Franchise in Retrospect: Saw (2004 - 2010)

Welcome to a new segment of my blog, entitled Franchise in Retrospect. The idea of this is for me to take a franchise which I have not seen in it's entirety, and view each released instalment. I will then assess my overall thoughts on each chapter, and the entire franchise.

For my first entry, I have chosen a recent horror franchise which was a juggernaut at the box office, but far from a critical success. Doesn't narrow it down? Okay, it's Saw.

WARNING: This post contains spoilers for the Saw franchise. Do not read on if you wish to remain unspoilt.

Saw originally began life as a 9 and a half minute short, with James Wan and Leigh Whannell taking a scene from their script, and using it as a pitch for the film. The result led to Lions Gate picking it up, allowing the duo to adapt their script into a feature length film. Upon completion, Saw was intended to be released directly onto video and DVD. But after the film received a positive reaction at the Sundance film festival, the film got bumped up to a theatrical release.

Released in October 2004, Saw was actually a solid thriller. Sure, the characterization was lacking and co-creator Leigh Wannell would have been wise to stay behind the camera, but this was made up for with great twists, turns and revelations. The final twist alone is one of the smartest in the franchise, defying expectations for a great twist that leaves little hope. For his directing debut on a feature film, James Wan provides some strong, atmospheric work.

The best thing about this franchise is Jigsaw, one of the more unique antagonists to find in a horror film. Was he a machete wielding killer who hacked countless characters? No, he was John Kramer, a cancer-ridden old man who uses his engineering expertise to invent clever traps, while never actually engaging in the murders. His motive is to put these people in situations that'd lead to their deaths, but could be averted if they were willing to endure the pain and torment. And what is the motive for causing such physical and mental anguish to these people? To teach them to appreciate life, to not take it for granted. While the message is often conveyed in pretentious spouts of dialogue, it's an important message that does need conveying to many people. There are better ways to do it, but to each their own.

Riding high on how profitable the first film was, Lions Gate quickly greenlit a sequel. Unfortunately, creators Wan and Whannell were too busy preparing for their next film, so could not return to write or direct. A script called The Desperate was received by the producers, who decided it could easily be re-written into the next Saw film. Whannell was able to rewrite the script, while The Desperate writer Darren Lynn Bousman was hired as director.

The resulting film was a step-down from its predecessor. The characterization and acting may not have been award winning in the first film, but it was miles above what substandard efforts plagued the second film. Bousman's direction lacks anything resembling subtlety, but praise is deserved for one unnerving trap, which proves nightmarish for an ex-drug addict.

Saw III marks the unfortunate turning point of the franchise, where things became trashy, shallow and downright unpleasant to watch. The primary focus became the gore, which is evident by how the camera lingers on the bloody moments throughout the senseless killings. The film is a dull affair, not helped by focusing on an unlikeable lead. There's only one moment worth mentioning, where the franchise villain himself, Jigsaw, actually gets killed off. Considering there's no supernatural plot contrivances to bring him back in the sequel, this was rather big, and obviously left fans questioning how the franchise could continue.

The answer was to give him a second apprentice, whom was to continue on his work from here on out. The fourth film reveals at the end it's actually Detective Hoffman, a character who previously appeared in the background for the third film. The next few films delve into his background, showcasing what turned him onto this path, and his rivalry with former apprentice Amanda Young. Unfortunately, Costas Mandylor is unable to rise to the task, giving dull performances that leaves the viewers yearning for an illogical reveal that John Kramer faked his death. It doesn't help that Hoffman seems to only have one storyline that's played to the death. Be it against Agent Strahm or Jill Tuck, it seems his only storyline involves keeping ahold of his title as the new Jigsaw.

Speaking of Jill, it never seemed like the writers knew what to actually do with her. At first, she appears in flashbacks and police interrogations, as a plot device to flesh out the backstory of her ex-husband, John Kramer. But then she gets that mysterious box, hiding what's inside it until the next film. There, we see John actually confided in Jill about his methods, even leaving her pictures of his last targets inside the aforementioned box.

These moments make it feel like she's a part of something bigger than just playing the ex-wife, and once she places that trap upon Hoffman, it seems she's been set up as the real heir to Jigsaw. The only problem is that Hoffman actually escapes from his "inescapable" trap, and the final film leaves Jill to playing the generic helpless female character, because all we need is another female who just runs, hides and screams.

Each film seems to follow the exact same pattern, allowing two different plots to play out simultaneously. The first will follow the lead character who's taking part in Jigsaw's games, while the second involves the current Jigsaw killer, be it the character enacting their own agenda, or a police officer on the hunt for him. The first four films had a clear link between the two, as the stories managed to come together by the end to wrap things up for that film. It's in the last three where the stories are tenuously linked, as the writers strain to follow the formula and connect the trials of a bland lead character with Hoffman's tale.

One of the more interesting aspects is the interconnected feel, which the franchise manages to take on. One such example is in Saw V, we're shown the abduction of a man who tried to cut himself. This is a nod to one of the first traps in the franchise, which showed that same man having to escape from a barbed wire maze. This method proved to be helpful, as Saw VI gives a rational explanation for Amanda's irrational behaviour at the end of Saw III. This aspect feels like a precursor to what Marvel's currently doing, with their cinematic universe.

There are quite a few negative aspects, which regularly pop up throughout the franchise. The erratic editing is a bugbear, serving little purpose than to seemingly cause annoyance to the viewers. There is also a constant usage of flashbacks, as we're taken to aspects which we've already seen in previous instalments, or even earlier in that exact film. This part feels like we're being spoon-fed the connection, rather than allowing franchise fans to work the connection out for themselves.

Be it an eighth film or a reboot, there have been talks of Saw returning to the big screen. If we've learned anything from the many reboots and sequels, a once-popular franchise, be it horror or not, will always have room to return. In this reviewers eyes, the Saw sequels failed to fulfil any potential the first one promised, so can this be one of the few franchises that stays dead? Unlikely, but one can hope.

Individual ratings:

Saw (2004) - 4/5
Saw II (2005) - 2.5/5
Saw III (2006) - 1/5
Saw IV (2007) - 2.5/5
Saw V (2008) - 2/5
Saw VI (2009) - 1.5/5
Saw: The Final Chapter (2010) - 0.5/5

Overall franchise rating: 2/5