The Saw franchise has been one of the biggest and most pleasant (or rather unpleasant, really) surprises in cinematic history. What started as a low-budget, disturbing, and grisly little thriller in 2004, unexpectedly morphed into a gigantic box office horror behemoth throughout the 2000s. Some would say it was the Fast and Furious of the horror genre at its peak, with each film making more money (mostly), getting bigger and crazier, and adding all kinds of actors and casts throughout the whole thing. That comparison is, of course, up for debate, as unlike Saw, the Fast & Furious movies have had a positive reception during their run, more or less.
But one thing is for certain: Saw was somewhat of a trailblazer as a franchise. It founded an entire subgenre in horror, torture porn, almost single-handedly (for better or worse). It brought back the confident spirit of the “horror franchise”, like we had in earlier decades through icons like Freddy, Jason, Michael, and others… the likes of which waned somewhat after the ’80s. And it could also be argued that, while giving birth to the cheaply-named torture porn category, it actually also planted the seed for the “elevated horror” movement that would come later down the road, due to the general premise being a somewhat thoughtful meditation on arguably “elevated” topics like appreciating life, morality plays, and other philosophical musings.
The franchise has gone through eight main films, one spinoff, and is set to continue with another film on the horizon, plans for a TV show, and more! There’s no telling where this iconic franchise is heading or what ambitions it has. But for now, let’s look at how the already released films have been judged by the review site Rotten Tomatoes and where they stand with critics.
9 Saw: The Final Chapter (2010) – 9%
In retrospect, falsely labeled as The Final Chapter, the 7th film in the franchise, nonetheless, closed one era of the story by going all out with the most traps and gore seen in the franchise until that point, somewhat tying up loose ends that carried over from the very first film, and jumping in on the gimmicky “3D” craze that was popular at the time. It brought back founding stars Tobin Bell and Cary Elwes, but otherwise had a mostly new cast. Unfortunately, all those aspects weren’t enough to give the film a graceful bow, as it ironically received the worst reviews of the series with a heartbreakingly embarrassing 9% on the tomatometer. And the reviews summed up the film as “Sloppily filmed, poorly acted, and illogically plotted”.
8 Saw V (2008) – 13%
The fifth chapter is somewhat of an outlier in the franchise, a “black sheep”, if you will. It was the only one to have a single director in David Hackl, other than original director James Wan, that didn’t stick around for other films. Its tone and storytelling feels slightly different from the others. And it doesn’t often get mentioned as much as the other films within discussions of the franchise. A possible factor of that result is the abysmal rating it received from critics, sitting at 13% on RT, the second worst. The overall complaints toward the film focused on a lack of plot and overabundance of grisly torture.
7 Saw IV (2007) – 18%
The fourth film in the series was a sort of pivot point for the overall story, letting go of certain characters (at least in present form) and introducing new ones, including who would be the central villain for the remainder of the films. It dove the most into the backstory of John Kramer, giving way to interesting franchise storytelling that switched back and forth between flashbacks and the present. And it was the final “main franchise” film of director Darren Lynn Bousman, who directed the second and third entries. But for all its attempts at something different and interesting, it still didn’t impress critics with a measly 18% rotten rating. Much of the scorn was placed on the convoluted plot, the feeling of redundancy, and, of course, the pornographic violence.
6 Saw III (2006) – 30%
The last film to feature Tobin Bell’s iconic Jigsaw in weathered and weary flesh and bone, the third chapter had a slight veil of the unknown and unexpected covering it, as audiences weren’t yet sure where the overall story would go from here and whether John would continue to stick around (and frankly, whether the series would end on a trilogy or produce more sequels), and it’s safe to say that audiences were generally surprised at the outcome. It was also the last film to feature mainstay Shawnee Smith as Amanda. Critics were a bit kinder to this film than the following sequels, although it still has a rotten rating of 30%. The overall dissatisfaction was with the focus on gore and violence rather than the story, and the dawning feeling of repitition.
5 Jigsaw (2017) – 32%
This was a slight rebirth of the series after being left dormant for many years. It had brand-new directors, a brand-new cast save for returning icon Tobin Bell, and a surprisingly fresh direction, taking place years after the Jigsaw murders and the deaths of all the original characters (supposedly). However, critically speaking, it sits smack down in the middle between all the films with a 32% rotten rating… not good, obviously, but also not on the terrible end that many of the sequels received. The overall consensus was that it was a “serviceable” entry, but didn’t add anything new to the franchise.
4 Saw II (2005) – 37%
Considered the best sequel by many, the second film changed the game (no pun) by REALLY introducing the character of Jigsaw rather than have him in the shadows. Tobin Bell had the opportunity to cement the icon firmly into pop culture with a famous and acclaimed performance. It was fittingly grisly, and sadistic, and was the closest mirror to the original in terms of tone and chilling dread, as well as having an incredibly well-done and twisty plot. And of course, it started the trend of “apprentices” within the world. It still didn’t get a positive rating by any means, sitting at a 37% on the meter, but overall, many critics found it to be a worthy continuation. And to this day, it remains the highest-grossing film in the franchise.
3 Spiral: From the Book of Saw (2021) – 37%
The first, and to date only, official spinoff of the franchise, Spiral grew a remarkably fresh branch from the series by being a police procedural crime thriller akin to the original film, rather than a perverse gore fest. Make no mistake, it still has sadism and torture in bounds, and some of the most inventive traps to date, but they actually feel like an organic part of the story and not forced in for the sake of bloodlust. It has a timely, contemporary edge by focusing on police corruption. And it has the biggest “stars” of the series to date, with Chris Rock and the legendary Samuel L. Jackson. It still didn’t win many critics over, unfortunately, with a 37% rotten rating, the same as Saw II. But critics, overall, still appreciated the new direction.
2 Saw VI (2009) – 39%
The sixth film was perhaps the biggest surprise of the series, in both good and bad ways. It sits with a 39% rating, which is technically rotten, if not more on the mixed side. But critics far and wide considered the film to be a pleasant step up in quality and storytelling, and commended its touch on timely issues of that era, such as the problems in the American healthcare system. That was a good surprise. The bad surprise was that it ended up grossing the lowest of the series at the box office after having an upward winning streak… so there was a sense of irony that when the series hit a bit higher in caliber and ambition, it received a lower result in financial success.
1 Saw (2004) – 50%
As usual for franchises (and really, almost all films that have sequels), the first remains the best and most acclaimed. In the case of Saw, the original film has a 50% rating on the tomato scale, which is… technically… not “acclaim”, but mixed, if not bordering on positive. Critics both lauded the film’s originality, thrilling twists, and tension, but many were put off by its cruel violence and twisted, nihilistic nature. Still, it remains king… famous for its impact and what it started, iconic in its villain and premise, “sort-of” groundbreaking in its dark sadism, potent and always fresh-looking gore, and macabre violence, gifting us the still creepy Billy the Puppet, and confidently occupying the blood-soaked throne on top of this franchise all these years later.