When the original "Saw" hit theaters in 2004, the term "torture porn" had not yet been coined. That phrase, which references excruciating sequences of relentless brutality and gore, would not come into the larger conversation until 2006. In a New York Magazine piece titled "Now Playing at Your Local Multiplex: Torture Porn," critic David Edelstein was writing specifically about Eli Roth's 2006 splatter film "Hostel," but the torture porn label was soon reapplied to "Saw" and its sequels. Torture porn soon became synonymous with any sort of grimy, gorilla filmmaking that made you squirm in your seat.
But director James Wan never intended "Saw" to fall into that category. In fact, the film, based on a short by screenwriter Leigh Whannell, contains very few graphic depictions of violence. It sits more comfortably in the thriller box, with horrific elements scattered into the mix. Either way, "Saw" was fresh, new, and exciting, and opened the door for "Hostel," as well as boundary-pushing films like "The Devil's Rejects," "Turistas," and "Captivity." The New French Extremity movement, particularly films like "Martyrs" and "Inside," also helped to define the genre.
Since 2004, "Saw" has spawned eight sequels (and counting). As captivating as the original's whodunnit is, many of the films rely far too much on shocking twists rather than coherent storytelling. In a recent rewatch of the entire franchise, we tried to make sense of it all. Here is Jigsaw's entire story, explained in as painless a way as possible.
A Boy Named Gideon
When we first meet John Kramer (Tobin Bell) in 2004's "Saw," he has already made a name for himself as the infamous Jigsaw Killer, a sick, sadistic genius who tests the limits of human morality. However, his motives and backstory aren't fully explored until the later sequels, which are peppered with flashbacks to Kramer's past. Only then do we begin to understand, and perhaps even empathize with, this utterly charming psychopath.
In "Saw IV," we learn that everything starts when John's wife, Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell), becomes pregnant with their son, Gideon. John is over the moon and has begun to create a life for the child. In his workshop, he shows Jill a homemade crib, as well as the franchise's iconic puppet, which he's carved out of wood.
But happiness doesn't last long. Late one evening, a fully-pregnant Jill, founder of a local rehab clinic, is locking up for the night when she's held at knifepoint by a junkie named Cecil Adams (Billy Otis). As he's leaving, the door handle slams into her stomach, and she miscarries. "Saw VI" further reveals that Amanda Young, who later becomes one of John's devout disciples, was there the night of the tragedy, as she's the one who coerced Cecil into stealing methadone from the clinic.
John receives his stage-four cancer diagnosis from Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) "soon after" the loss of his son, according to Jill in "Saw IV." In 2017's "Jigsaw," former prisoner-of-war Logan Nelson (Matt Passmore) returns to medical school and begins a residency at the same hospital where Gordon works. Due to negligence, however, Nelson mislabels X-rays from two different patients, resulting in a late-stage diagnosis for Kramer.
"Saw VI" introduces viewers to health insurance executive William Easton (Peter Outerbridge), whose company Umbrella has declined several of John's claims for coverage. During their meeting, John presents an alternative method of treatment and suggests participation in experimental gene therapy. William invalidates his opinion and asserts that nothing will help at this point. These events culminate in John's suicide attempt, during which he drives his car off a cliff. Despite suffering severe injuries, Kramer survives and manages to crawl out of the wreckage, gaining a new appreciation for life. Thus, a killer is born, and his life's work is set in motion.
The Very First Trap
"Jigsaw" also reveals John's very first trap, in which Logan Nelson is a key participant. According to Logan's third-act villain speech, he's the fifth player in the game (you can see him above, slumped over in the corner). The rules are simple: Five people must confess their crimes, from purse-snatching to a drunk driving accident, or die. The catch? Regardless of their intent, every player's actions resulted in death. For example, Mitch (Mandela Van Peebles) caused the death of John Kramer's nephew by selling him a motorcycle with faulty brakes. Anna (Laura Vandervoort) suffocated her newborn baby and pinned the crime on her husband, who later hung himself.
The first round of the game involves metal collars, helmets made from buckets, and a wall of table saws. The others free themselves by making a blood sacrifice, but Logan doesn't wake up in time, and the blades begin to slice into his back. In a twist, John decides to give Logan a second chance, determining that a minor mistake like mixing up two X-rays doesn't warrant such a cruel outcome. John takes Logan under his wing, and the doctor helps to fabricate the bear trap that's later used on Amanda, Hoffman, and Jill. Still reeling with PTSD from the Iraq war, Logan had clearly suffered enough, and this display of empathy further endeared John Kramer to Saw fans.
Other Early Traps
During a flashback sequence in "Saw IV," John stalks Cecil during the celebration of the Year of the Pig, the twelfth in the 12-year cycle of the Chinese Zodiac. With the crowd bustling around him, John dons a pig mask (which would've been Gideon's sign, giving it extra significance), douses a rag with chloroform, and kidnaps Cecil. He then brings the junkie back to his workshop and straps him into a metal chair. As with all his games, John gives Cecil a choice: He can either bleed out from his wrist and ankle restraints, or press his face into a device made out of kitchen knives. Cecil miraculously rises to the occasion and passes, but upon escaping lunges at John and tumbles into a wire pit (the one used in the first film).
The original "Saw" revealed several other early traps, including a game involving a safe, shards of glass, a candle, and a man's body smothered in a flammable substance. At the crime scene, detective Allison Kerry (Dina Meyer) finds a pen light seemingly left by the killer, which links back to Dr. Gordon. As revealed in "Saw V," Hoffman planted the evidence to throw law enforcement off the trail.
We also witness Amanda's iconic bear trap test. In further flashbacks, Amanda admits to feeling rehabilitated as a result and becomes John's star pupil, even assisting him in setting up the bathroom game for Adam and Gordon.
Mark Hoffman's History
"Saw V," which reveals Detective Mark Hoffman's backstory, opens with a gruesome adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum." A man named Seth Baxter is bound to a table. To escape the deadly pendulum above him, he must insert his hands into two separate boxes and press the buttons inside, crushing his limbs. But there's a problem: The trap was made to be inescapable. As we come to find out, Seth murdered Detective Hoffman's sister Angelina during a "domestic dispute." Seth's original prison sentence was 25 years, but was reduced to five due to a technicality. And so, Hoffman takes matters into his own hands, hoping to frame Jigsaw for Seth's murder.
Sometime later, Hoffman heads home for the day. Climbing into the elevator, he meets John Kramer, who stabs a syringe into his neck. Hoffman awakens to find himself tied to a chair with a shotgun pressed against his chin. "Killing is distasteful," John says. His test is not like the others; John pulls the trigger himself, driving Hoffman to the edge. As Detective Peter Strahm (Scott Patterson) discovers, Hoffman has been involved in every Jigsaw murder since, as well as countless early games, including the opening of "Saw II."
Bobby Dagen's Book
At this point, popular author Bobby Dagen, a central character in "Saw: The Final Chapter," makes the media rounds while promoting his book, "S.U.R.V.I.V.E.: My Story of Overcoming Jigsaw," about his alleged experience surviving one of Jigsaw's attacks. However, things are never as they seem. Before he was famous, Bobby wore lots of denim and frequented a local pub. In between pints of beer, a news segment caught his eye: A Jigsaw survivor had come forward to share their truth. At this moment, Bobby decided to write a fake story and exploit the tragedy of Jigsaw's victims as part of a money-grubbing scheme.
During a book signing, set an undetermined time before the first film, John Kramer approaches, ostensibly to get Bobby's autograph. Dressed like Eminem from "8 Mile," Kramer hints that he knows about Dagen's trickery.
According to flashbacks in "Saw VI," Jill meets Amanda outside John's laboratory around this same time. This damaging reveal implies that Jill knew about John's games all along, yet did nothing to stop them. John slips a key into her hand and vows that she'll be released from his work soon enough. The key, which Jill wears around her neck, plays a crucial role later in the franchise.
"Saw," based on screenwriter Leigh Whannel's 2003 short of the same name, serves as the present-day starting point of the franchise. The James Wan-directed film is iconic for many reasons. Notably, it ignited the torture porn craze of the '00s, with its gritty color palette and fast cuts to nauseating brutality. However, unlike most of the later Saw films, the story is pretty straightforward: Struggling photographer Adam and Dr. Gordon are trapped in a bathroom, where they must atone for their sins. It's essentially an escape room with buckets of blood.
Detective Tapp (Danny Glover), revealed to be very much alive after the death of his colleague, becomes consumed by his obsession with Dr. Gordon. He is convinced that Gordon is the man behind the madness, and his paranoia ultimately gets him killed. A complicated web of further deceit unravels, entangling hospital orderly Zep (Michael Emerson) and Gordon's wife and daughter. Will he do what it takes to save his family, or has his infidelity and complacency already sealed his fate?
Ultimately, Gordon does the unthinkable and, in one of the series' best moments, saws off his own foot. For all intents and purposes, Gordon is dead. Seriously, how could he possibly survive? And yet, survive he does. In "Saw: The Final Chapter," we learn that Gordon cauterized his leg and became one of Jigsaw's accomplices, contributing to many of the films' traps, including the Venus fly trap in "Saw II" and Hoffman's test in "Jigsaw."
Outside of the first film, "Saw II" is the easiest sequel to follow, generally speaking. Leigh Whannell returns to pen the script, with Darren Lynn Bousman taking over the directing duties. However, the imagery is far more stomach-turning than in the first — once you witness the needle pit, you'll never sleep again.
In the film, Detective Kerry gets a screen time boost as she teams up with Detective Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg) to find his son, Daniel (Erik Knudsen) and uncover the location of Jigsaw's latest creation. The events of the film largely center around a halfway house-style game, partly constructed by Detective Hoffman (as revealed in "Saw V"), featuring players with criminal backgrounds. In twisted fashion, Jigsaw puts Daniel in the middle as a way to crawl under Matthews' skin.
As you know, the Saw franchise loves to toy with audiences' perception of time, and "Saw II" flips viewers' expectations on their head. When Matthews thinks he's uncovered the location of the game, several key reveals follow. First, it's only a decoy house. Second, the game actually occurred an unknown amount of time beforehand. Finally, in one of the series' most shocking twists, Daniel is revealed to be in "a safe place," exactly as Jigsaw promised: He's gasping for air inside a safe that's been sitting next to Matthews the whole time. The problem? Matthews fails to heed Kramer's simple instructions to just sit and talk. As a result, he is imprisoned in the bathroom from the first film by Amanda, Jigsaw's new protege.
Saw III And IV
"Saw III" and "IV" take place concurrently. Bousman directs both, with Whannell only penning "III." Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan step in to write the latter. This is where things start to get confusing, as numerous storylines with Hoffman, Amanda, Detective Kerry, Detective Matthews, newcomers Perez and Strahm, and SWAT member Rigg all overlap.
Flashbacks in "Saw V" and "Saw VI" reveal Hoffman's involvement in setting up several of the films' traps. The opening of "IV" chronicles Jigsaw's autopsy, during which the medical examiner discovers a new tape. Chronologically, the first scenes of "III" follow, picking up right after "Saw II," with Matthews chained in the bathroom. He mutilates his foot and crawls away, only to be captured by Hoffman and put on literal ice. Meanwhile, Amanda kidnaps Dr. Lynn Denlon (Bahar Soomekh), upon Dr. Gordon's suggestion, for what becomes her final test. Denlon performs an emergency craniectomy on Kramer; if he dies, she will, too. Amanda somehow has time to kidnap Kerry as well, and hooks her into a rib cage trap. It's an inescapable game, and Kerry perishes.
Meanwhile, Lynn's husband, Jeff (Angus Macfadyen), learns to forgive those involved in his son's death. Moments after Amanda shoots Lynn, Jeff makes his way through the factory where everyone is being held, and Lynn falls into his arms. Four days later, Rigg helps discover Kerry's body, but soon finds himself trapped in his own game, which tests his obsession with helping others. However, he doesn't learn his lesson, and his choices lead to Matthews' death. The finale is so gobsmacking (Hoffman is dirty! Jill's lawyer is prey!) that it'll leave you breathless.
"Saw V" (directed by David Hackl, with a script co-written by Melton and Dunstan) continues right after the previous two films. Locked in the storage room with Jigsaw's body by Hoffman, Strahm discovers a hidden passageway, as well as his own tape. Despite Jigsaw's warning to stay put, he follows along the corridor, is captured, and has his head confined inside a glass box that's slowly filling with water. Strahm immediately goes into survival mode, removing a pen from his pocket and stabbing himself in the trachea, preventing himself from drowning.
Hoffman is noticeably surprised that Strahm survived, and sets his sights on framing him for the latest murderous rampage. Jill meets with John's lawyer, Bernie Feldman (Jeff Pustil), and receives a box of "materials." She unlocks the box with the key around her neck, and finds six numbered file folders, a manila envelope, and the bear trap inside. A disturbing game involving decapitation ensues (another one of Hoffman's creations), while Strahm uncovers Hoffman's storied past.
In addition, special agent Dan Erickson (Mark Rolston) is introduced and led on a wild goose chase to the location of the latest game, seemingly convinced of Strahm's involvement (Jill also claims that Strahm has been following her for quite some time). Strahm falls deeper into the abyss, and in the finale, tussles with Hoffman in a secured room where the walls narrow, ultimately crushing him to death.
Where previous installments of the Saw franchise addressed police corruption, "Saw VI" veers into a fang-toothed commentary on the healthcare system. Directed by Kevin Greutert from a script co-written by Melton and Dunstan, "Saw IV" begins with Strahm assuredly dead, while Hoffman continues his bloodthirsty rampage. William Easton, the health insurance agent who denied John Kramer's claims, is a rat trapped in a macabre maze, left to endure various tests involving his lawyer, his star employees, a journalist named Pamela (revealed to be William's sister), and, finally, a woman and her young son, whose father died soon after William's company denied him coverage. The flashbacks make all of this somewhat unbelievable, even if the carousel test is a franchise standout.
File folder number six reveals that Jigsaw's last wish is to finally put Hoffman to the test. Jill happily carries out his plans, as Special Agents Perez and Erickson remain hot on Hoffman's trail. However, the two feds meet an unfortunate fate when Hoffman filets both of them. That's when Jill catches up with him, fastens the bear trap to his head, and leaves him for dead — or so we think. As the 60-second timer counts down, Hoffman rams the front of the trap into the bars covering the room's windows and slithers free, setting up his last attempt at revenge.
Saw: The Final Chapter
If the series hadn't already jumped the shark, "Saw: The Final Chapter" (aka "Saw 3D") seals the deal. Several plot points are hard to swallow. First, Dr. Gordon is very much alive, and Jigsaw converts him into yet another secret accomplice. Second, the first trap, which is staged in a bustling town square, is way too theatrical. Third, Hoffman's vendetta against Jill is strange.
The main plot follows author Bobby Dagen, who makes the rounds promoting his self-penned memoir, only to become Hoffman's latest target. His story about surviving a game involving meat hooks is fabricated, of course, and serves as the basis of his final test. In order to save his wife, he must insert meat hooks into his pectoral muscles and hoist himself up into the air. In a surprising twist, he actually fails, and his wife is cooked alive. There's also a new cop (shocker!), Detective Matt Gibson, who's under the microscope as a past incident during which Hoffman saved his life comes back around to nip him in the butt.
"The Final Chapter," directed by Greutert from another Melton and Dunstan script, is needlessly nihilistic. Hoffman appears to have the upper hand, particularly when he kills Jill with the bear trap. Thankfully, he quickly gets his comeuppance when three masked pigs attack him, one of whom is Dr. Gordon. Hoffman is then locked into the same bathroom from the original film. "Game over!" barks Gordon, slamming the metal door closed. It's a cool ending that's undone by an overly-complicated storyline.
If you've made it this far into the franchise, bless your heart. "Jigsaw" (directed by the Spierig Brothers with a script co-written by Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger) once again distorts the timeline. As previously mentioned, the actual game takes place a decade before the present-day timeline. There are a few breadcrumbs that'll help orient you, but you have to be playing very close attention to detail.
While working as a medical examiner assistant alongside Logan Nelson, Eleanor Bonneville (Hannah Emily Anderson) secretly runs a popular Jigsaw fan site and collects some of the killer's devices, including the bear trap. One evening, Eleanor brings Logan to her "studio" and reveals a cyclone-type contraption, allegedly undiscovered by the cops. Detective Halloran suspects that Logan is the killer, while Logan eyes Halloran. The premise is outrageous, but it works. Logan and Eleanor follow clues that lead them to the Tuck Family Pig Farm, the location of the game. Acting on a hunch, Halloran is right behind them, and gets into a hand-to-hand altercation.
Halloran and Logan wake up with dog collars secured to their necks. To survive the trap, all they have to do is confess, but their egos are strong. The reveal of Logan's complicity in Kramer's schemes since the early days is among the franchise's most enthralling, as absurd as it is. How could John possibly have had this many secret accomplices? At this point, you just have to accept it. It is what it is.
Spiral: From The Book Of Saw
Chris Rock's Detective Banks has a line early on in "Spiral" in which he claims that Jigsaw "never targeted cops." That's a straight-up fallacy; Detective Matthews has entered the chat. That aside, "Spiral: From the Book of Saw" has something truly profound and important to say about law enforcement. After all, police brutality is all over social media these days.
"Spiral" notably sees Darren Lynn Bousman return to the director's chair. With a script co-written by Stolberg and Goldfinger, the latest entry takes place an undisclosed amount of time after the last film. Detective Banks attempts to follow in his father's footsteps at a local precinct, but he can't seem to get out from under the shadow of his past. 12 years earlier, he reported another cop for dirty dealings. Afterwards, when he was investigating a crime and called for backup, no one returned his call, and he was shot. This leads to interesting dynamics among the police force. Banks is tasked with showing Max Minghella's William Schenk the ropes, and they quickly begin investigating a series of crimes that bear a striking resemblance to Jigsaw's games. Is Jigsaw alive again? Or is it just another copycat?
The finale is heart-pounding, from the trap that puppeteers Banks' father like a marionette to the reveal of the real killer. By the end, the screen is soaked with emotion, and Chris Rock mostly pulls it off. If there's a sequel, I wouldn't be totally opposed.
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