freezer stark naked between water hoses. A key hangs behind some bars. If Jeff decides to save her he will have to press his face against the bars, tearing his skin on the frozen metal to grab the key. Otherwise every few seconds the woman is blasted with cold water. Jeff is too angry and too slow. She is bombarded endlessly with water until frozen solid.
Saw IV (2007)
Production Budget: $10 Million
Gross: $139 Million
Love it or Hate it: I’ll get right to it. At this film it is revealed that Jigsaw is one heck of a master planner! He is able to coordinate both the events of Saw III and Saw IV at the same time. And everything still goes according to plan though he died. Detective Rigg is the cop on Jigsaw’s bad side this go-around. He has a habit of impulsively saving others and Jigsaw tests his ability to help people help themselves. He only learns half the lesson inevitably leading to his own undoing and the death of his colleague Detective Matthews from Saw II. This movie isn’t legendary but it does expose yet another benefit of the franchise. There are no loose ends. Escapees like Detective Matthews and even Dr. Gordon are always revisited.
Memorable Trap: Choke Collars
Again the opening trap is the most memorable of them all. Saw IV was intricate and converged in an awesome way but the traps weren’t all that epic. Trevor and Art embody see no evil and speak no evil. When they awaken in a mausoleum they are both chained on opposite ends of the room to a pulley. The chains will gradually pull them toward the center grinding them head first. Only one can survive but neither can communicate. Art can see the trap but cannot speak. Trevor panics and attacks Art as the assailant but Art overtakes him and escapes the trap ripping his mouth open in an adrenaline rush.
Saw V (2008)
Production Budget: $10 Million
Gross: $113 Million
Love it or Hate it: The franchise nearly lost me here. For the first time there was no twist, just a normal bloody ending. The full scoop is given on Hoffman, who is informed by Jigsaw that he simply has to think of all the outcomes and can therefore always be ahead of others. By this he manages to narrowly evade a fellow detective who is crushed to death in the finale scene. But the entry lacked anything jaw-dropping or interesting, including the traps. Again a team of people are trapped together and must escape. Just like Saw II, they turn on each other and kill one another. It was simply blasé.
Memorable Trap: Ten Pints
Among the less than stellar traps in this installment there was a wince-inducing game. At the end of the group trap, Brit and Mallick must pass a final test to unlock a door to their escape. They have managed to outplay and at points kill the rest of the team to get to that point and realize they have made a grave error. If the group had worked as a team, or as Jigsaw instructed, “go against their nature” they could have survived together with minor pain. To their dismay they must slice their arms open in order to drain ten pints of blood to unhinge a metal door. With much coaxing they barely survive through it having chomped their arms down to the elbow.
Saw VI (2009)
Production Budget: $11 Million
Gross: $64 Million
Love it or Hate it: For the first time since its inception, Saw had competition. Paranormal Activity was the new craze and that depleted Saw VI opening weekend. Although the producers planned eight or nine films a decision was made to complete the series at number seven. What’s funny is that although Saw VI was the lowest grossing it was actually the most critically acclaimed. Many critics and fans considered this entry the best since the original. It combined flashback appearances from Jigsaw, a highly charged dual for control between Jill and Hoffman, and an elaborate game with multiple traps and one key player.
In this instance it is the heinous insurance agent, William, responsible for the denial of benefits for greed. Although he makes it through his difficult maze he is rightly chemically burned alive in the closing moments of his game by a son who lost his father due to the insurance company’s callous decision.
During his game, William is given many opportunities to choose who lives or dies. He encounters Debbie in a boiler room with a spear strapped to her chest. She must travel through a heated maze blasting steam along the way to get to the key. She is warned if she is not fast enough the spear will split her skull. She is terrified but manages with encouragement to traverse the scalding bridges to William. An X-ray alerts her that the key to her contraption is implanted in William’s body. She attacks him to retrieve it but the timer goes off and she dies.
Production Budget: $17 Million
Love it or Hate it: IMDB.com describes the official plot: "As a deadly battle rages over Jigsaw's brutal legacy, a group of Jigsaw survivors gathers to seek the support of self-help guru and fellow survivor Bobby Dagen, a man whose own dark secrets unleash a new wave of terror." In the last installment, Hoffman narrowly escapes a reverse bear trap set by Jill. He will no doubt be on a war path to kill her as evidenced in the movie’s trailers. Dr. Gordon returns to this installment after crawling out of his trap, sans one foot, in the original Saw. Producers promise that all questions will be answered by the end of this extended film featuring the most traps of the entire franchise. We shall see.
The biggest twist of them all is that the Saw franchise isn’t horror at all. There are no cheap scares, ghosts or demons lurking. Jigsaw isn’t some abused child or deformed mama’s boy and he didn’t even come up with his own moniker. The trick to Saw films is seeing them for what they truly are: gruesome thrillers. The brilliance of Saw is in its mystery and intricacy, something all Saw fans wait for hungrily in Saw 3D out this Friday.