Saw is a phenomenon. What started as a seven-minute short by then-unknown director James Wan grew into a juggernaut, becoming one of the highest-grossing horror franchises of all time. With the ninth installment in the 18-year-old franchise on the way, I decided to put myself through a Saw-inspired game of my own: watching all eight of the preceding Saw movies over the span of a week.
Before last week I hadn’t seen a single Saw movie, though I knew through cultural osmosis that it was a major player in the early-2000s splatter-film revival referred to — sometimes lovingly and sometimes less so — as torture porn. I was familiar with some of the traps, and the iconic Jigsaw mask. I was expecting schlock and gore and that weird greige filter. But somehow I didn’t know about the twists!
The twist ending, I have come to learn, is even more central to the Saw franchise than it is to M. Night Shyamalan’s oeuvre. Each film ends with a reveal (or two, or three), accompanied by the high staccato strings of composer Charlie Clouser’s “Hello Zepp.” Looking back, it’s wild that I didn’t know about the twists — my husband tentatively asked me when we sat down to watch Saw if I knew how it ended — but I think it’s because the franchise got so bogged down by the traps. The traps were the gruesome setpieces that got butts in seats, becoming more elaborate with each new installment. The traps became the franchise, at least in the culture zeitgeist.
But watching them all in quick succession, I was much more excited by the twists than the traps. The traps are the Hot Topic window displays that draw you in. The twists are the cute emo cashier that keeps you coming back. That feeling of being duped — learning that even when you thought you were one step ahead, you weren’t actually following the rules; that someone else was in control the whole time — is more exhilarating than even 3-D body horror.
So, ahead of Spiral: From the Book of Saw hitting theaters this weekend, I’m ranking the Saw twist endings. Let the game begin.
8. Saw 3D (2010)
By the time we get to Saw 3-D, the bar for the Saw franchise is on the floor. The series’s box-office performance had been in steady decline since Saw III, and when Saw 3-D was released in 2010, torture porn had largely gone out of vogue. And yet the seventh Saw installment finds a way to limbo right under that bar, through the power of 3-D.
More theme park attraction than film, Saw 3-D features plenty of the kind of schlocky set pieces that define the genre, but it’s missing the scrappy cleverness of its better predecessors. I numbly watched a man who falsely claimed to be a Jigsaw victim navigate his way through a booby-trapped asylum, having more fun trying to anticipate 3-D jump-scares than actually engaging with the thin-but-still-somehow-confusing plot. When the twist is finally revealed — that Dr. Gordon (Cary Elwes) became a Jigsaw acolyte after he escaped the trap in the first film — it’s not satisfying or even really that surprising. You have to be invested to be surprised.
7. Saw IV (2007)
Saw IV’s ending is only notable because it sets up the back half of the franchise — as a movie twist, it’s just kinda convoluted.
To loosely summarize the plot, SWAT Officer Daniel Rigg (Lyriq Bent) is obsessed with rescuing Jigsaw’s victims after his team failed to save Detective Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg) at the end of Saw II. Six months later, he gets a video message from (the now-dead) Jigsaw telling him that Matthews is alive. Rigg can save him — as well as his partner Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), who’s been kidnapped — by passing a series of trials designed to cure his obsession. Predictably, Rigg doesn’t follow those instructions, and ends up triggering a device that electrocutes Hoffman and crushes Matthews’s head with ice blocks just as he reaches the room where they’re held. In a tape recorded message from Jigsaw, Rigg learns that each of the people he tried to save would have been able to save themselves without his help — including Matthews and Hoffman.
But the big reveal comes when Hoffman reaches down and unbuckles his legs from the electric chair. He stands up, the iconic theme swells, he walks away from Rigg and slams the door on him. “Game over.” Hoffman is revealed to be the secret third Jigsaw accomplice, and will continue his work for the next three Saw films.
Saw IV spends more time setting up conspiracy theories than developing Rigg or Hoffman as characters, which makes this twist feel more like a hamfisted plot device than an exciting new development. You’d be better off just reading the Wikipedia entry.
6. Jigsaw (2017)
After Saw 3-D tanked at the box office, many assumed that the franchise was dead for good. But like this eighth installment’s namesake, Saw seemingly emerged from the grave with 2017’s Jigsaw. The premise is kind of a fun, self-aware take on the franchise: Ten years after Jigsaw’s apparent death, a new game begins. Five strangers wake up in a barn with buckets over their head, chained to a wall dotted with buzzsaws. One by one they face tests designed to punish them for sins of their past, and one by one they fail the tests and are violently killed.
Meanwhile, detectives Hunt (Clé Bennett) and Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie) investigate the corpses turning up all over town — our poor friends from the barn — that seem to be new Jigsaw victims. They start to suspect pathologist Logan Nelson (Matt Passamore) and his assistant Eleanor (Hannah Emily Anderson), a self-described Jigsaw fangirl. Logan and Eleanor, for their part, suspect Halloran. They track each other to the barn, which is now abandoned; Halloran and Logan are knocked out and wake up in a Jigsaw test of their own. After appearing to be killed by his trap, however, Halloran gets up and tells Logan that, ten years ago, he was saved by Jigsaw in this very barn. He was the first victim we saw (apparently) die.
There are really two twists here: that Logan is the new Jigsaw killer, and that we’ve been watching events that seem to take place concurrently but are actually ten years apart. The former is pretty standard Saw fare. The latter is fun, sure, but Saw II already did the asynchronous timelines thing better and more cleanly.
5. Saw III (2006)
There’s nothing technically wrong with Saw III’s ending. It suffers mostly from the fact that it’s actually two (or three, depending on whether you consider Jigsaw dying to be a twist) reveals that work on their own but don’t quite fit together in a satisfying way. They end up just muddling each other.
The first twist is that the victims being put through separate Jigsaw tests are actually married to each other. The wife, a surgeon named Dr. Lynn Denlon (Bahar Soomekh), was kidnapped by Jigsaw’s victim-turned-apprentice Amanda (Shawnee Smith) and told to keep him alive until another victim finishes his test. A trap around her neck is hooked up to Jigsaw’s heart monitor — if he dies, she dies. It’s only once the other victim reaches the room where John lays dying that we learn he’s Jeff Denlon (Angus Macfadyen), Lynn’s husband. Their marriage has been falling apart since their son was killed by a drunk driver, and Jeff’s test was designed to “help” him to move on from the rage consuming him. Unable to do so, he kills Jigsaw instead of forgiving him, not knowing that it would also kill his wife.
The second twist is that the entire thing has also been a test for Amanda. She’s been going rogue, not playing by the rules. Knowing that he was going to die soon, Jigsaw didn’t want someone who didn’t share his specific moral code to take up his mantle. Sure enough, Amanda refuses to let Lynn go after she completes her test. Amanda shoots Lynn just as Jeff arrives, and he fires back. As she bleeds out, Jigsaw tells Amanda that she was being tested too, and that she failed.
When taken individually, each twist is genuinely surprising with a dark irony that makes for a pretty good Saw twist! When squished together in the span of about three minutes? Meh.
4. Saw VI (2009)
Look, is Saw VI a good movie? No. It swings wildly between the requisite body horror, increasingly convoluted continuations of Saw lore, and preachy indictments of the American health-care system. An admirable message, sure, but not exactly primed to stick when wrapped in the bloated corpse that is the Saw franchise in 2009. But this isn’t a ranking of Saw movies, this is a ranking of Saw twists, and the twist in Saw VI did make me laugh out loud in shock.
The main victim of Saw VI is the health-insurance executive William Easton (Peter Outerbridge), whose algorithm (?) denied Jigsaw a potentially life-saving cancer treatment. Easton wakes up in an abandoned zoo, forced to decide which of his associates deserve to live or die, just as his algorithm (??) decides who lives or dies. The twist, though, is that the woman and young boy watching from a cage at the end of the test — who we’ve been led to believe is Easton’s own family — are actually the wife and son of Harold Abbott, a man whose heart-disease coverage was denied by Easton’s algorithm (???). The test isn’t for Easton — it’s for them. They get to choose his fate, just as he decided Harold’s. Mrs. Abbott tearfully considers, and, right when she decides against killing Easton, her son pulls a lever that drops hundreds of syringes filled with hydrofluoric acid onto Easton’s body, burning him up from the inside out.
It’s gruesome, it’s shocking, it’s silly. It’s Saw, baby!
3. Saw V (2008)
Once Jigsaw dies, the Saw franchise gets pretty bogged down in building on his lore. Unfortunately Mark Hoffman just doesn’t have the gravitas, and his cat-and-mouse game with Agent Peter Strahm (Scott Patterson), which takes up most of Saw V’s screen time outside of the game, drags on too long. (Though if someone had told me Luke from Gilmore Girls was in a Saw movie, I would have watched them a long time ago.)
It makes sense, then, that the Saw V twist has nothing to do with the meta-story and instead is all about the game itself. Five victims, seemingly strangers, are told that they’re all connected — literally, they’re trapped in collars that are held by the same cable — and that they must work against their instincts in order to survive. One by one, they are killed in traps that pit them against each other, eventually piecing together that each of them indirectly contributed to the same building fire that killed eight people. But when the final two players reach the exit, they learn that everyone could have survived. Each of the tests was designed to be completed by five people working together, mirroring how they worked together to cause the fire.
Saw V isn’t the only Saw movie to have a twist within the game itself (Jigsaw’s shotgun game twist is another good one), but in the absence of a big meta-twist, it really has time to shine. It’s also the only twist to make me say, “Ohhh, that’s clever” out loud, and then, “Oh, yeah, they should have figured that out.”
2. Saw (2004)
Compared to some of the franchise’s later entries, the original Saw’s plot is incredibly simple. Two men wake up chained to pipes in a disgusting bathroom with tape recorders in their pocket and a corpse on the floor between them. One is told to escape, the other is told to kill his fellow captive or else his family will die. Through flashbacks and cutaways, we learn that the men, Adam (co-writer Leigh Whannell) and Dr. Gordon (Cary Elwes), were kidnapped by a mysterious serial killer known as Jigsaw who makes his victims play twisted “games”; a hospital orderly named Zep (Michael Emerson) appears to be the culprit. After being chased by cops through the sewers, Zep makes it to the bathroom, intending to kill the men who failed their test, but Adam bludgeons him to death with a toilet lid.
That seems like the climax — the bad guy has been defeated. But then, while looking through Zep’s pocket’s to find a key to his shackle, Adam finds another tape recorder. He presses play and a familiar, sinister voice says, “Hello, Zep.” It turns out that Zep was playing a game too. That’s when the corpse stretches and stands up. More flashbacks reveal that Jigsaw is actually John Kramer (Tobin Bell), a cancer patient of Dr. Gordon’s. Kramer tells Adam that the key was in the bathtub he woke up in, long washed away. “Game over.” He slams the bathroom door. Cut to black.
I wish I could have seen Saw in theaters. Experiencing the communal “oh, shit” moment when an apparently dead body that’s been lying on a dirty floor for 90 minutes gets up and pulls a prosthetic gunshot wound off of his head must have been so much fun. Of course the movie launched a huge franchise — an ending like that is just begging to be iterated upon.
1. Saw 2 (2005)
Sequels are hard, especially when you’re following up an auteur who worked on a tiny budget. Compared to Saw, Saw 2 certainly looks more expensive and more polished. That can be a double-edged sword (or … saw?), in that you’re working with more money but also an expectation to live up to the original. I’m not interested in debating whether Saw 2 as a film does that. But its twist ending certainly rises to the challenge.
Jigsaw has trapped eight people in an abandoned house, including Amanda, one of his victims from the first movie, and Daniel Matthews (Erik Knudsen), son of the detective who apprehended him. Jigsaw tells Detective Matthews that, if he plays by the rules, he’ll see his son in “a safe and secure state.” All he has to do is sit and talk to Jigsaw for two hours. Matthews and Jigsaw watch surveillance footage as the eight victims are put through various games and traps. Eventually Detective Matthews attacks Jigsaw, forcing him to take him to the house. Daniel and Amanda, the final survivors, escape down a tunnel and end up back in the bathroom from Saw, with Adam’s corpse still chained to the radiator.
When Jigsaw and Matthews arrive at the bathroom, however, they find it empty (except for two corpses.) Back at Jigsaw’s lair, Matthews’s fellow officers discover that the monitors were playing recorded footage — the game took place days ago. The two-hour timer goes off, and a large safe in the corner swings open, revealing Daniel wearing an oxygen mask. “A safe and secure state.” Matthews is knocked out and chained to a pipe, waking up to a tape from Amanda. She reveals that, as Jigsaw’s accomplice, she helped set up this test for him. Amanda appears in the doorway and slams the door on him. “Game over.”
It’s so satisfying — the twist itself, the wordplay, the realization that Jigsaw was toying with Matthews the whole time — I can forgive writers Leigh Whannell and Darren Lynn Bousman for essentially giving Saw 2 the same ending as Ocean’s Eleven.