Franchises have been synonymous with the horror genre for nearly a century now. Universal lit the torch with its stable of iconic monsters, and it’s been passed down through the ages to series that have endured for decades, their numerous sequels stretching across multiple generations. So the fact that the SAW franchise will reach its ninth entry 17 years after the original film’s release isn’t necessarily impressive in and of itself, and, in many ways, it still feels like the new kid on the block, seeking to earn a spot in the pantheon. The crooked path it’s taken to arrive here has been remarkable, however. Where so many franchises have thrived on cobbled-together entries that stand alone, the SAW series weaves an elaborate, gnarled barb-wire web across its eight films, each of them more reliant on their predecessors than the last. While it’s yet to be seen just how much knowledge of the series SPIRAL: FROM THE BOOK OF SAW will require of its audience, it’s hard to imagine prepping for it by only watching one of the earlier movies because the story unfolds over a series of cliffhangers that isn’t properly “resolved” until the seventh entry. Nobody involved could have realized it at the time, but SAW has become the horror franchise of the binge-watching era, where viewers are encouraged to gorge upon episodes and sequels in rapid succession.
Likewise, I can’t argue that anyone involved had a grand, set-in-stone design for SAW to unfold in such a fashion. Certainly, creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell couldn’t have imagined that their unassuming little sleeper hit would inspire eight sequels as it became the definitive horror franchise of its time. Even when they returned to write SAW III, they did so with the intention of crafting a definitive ending—or at least as close to definitive as you can get with this series. However, death itself couldn’t stop Jigsaw (née John Kramer) couldn’t stop from wreaking havoc from beyond the grave for five more movies. Again, not exactly a novel idea considering how many horror icons have been vanquished, only to literally return from the grave, often resurrected in the most absurd manner possible (obligatory shout-out to Freddy Krueger for using flaming dog piss as an elixir for death at one point). The SAW series never resorted to this easy way out, though, opting instead to continue its meandering plot with the style and language of the giallo genre, where flashbacks and unexpected plot twists both prolong and upend labyrinthine narratives. Viewers might be inclined to look at the totality of the SAW series and consider it to be absolutely absurd and illogical, which makes it the perfect successor to the giallo throne; indeed, taken together, the SAW movies unravel like one elaborate giallo tapestry.
Long a staple of Italian cinema, the giallo became the standard bearer of slasher mayhem in Europe throughout the 70s and 80s, allowing filmmakers to push the limits of sex, violence, and, perhaps most importantly, their audience’s suspension of disbelief. Like any genre, the giallo became codified into a formula, so you could hang your black glove on certain elements recurring: garish fits of violence, repressed and overt sexuality, bottles of J&B, overwrought titles, a mysterious killer tying it all together, all of it woven through dense, convoluted plots that stretch the bounds of logic. The defining quality of the giallo is its surrealness: it might operate in the familiar realm of the murder mystery, but it often feels otherworldly. Its filmmakers aren’t just out to get you with unexpected twists and revelations—they’re out to submerge you in an unreal, illogical nightmare of authority figures sifting through repressed trauma. They want to strand you in the funhouse, where all of the mirrors are lined with razor blades and butcher knives, and it’s this quality especially the SAW series drew inspiration from as it impossibly unfolded through eight increasingly byzantine chapters. Ironically, a series driven by a twisted set of rules became defined by an “anything goes” mentality, which became key to appreciating SAW.
When the original film was released in 2004, the giallo wasn’t exactly extinct, but its best days were behind it. Old masters like Dario Argento continued to explore the form to varying (but mostly diminishing) returns, leaving the door open for the unlikely duo of Wan and Whannell to breathe new life into the genre. Even before they could have thought SAW would be a series in the first place, the giallo influence was evident. Its deceptively simple plot hinges on the identity of the mysterious Jigsaw killer who’s subjected two men — Adam Stanheight (Whannell) and Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) — to his latest game. The two men don’t know how they’ve come to be chained up together in a dingy bathroom, nor do they know who’s done it—they only know they’re being put to the test, and they’ll have to follow certain rules in order to survive. Exposition fills in some gaps for the audience, who learn that Jigsaw’s M.O. involves placing victims in traps that they’ll have to escape and (hopefully) gain a new appreciation for the lives they’ve been wasted. Jigsaw’s traps echo the tradition of the giallo in their prolonged, excruciating bursts of violence, and, while they might be more frenetic than their predecessors, the end result is largely the same: stylized gore of a different order than standard slasher movies.
As the mystery unfolds, it also takes the meandering, circuitous path of most gialli, winding through flashbacks and multiple locations to ensnare more characters. In the giallo tradition, an obsessed cop (Danny Glover) tries to piece together a sordid puzzle with jagged edges, red herrings, and misdirections. One suspect even wears a black glove, while Jigsaw’s avatar Billy the Puppet is a direct homage to Argento’s DEEP RED.
But the most crucial pieces fall into place during the hair-raising climax, where Jigsaw’s latest victims and the audience become privy to the script’s fiendishly clever secrets. Not only do they learn Jigsaw’s identity and his connection to Dr. Gordon, but they also learn he’s been in the bathroom the entire time. Does the latter fact really make any functional sense to the story? Not exactly, and the logic falls apart under the tiniest scrutiny — which sounds exactly like most giallo films. Ditto for the way the climax repurposes earlier, seemingly inconsequential details — such as when we first meet John Kramer as a cancer patient — into stunning revelations. Many gialli — and their close kin, like SUSPIRIA — hinge on such moments that defy logic as filmmakers go to great lengths to obscure their twists and trick audiences. SAW is one of the greatest cinematic tricks pulled in recent memory and leaves audiences with the same dazzled sense of disorientation that came to define the giallo. When they’re at their best, you can’t help but tip your cap at the filmmakers, and SAW definitely earns such praise.
After the first film proved to be a runaway hit, a sequel was inevitable. And while Jigsaw’s terminal cancer seemed to put an expiration date on the series, it could have been easy for filmmakers to ignore that detail or unnaturally prolong the new horror icon’s life in the service of an endless string of sequels. Instead, the first two sequels leaned into the looming specter of death, first by featuring John Kramer hooked up to an oxygen tank in SAW II before essentially putting him on his deathbed for SAW III. And while the mystery surrounding his identity is long gone by the sequels, these films proved the series was more than capable of weaving more elaborate stories, each of them hiding their own sorts of tricks, whether it be a hidden connection between Jigsaw’s latest test subjects or even the very nature of the game itself.
Most importantly, SAW II refused to stand completely divorced from its predecessor by bringing back Shawnee Smith’s Amanda, a drug addict who survived one of Jigsaw’s games. In the original film, that’s her role: the survivor and a living testament that Jigsaw’s twisted methods might have some validity. When we meet her in the sequel, she’s apparently relapsed, making her both a victim and some kind of a demented tour guide with her fellow subjects, now an entire group naviaging a house of horrors instead of two men confined to a grungy bathroom. Not only did this start the franchise tradition of going bigger with each installment (particularly in regards to the squeamish violence), but Amanda’s presence indicated a willingness to take a seemingly minor character from a previous movie and expand their role. And, in this case, Amanda’s eventual role as Jigsaw’s apprentice is one of the film’s big reveals: sure, we might know who John Kramer is (and Bell gives arguably his best performance here, in the only movie where he’s alive and upright), but SAW II withholds plenty of secrets. In the tradition of the previous film — and many gialli — multiple revelations entangle for a climax that’s nearly on par with the original. SAW was obviously significant because it was the pioneer; SAW II revealed it was possible for this franchise to endure on the back plot twists and an ever-continuing story following along one, knotty thread.
To that end, it would have been easy for the SAW series to continue with Amanda assuming the Jigsaw role for multiple standalone sequels. But it was obvious that nobody involved with this franchise ever wanted to go such a conventional route, so SAW III confronted Amanda’s worthiness head-on, essentially making her the film’s protagonist, only the audience doesn’t even realize it until the film’s climax. Much of the third film does feel like a conventional sequel featuring two completely new characters (Jeff and Lynn) playing a pair of games as Amanda lingers in what seems to be a supporting role, taking deathbed directives from Kramer. As is often the case in this series, though, nothing is as it seems.
After another round of vomitous, gore-soaked traps, the film climaxes with a pair of reveals: Jeff and Lynn are married, and their respective games have been part of Amanda’s own test. Via flashbacks involving characters from previous entries, we learn that Amanda has warped John’s philosophy, constructing unwinnable traps and killing those who have managed to survive. Unbeknownst to her (and the audience), SAW III represents her final chance to prove her worthiness and she fails — miserably. If not for a few instances of obvious sequel foreshadowing, Part III feels like it could be a definitive, final chapter, as most of the lingering plot threads from previous entries resolve for the franchise’s most impressive climax yet, one that leaves most of the principal characters dead. It’s not just a culmination of one movie—it’s the culmination of a wonderfully constructed trilogy, a trilogy that would probably be utterly revered had they let it be.
Of course, Lionsgate had no intentions of doing that and they promptly milked its new cash cow a year later in SAW IV, the movie where even the most devoted admit an already ludicrous series really started stretching the boundaries of logical credibility. But I would argue that’s what makes this one so pivotal: it was the moment when the filmmakers decided to embrace the franchise’s screwy logic and start scripting its wildest twists and turns yet. Once again, SAW IV resorts to leaning on characters from previous entries — Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg), Daniel Rigg (Lyriq Bent), and Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) — to continue unspooling the thread. Jigsaw might be very dead (as confirmed by the ultra-gruesome autopsy scene that opens the film), but the story here picks up right where previous entries left off. Again, there’s an obvious, easy route to go here that would simply involve Jigsaw constructing a game from beyond the grave that didn’t necessarily tie into previous mythology, or perhaps even a standard copycat killer.
But as we’ve seen again and again, that’s not the mantra of SAW, so the fourth entry heads in the opposite direction by revealing more of John Kramer’s backstory, effectively setting the stage for the next trio of films. In many ways SAW IV is the franchise lynchpin, the movie that connects the first trilogy to a second trilogy of films that sees Hoffman take the reins from Amanda as Jigsaw’s other apprentice. His emergence as another successor is the biggest, most crucial revelation of Part IV because it gave the series another lifeline. Leaning on such a familiar tactic would almost reek of desperation if this set of movies didn’t pull it off well, though, once again using flashbacks to connect Hoffman to events in previous movies that were produced before the character was even created. By the time you’re knee deep in Hoffman’s own backstory in SAW V, you simply have to submit to the franchise’s outrageous contrivances. The film itself seems to tacitly acknowledge the franchise’s own convolutedness, as John mentors Hoffman about anticipating human nature to better test his subjects and to effectively grease all of the working parts that go into being a Jigsaw killer. You see, it’s actually not absurd that everything always goes according to Jigsaw’s plan because he’s a master engineer, and he passed down his tools of the trade to Hoffman.
Admittedly, it’s easy to see this film — and Hoffman’s increased presence — as a breaking point, especially since it’s one of the few entries that feels truly lackluster and insubstantial when taken on its own. Taken as a whole, however, this second trilogy makes for a compelling cat-and-mouse game as multiple foils emerge to stop Hoffman’s spree. Most important among these is Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell), Jigsaw’s wife and one of his unwitting inspirations thanks to a miscarriage that claimed the life of the couple’s unborn son, adding to the layers of trauma driving him to carry out his perverse work. The ever prescient Jigsaw rightly assumed Hoffman wouldn’t be fit to take up the mantle, so he had some secret instructions in place as a contingency plan that unfolds during the course of three films. SAW VI—which is notable on its own as the franchise’s best, most coherent entry since part III—feels like another opportunity at mounting a grand finale as Jigsaw’s “final” game targets the crooked healthcare industry that allowed him to die without treatment. All the while, the authorities and Jill close in on Hoffman, now an unwitting subject being put to the test. Amanda also “returns” in flashbacks, tying up the loose ends and deepening her connection to Jigsaw’s own backstory.
As ever, moments in previous films gain new dimensions and essentially recontextualize entire stories and character motivations. Just as a good giallo will upend an entire film’s narrative, SAW VI turns an entire franchise on its head, providing a righteous retribution (perhaps an unsung giallo staple — so many of these films feature aggrieved avengers inspired by repressed trauma) for multiple characters in the process. Well, almost.
Once again, though, Lionsgate couldn’t just let it be and promptly delivered SAW: THE FINAL CHAPTER (née SAW 3D), arguably the franchise’s most infamous entry to date. If the decision to continue the story following John’s death in the third film felt like a stretch, then this entry feels like an entire body contortion. The signature pretzel logic goes into overdrive here, first by finally revealing the fate of Dr. Gordon from all the way back in the first film. It turns out he survived and then some, as he lurks in the shadows of this seventh entry, which finds Jigsaw unleashing his final game (for real this time, we promise) on Bobby Dagen (Sean Patrick Flannery), a self-help charlatan who claims to have survived a game and is now exploiting his fame. His comeuppance unfolds in the shadow of Hoffman’s efforts to further elude the authorities, setting the stage for the most outrageous, over-the-top entry in the series.
An opening game buzzsaws a woman in half in the public square; another leaves four victims absolutely pulverized in a junkyard. Automatic machine guns deploy at one point before Hoffman goes full Terminator, carving his way through a police station in pursuit of Jill, whose dreams are now haunted by visions of her husband’s accomplice splattering her with a go-cart. THE FINAL CHAPTER is a completely unhinged experience that speaks to the wild, sprawling thead of the series, now tangled up in so many knots that it resorts to revealing that Gordon has been Jigsaw’s “greatest asset” throughout the series, performing operations and even recruiting victims. He’s the final contingency plan who finally brings Hoffman to justice on John’s behalf, effectively closing the loop by trapping the wayward accomplice in the bathroom where the franchise began. It’s a nice, full-circle moment that attempts to put a bow atop the gnarled web that is SAW, but it’s also the most predictable possible ending, so much so that it effectively began life as a common fan theory on message boards once Elwes’s participation was confirmed.
Logically speaking, it means SAW “ends” on kind of a dud note, yet I can’t help but howl at the absurdity of it all. Of all the sequels, THE FINAL CHAPTER embraces the loopy logic of the giallo most fervently because it’s dead set on dragging the audience along with its twisted, surreal mentality, and you’re either with it or you’re desperately asking for the ride to finally stop. Most fell into the latter category upon release (it infamously bombed with many die-hard fans, even), but re-evaluating it through the prism of the giallo might soften some stances. I can’t pretend it patches up each and every flaw, but you have to admire the filmmakers’ commitment to tying together this one, long story that played out over the course of seven films without “cheating” too much. They never brought Jigsaw back from beyond the grave and similarly kept Amanda on ice, leaving Gordon’s return as one of the few viable avenues that didn’t feel too much like a stretch (relative to this franchise’s logic, of course). Learning that a character that went missing all the way back in the franchise’s first act (of sorts) not only survived but has been instrumental in pulling the strings in the meantime feels like the only way SAW (or a giallo) could end.
But SAW wasn’t just beholden to its own warped logic because any self-respecting horror franchise must endure following a “final” chapter, which may be the only way to explain the existence of JIGSAW, an obligatory resurrection seven years later. Touted as a reboot, it’s actually a straight-up sequel — though, in traditional franchise fashion, it’s best seen as an “extension” since it once again weaves through time, allowing Bell to once again return as Kramer in flashbacks as a new game unfolds a decade after his death. Anyone familiar with the franchise’s bag of tricks couldn’t possibly have been fooled by the central mystery that finds authorities scrambling to discover if Kramer has somehow returned from the grave. And indeed, JIGSAW resorts to the same old tricks by bending time and revealing that Kramer had a double secret apprentice that apparently pre-dated all the others. It’s a little exasperating even by SAW standards, simply because it’s just more of the same; at a certain point, you have to wonder if John Kramer wasn’t the most charismatic motherfucker to ever live considering how many people he held under his sway.
Then again, maybe this is the best evidence of the franchise’s commitment to its long arc. An easy way out here (one that the film actually teases, it should be noted) would have seen a zealous Jigsaw devotee taking up his mantle, but there’s a reason funhouses don’t have quick escape hatches. JIGSAW insists on dragging its audience through one more unseen corner of this twisted labyrinth, further defying conventional logic and yet somehow making exact sense within the framework of the franchise’s logic. Maybe it’s not as intricately connected to the previous entries as the other sequels are, but it’s hard to imagine this one making much sense unless you’ve already submitted to that serpentine SAW structure, where the entire story loops onto itself to form an a razor blade ouroboros. How fitting that the next entry will be titled SPIRAL.
We’ll know soon enough if Chris Rock’s vision for the franchise respects the intricately woven tale that’s unfolded for nearly two decades now. If I were a betting man, I’d say it’s probably best to brush up on your SAW lore, especially with franchise veteran Darren Lynn Bousman back at the helm. Likewise, time will tell if it evokes the long-running giallo influence that’s been woven into the franchise’s DNA, but I must emphasize that its full title is SPIRAL: FROM THE BOOK OF SAW. It’s practically dripping J&B and begging to be fit with a black glove already.
Tags: Australia, Benito Martinez, Betsy Russell, Cary Elwes, Chris Rock, Costas Mandylor, Danny Glover, dario argento, Darren Lynn Bousman, Dina Meyer, Donnie Wahlberg, Franchises, Giallo, Horror, James Wan, Ken Leung, Leigh Whannell, Lyriq Bent, Michael Emerson, Monica Potter, Ned Bellamy, Puppets, Samuel L. Jackson, Saw, Sean Patrick Flannery, Sequels, Series, Shawnee Smith, Tobin Bell