In Defense of the Bad Movies of the Saw Franchise

I must make an apology.

To the Saw franchise, to be precise. I wrote an article about the Saw series a few years ago, as part of our Franchise Fanatic (hey, quick plug!) collection, in which I criticized a lot about the set of eight movies. But I’ve been re-watching them again, in the run-up to the release of Spiral, and I have to admit that I made a mistake.

Because I used to think that Saw was basically sliced (heh) into two pieces: the first two films, and then, the rest. The first two being the fiendishly sharp and entertaining horror-cum-crime thrillers, focused on lean storytelling, morality, and a grimy industrial aesthetic. And the rest being…well, an attempt and a failure at the same.

I do think that the Saw franchise can still be cut into those two parts – the plot that revolves around John Kramer, Amanda, and company, and then the one that revolves around Mark Hoffman and his various adversaries. I used to look at that second run – which goes from roughly film three to film seven, with some overlap with the original Kramer arc – as a bad attempt at good films. But now I can see that I’ve been wrong all this time: because they’re actually good attempts at bad films, and I have come to love them as much as I do the original chunk of the franchise.

I am a huge fan of camp – that’s just where my great love lies, and a big part of my adoration for the horror genre as a whole is born from that. But it wasn’t until this rewatch that I really came to appreciate the Hoffman arc as the camp joy that it is: I mean, Costas Manylor, the Hoff-Man in question, is playing each and every scene like his character is mostly thinking about how his jawline is looking at whatever angle the camera happens to be pointing at him from; Strahm (Scott Peterson, unhinged) has a series of flashbacks to things he wasn’t even present for whenever he wanders into a crime scene. Their first couple of films together, four and five, are just utterly telenovela levels of unhinged batshittery, plots so lurid and overwrought and overwritten that they turn into pure soap opera levels of entertainment. It’s a supermarket own-brand Will and Hannibal dynamic, with some excellent traps to boot (I’ve always thought the water-box and glass coffin traps that bookend five are particularly great), and that thundering Charlie Clouser score that crashes in ten minutes from the end to warn us of the barrage of twists that are about to kick your door in and beat you unconcious.

After Strahm’s death at the end of the fifth film, Hoffman’s major rival becomes Jill Tuck (Betsey Russel); I still think that the films could have gone a little harder with camping up Tuck, but I still think she works as a great antagonist to Hoffman and his increasingly deranged presence in these movies. Again, I think it’s Costas Mandylor who really makes these movies tick; if there’s a single person who deserves the credit for making this unhinged story work, it’s him, and his po-faced daftness that really sets the tone here: for every moment when these movies seem to be getting a little too serious, he comes swinging in with leather gloves and a Zoolander pout to steady the ship into foolishness once more. These are not films attempting to deliver high-quality cinema; these are films succeeding at creating enormously stupid and very, very entertaining pulp, and I’m here for it. These films know what they are, and they lean into that with a passionate sense of fun that, when you actually get on board with it, is one hell of a ride.

The second run of the Saw franchise feels more like an extended miniseries than it does a film franchise, and when you watch it as a series of episodes as opposed to standalone stories, it works so much better. My approach to these films before was just wrong; while they were released as single pieces of a wider puzzle, they really are best consumed as a single part, and consumed as trashy telenovela bullshit instead of psuedo-Fincher-esque crime thrillers, as the first two are. And I would like to offer an apology to them, because I have to decide that they’re actually great, for what they are – it’s just that I didn’t really get what they were meant to be until this recent watcharound. And now that I feel like I’ve figured it out, I am all the fuck for these enormously daft and utterly fun entries into the Saw canon, for good.

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By Louise MacGregor

(header image via

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