Horror franchises are strange beasts. For most other genres, a stretch of mediocre sequels would be a death sentence after two, possibly three entries. With horror, mediocre sequels are more or less seen as part of the package: sometimes they’re in “so bad it’s good” territory, sometimes a sequel looks promising enough and winds up having some potential held back by a couple of glaring flaws, and sometimes it’s quality be damned, I love Jason and want to see him terrorize a bunch of bonehead teens.
Horror fans love their franchises regardless of the actual quality of said films, and when it comes to the sheer volume of mediocre sequels per capita, there’s one franchise standing head and shoulders above the rest: Saw. The Saw franchise doesn’t have the most sequels—Friday the 13th and Halloween share that distinction with a total of twelve films each compared to Saw‘s nine—but for comparison, the first Halloween was in 1978 and the first Friday the 13th was in 1980, while Saw has churned out its nine films in a timeframe starting in 2004. The first seven films were literally released at a rate of one per year—even Friday the 13th would occasionally have a two-year gap between films, and those at least had a cheesy sense of dumb fun to somewhat offset the lack of quality which is practically non-existent in Saw.
The original Saw is a master class in horror—one that, similarly to Resident Evil 4 and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, later entries took the wrong lessons from. There are two main issues I have with the franchise as it stands today: an over-reliance on gore at the expense of substance and a convoluted web of lore that weighed down later entries in the franchise.
First, while I’m not as squeamish about gore as I used to be, it’s definitely something that I believe needs to be used sparingly to maximize its impact. The original Saw is something that understands this well—it might have given birth to the so-called “torture porn” craze, but the actual film is, as has been previously noted, a surprisingly tame one where most of the violence is implied off-screen. It’s basically an escape room film before anyone had even dreamed of escape rooms, and when we cut away to Jigsaw’s other victims, it’s usually to see either the aftermath of one of his “games” (the mangled body of the man in the razor wire trap, with only the briefest of flashbacks to his escape attempt) or an encounter that favors tension over gore (Amanda Young’s last-minute escape from the jaw trap).
It’s why those final moments of Dr. Gordon sawing his own foot off in order to escape were so impactful—James Wan understood the same thing that Tobe Hooper did when he made The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: you don’t need to show every horrifying event in excruciating detail, and in fact, it’s often more horrifying to leave parts of it up to the imagination. Interestingly, producer Gregg Hoffman gave an interview with Fangoria around the time of Saw II where he explained that they listened to fans’ suggestions which led to more deaths unfolding onscreen instead of only seeing the aftermath of violence appearing offscreen, arguably another point in the column of “maybe listening to your fanbase isn’t always the best idea.”
Unfortunately, restraint was quickly thrown out the window in favor of finding ever more disgusting ways to rip apart human bodies to try and outdo previous films. By the time we get to Saw III, we have a nauseating sequence of heavy iron chains getting pulled out of someone’s flesh for nearly four minutes straight, with several close-ups just to make absolutely sure you can see the blood flowing and the skin being torn. Not only is it uncomfortable to watch, but it’s also neither particularly scary nor impactful as much as it is just gross. It’s honestly a surprise that the Saw franchise has continued to limp on for as long as it has—later films get to a point where they’re genuinely exhausting to watch.
Second: the lore. In the early days of the franchise, the creative teams had a somewhat novel idea: each film in the franchise happens relatively not long after the events of the previous one—or in the case of III and IV, happening at the same time—with characters from previous films showing up to be new victims, to try and hunt down Jigsaw, or to be one of Jigsaw’s many apprentices.
At first, it was actually a fairly clever way to establish a sense of continuity from one film in a way that went beyond what previous horror franchises had done and lead to some legitimately shocking moments. When detective Allison Kerry, who played a significant role in the events of II, was killed off about twenty minutes into III, it started to feel like nobody here was safe. Even Jigsaw himself was dead by the end of III, only appearing in later films through flashbacks and with a series of apprentices carrying on his “work.”
This relatively tight continuity is one of the most unique things about the Saw franchise and should be one of its major strengths, but after about five films, the lore becomes so convoluted that you practically need an encyclopedia just to keep track of everything—seemingly everyone met was somehow involved with Jigsaw, and Jigsaw himself showed up so frequently in flashbacks that it was like he never died to begin with. By the time we get to the ending of Saw 3D and find out that Dr. Gordon from the original Saw not only survived but became an apprentice and had suggested Lynn (the doctor from III tasked with keeping Jigsaw alive) as a test subject at some point before the events of III, at some point we have metaphorically jumped over at least one shark.
Funny enough, the sheer volume of lore is addressed in Spiral, the latest film in the franchise and the first one to not feature any appearance from Jigsaw, flashback or otherwise. It’s a step in the right direction—and one that looks to be being abandoned just as quickly as it was introduced, with the writers of the upcoming Saw 10 seemingly teasing the return of Jigsaw and clarifying that Spiral was a separate story within the Saw universe, likely putting us right back into the same muddled mess.
We might be in the golden age of requels (or what I think is the better term, legacyquels)—films that function as both sequels and reboots, oftentimes calling back to the original film specifically, bringing back legacy characters, and ignoring or retconning the events of previous ones—and despite having what are functionally two attempts at rebooting the franchise in Jigsaw and Spiral, a requel that disregards the overwhelming amount of lore feels long overdue for the franchise. There’s even an ideal blueprint that exists for what I think Saw could do to reinvent itself, thanks to another franchise able to successfully shed the weight of its past and return to the roots of what made it great to begin with.
I’ve gone into great detail about my love of Resident Evil 7 and how that game singlehandedly turned an iconic horror franchise back in the right direction. By disregarding both the action-heavy tropes that post Resident Evil 4 entries had leaned too heavily into in favor of a return to actual horror and the overwhelming mess of the series’ lore by telling an independent story that was still unmistakably Resident Evil while having virtually no ties to any wider part of the Resident Evil universe (at least until they shoehorned a bunch of references in at the last minute, but…you can read my thoughts on that here).
First, as I’ve already stated, Spiral actually took a step in the right direction by telling a story independent from previous entries. Jigsaw has been dead for ten years by the time of Spiral‘s events, and while the new killer uses some of Jigsaw’s methods and ideology, he’s not someone who’s secretly been an apprentice of Jigsaw for years on end—at least, not yet.
If anything, I’d argue that Spiral doesn’t go far enough in trying to move past Jigsaw. The problem seems to lie in the setting: Spiral takes place, as best as I can tell, in the same unknown city as the events of the previous Saw films. Even though it’s been years since Jigsaw’s death, there’s still enough awareness of the events of previous films that the new killer is immediately labeled as a Jigsaw copycat and it still feels like he’s in Jigsaw’s shadow.
Future Saw entries aren’t just in need of a new killer, I’d argue that they’re in need of a new location as well, one without that immediate sense of familiarity with the events of previous Saw films. I might be a little biased, but I personally think somewhere in the Upper Midwest could be a breath of fresh air. Not only are there many, many areas where it’s seemingly nothing but farmland for miles, perfect for a house of deathtraps to be hidden with no one around to notice, it’s somewhere that, after the ten years or so it’s been since Jigsaw’s death, the killings would likely have become something of an urban legend, the sort of thing one would have only heard about in internet creepypastas or maybe a horror podcast.
Next, while—in this theoretical Saw film—we’re moving somewhere far away from the Jigsaw killings, it’s not necessarily to take the series in a new direction or establish a new tone. This is where Spiral stumbles a little bit: while I appreciate how it aimed to take the franchise in a new direction, Saw isn’t necessarily a franchise in need of a new direction as much as it’s one that needs to get back to what its original direction and philosophy.
In a strangely meta fashion, just as Jigsaw’s apprentices stopped believing in his twisted sense of morality and instead built more brutal traps designed to kill their victims regardless of whether or not they were able to escape, where later Saw films lost their way is in abandoning much of the “will they escape” tension found in earlier films in favor of piling on more gratuitous levels of gore and traps that felt less imaginative as time went on.
If a newer film were to revitalize the franchise, the best way to do so would be to do something along similar lines as the first film: a couple of people finding themselves in a nightmare, trying to figure out why they’re there and how they got there, forced to make virtually impossible moral decisions to escape that go beyond the simple self-torture aesthetic, with a killer who is giving them a real chance to live if they are able to survive his games.
But—and hear me out—I also think that the levels of gore need to be reined in, at least a little bit. It obviously wouldn’t be Saw without the convoluted deathtraps, but there’s a wealth of untapped potential in deathtraps that rely on fear and phobias, not just how much physical torture one can endure to try and stay alive. Mixing some more phobia-based rooms and traps with the standard torture devices could help make things feel fresh again while also allowing Saw to go back to feeling like horror again—and perhaps prove that there’s more to the franchise than the torture porn label it often gets stuck with.
Given that a tenth film is already being written, it’s a safe bet that the Saw franchise isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. What remains to be seen is whether the franchise can successfully get itself back to what made the first couple of films great, or if we’re doomed to another twenty or so years of decreasing returns and a franchise that’s a hollow replica of a great film.