SAW VI (2009)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 32 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sequences of Grisly Bloody Violence and Torture, and Language

Directed by: Kevin Greutert

Written by: Patrick Melton & Marcus Dunstan

Starring: Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Mark Rolston, Betsy Russell, Shawnee Smith, Peter Outerbridge, Athena Karkanis, Samantha Lemole, Tanedra Howard & Devon Bostick

SAW V was the lowest point of the SAW franchise thus far, so there was really nowhere to go but up with a sixth entry. SAW VI is easily the best installment of the later SAW sequels (4 through 7). That’s not necessarily high praise, especially when you consider that this series only has three rock solid movies (thus far). However, SAW VI offers some silliness, alongside more twisted traps, gory games, and surprising social commentary about America’s heath care system. That last quality isn’t something you’d expect from a SAW movie, but it’s absurd enough to make this film worth watching.

Picking up a short while after SAW V’s conclusion, the sixth SAW sees Jigsaw accomplice Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) continuing his mental mentor’s work. The latest player in a new series of twisted games is insurance executive Will Easton (Peter Outerbridge). Easton denied John Kramer (Tobin Bell) health insurance and this helped transform him into Jigsaw. As Easton makes his way through a series of tests that force him into literal life-or-death decisions, Hoffman nervously finds the walls closing in as the FBI grows closer to uncovering his connection to Jigsaw’s killings.

I’ve already complained about Costas Mandylor and Betsy Russell enough in my previous two SAW reviews. Since I don’t want to simply repeat myself, I’ll say that their crappy performances don’t get any better for either of them in this sixth outing. However, it’s worth noting that SAW VI does get some mileage out of watching Mandylor’s Hoffman turn from emotionless murderer to worried killer as his lies begin to crumble around him. Mandylor actually lands one great scene in this film. You’ll know it when you see it. If only the same could be said about Russell, but we can’t expect any cinematic miracles out of the sixth SAW movie.

As the latest player in Jigsaw’s games, Peter Outerbridge’s Easton is a rather enjoyable protagonist. There’s something satisfying about watching a scummy health insurance executive suffering from having to make gory decisions that usually result in a disfigured corpse. This might feed into the not-so-subtle preachiness of SAW VI’s plot, but it’s very enjoyable in a rather goofy way. The traps are all centered around policies and thoughts that Easton has mentioned before, forcing him to eat his own words in horrifying manners. While some of these traps are still exaggerated to the point of being hard to swallow (did this film take place in an abandoned zoo?), these “games” do attempt to go back to the SAW series’ simpler, scarier death traps. A steam maze and a deadly carousel ride stick out as two big highlights.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, SAW VI does have a handful of really dumb and contrived scenes. While the final 10 minutes may serve as a middle finger to certain viewers and I imagine some folks will really dig a revelation that changes the reasoning behind SAW III‘s intense climax, but the conclusion of VI’s games and a last-minute surprise both feel like SAW VI is “cheating” (for lack of a better word). It’s also worth noting that Jigsaw’s standards for victims’ “taking life for granted” have been set so low that a smoker finds himself in a breath-based trap that also opens up a massive plot hole. The contentious relationship between Costas Mandylor’s Hoffman and Betsy Russell’s Jill is a bore to behold, but SAW VI matters where it counts: the traps and gory entertainment. Also, Tobin Bell returns (of course) for a few obligatory flashbacks that further hammer in this sequel’s not-so-subtle social commentary.

Though nobody would ever expect a sixth SAW to wind up at the top of the series’ totem pole and the sixth sequel of any horror franchise is usually a bad sign (except for the underrated FRIDAY THE 13TH Part VI: JASON LIVES!), SAW VI is a rather decent outing in this long-running horror series. The acting is remarkably better this time around (minus Mandylor and Russell). The traps are simpler and more believable (minus a couple of over-the-top bits), with the murder carousel and steam maze sticking out as the film’s biggest highlights. Even though SAW VI has its undeniable flaws and is far from perfect, this is the best of the later SAW sequels (4-7). If you’ve made it this far in the series, I imagine that you’ll get a kick out of the sixth SAW flick!

Grade: C+

SAW IV (2007)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sequences of Grisly Bloody Violence and Torture throughout, and for Language

Directed by: Darren Lynn Bousman

Written by: Marcus Dunstan & Patrick Melton

Starring: Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Scott Patterson, Betsy Russell, Lyriq Bent, Athena Karkanis & Justin Louis

Even though SAW III could have been a fitting finale for one hell of a horror trilogy, a fourth film was greenlit before the third one even hit theaters. By the time SAW IV was released, Lionsgate had confirmed upcoming fifth and sixth installments were already in production. In other words, Lionsgate loved that SAW was banking at the box office and they planned on keeping their torture-porn money train rolling. Unfortunately, SAW IV is where the series began to dip into mediocrity and stupidity. SAW IV is the second-worst film in the franchise and seems entirely constructed of half-hearted attempts to replicate better moments from the previous three chapters.

John Kramer (a.k.a. the Jigsaw Killer, played by Tobin Bell) has died. After being sliced open during an autopsy, a wax-coated tape is discovered in John’s stomach. Grizzled cop Detective Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) is called to the scene and plays the cassette only to find that Jigsaw’s twisted games aren’t over. Jigsaw apparently had another accomplice and SWAT team member Rigg (Lyriq Bent from the previous two SAW films) is playing a new sadistic game. Rigg cares too much about saving people (I guess that’s a flaw?) and a series of traps/games are meant to force him to “empathize” with Jigsaw. Meanwhile, new detectives Strahm (Scott Patterson) and Perez (Athena Karkanis) investigate Jigsaw’s shadowy recruit.

It’s hard not to sound bitter about SAW IV, but this film is a mess. Darren Lynn Bousman’s directorial chops slightly elevate the ridiculous material because his scene transitions are fun (aided by ingenious set designs) and there are a couple of decent scenes. It’s also worth noting that Lyriq Bent’s performance isn’t bad as he’s the first real heroic character to be put through Jigsaw’s tests, but this really raises eyebrows as Rigg’s problems aren’t really problems. Jigsaw had a method in picking his victims from their various sins that he saw as not appreciating life (e.g. drug use, suicide attempts, crimes, shady dealings, etc.) and Rigg doesn’t fit his M.O. at all. This is a huge plot hole that seems to exist purely to thrust Bent’s cop character into the spotlight.

As far as the series’ newcomers go, Scott Patterson and Athena Karkanis are two bland detectives on the Jigsaw case. Costas Mandylor may be the worst actor in the SAW series as Agent Hoffman and that’s saying a lot when you consider the low quality performances that populate a majority of this torture-porn franchise. Meanwhile, Betsy Russell is brought back as Jigsaw’s wife in both flashbacks and present day sequences. Russell also delivers a terrible performance. It’s too bad that Mandylor and Russell fill recurring roles throughout the last four films of this franchise, because their characters are boring and they can’t convincingly emote.

Even though his character is dead, Tobin Bell appears in flashbacks that deliver more details about how Kramer became Jigsaw. As if being diagnosed with cancer and surviving a suicide attempt weren’t sad enough (as glimpsed in the far superior SAW II), Kramer has also apparently been subjected to even more tragedy in his life that drove him to his “work.” A small subplot of how Kramer chose his first victim and invented his first device is kind of cool to watch, even though more insight into Jigsaw makes him less scary as a result.

SAW IV’s best trap hearkens back to the simpler, scarier bits of the series and involves a set of knives used in a disfiguring way. The rest of the traps are rather silly and out-ridiculous the already ridiculous (but cool) devices from SAW III. Apparently, straps attached to bed posts are strong enough to rip off limbs and one loud mechanical device was snuck into a mortuary without anyone noticing (playing a stitched-up spin on the first two parts of the phrase “See No Evil, Speak No Evil, Hear No Evil”).

Finally, SAW IV’s biggest slap in the face arrives in a twist ending that fails to leave much of an impact. Much like the rest of this lackluster sequel, SAW IV’s conclusion is a mediocre mish-mash of better scenes from better entries that came before this one. I don’t want to be specific because that would give away major spoilers for any viewer who dares to tread further into the series after the third film. I will just say that the conclusion of Rigg’s tests packs four eye-rollingly convoluted revelations in a row. There were further sequels to follow SAW IV and this isn’t even the worst film of the series. However, this is still a drastic step down from the quality of the first three SAWs. Just pretend that SAW is a trilogy and don’t venture into the IV-VII. Stop playing these games. It’s not worth it!

Grade: C-

SAW III (2006)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 53 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Grisly Violence and Gore, Sequences of Terror and Torture, Nudity and Language

Directed by: Darren Lynn Bousman

Written by: Leigh Whannell

Starring: Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith, Angus Macfadyen, Bahar Soomekh, Donnie Wahlberg, Dina Meyer, Leigh Whannell, Mpho Koaho, Barry Flatman, Lyriq Bent, Debra McCabe, Betsy Russell & Costas Mandylor

Another Halloween arrived in 2006 and so did another SAW movie. This third entry in the financially successful torture-porn franchise would have served as a solid finale to a gory trilogy. While that didn’t wind up being the case, SAW III is the last truly good entry in the series. III is the longest installment in the SAW series and delivers more sadistic traps, whilst further developing its two central antagonists and dishing out another twisted plot. SAW III is on par with the first SAW, while not reaching the tense heights of SAW II.

Shortly after the events of SAW II, the police are investigating a new series of seemingly inescapable traps from the Jigsaw killer. Things are more complex than they initially appear because former-survivor-turned-murderous-apprentice Amanda (Shawnee Smith) is aiding the ever-closer-to-death John Kramer (Tobin Bell). The pair of Jigsaw killers enact another twisted game which sees grieving father Jeff (Angus Macfadyen) confronting faces behind a tragic accident that claimed the life of his eight-year-old son. Meanwhile, surgeon Lynn (Bahar Soomekh) is fitted with a shotgun collar that’s tied to John’s heart monitor and struggles to keep him alive to ensure her own survival.

SAW III is back to the first film’s level in terms of shaky acting and dumb character decisions. Both of these qualities are epitomized in the character of Jeff. Part of me wants to love Angus Macfadyen’s performance and the other part of me wants to slap this protagonist upside the head. On one hand, Macfadyen is playing a severely depressed and grieving father who’s destroying his own life over the loss of his son and (as a result) is wrecking his family. It’s a sad character to watch and Macfadyen has his moments as Jeff. On the other hand, Jeff makes a lot of idiotic bone-headed decisions that hurt both himself and people around him. There are only so many times that you can drop a key in a tense scenario before I start yelling “Oh, come on!” at the screen. Also, it’s kind of important to look behind you when you’re holding a wire that’s connected to a loaded shotgun, but that’s neither here, nor there.

Bahar Soomekh fares better as Lynn, though her emotional state ranges from severely panicked to unbelievably calm. The various other victims are one-note stereotypes, even though brief attempts are made to flesh them out. The movie clearly wants us to feel bad for these people, but the viewer might tend to side with Jeff in a couple of moments. Tobin Bell and Shawnee Smith make up for the lack of acting talent around them because their on-screen killer chemistry is palpable. Their teacher-protégé relationship plays a big part in the proceedings and leads to emotions that come right out of nowhere. I never thought that I’d feel something for the Jigsaw Killer or his lackey, but Whannell managed to pull strange sympathy towards them.

Both of SAW III’s storylines jump back and forth from each other, much like the parallel plot structures of the previous two films. However, the lengthy running time is also loaded with flashbacks galore. These various blasts from the past establish character development in both heroes and villains, while also providing context for many twists that unfold. Though a few revelations are easy to call in advance (screenwriter Leigh Whannell admitted that he didn’t try too hard to keep these secrets hidden), the fiendish finale stacks twist upon twist.

Most of the conclusion’s twists lead to devastating consequences which changed the direction of the series forever and serve as my justification for why SAW should have been left as a trilogy. Other plot points strain credibility as things just happened to work out in a certain person’s favor and a couple of coincidences are a tad too ridiculous. I’m mainly speaking about the final two minutes which end on a cliffhanger that’s never quite resolved in a satisfying manner (in both SAW IV and SAW V). This last-minute twist also slightly undoes the emotional journey that the main character spent the last two hours enduring.

SAW III’s traps are cool and totally impractical. The first two films maintained a sense of believability in Jigsaw’s deadly devices appearing like they could be constructed with scrap metal (reverse bear trap) or consisting of simple horrifying scenarios (a pit of syringes). SAW III’s traps are ridiculous. They’re undeniably cool, but still ridiculous. One scene involves decaying corpses of a certain animal (which stands out as Tobin Bell’s favorite trap of the series) and is sure to make viewers heave a little queasily. The best trap is undeniably a reverse-crucifix, which originally began as a device that folded its victim into a box until Whannell changed it. There’s also a gnarly scene of improvised surgery scene that delivers a shocking amount of realistic gore.

SAW III should have capped off the series as a gore-soaked trilogy. This third outing provides a surprising amount of emotion towards its antagonists, while attempting to flesh out its protagonists to varying degrees of success. Some of the twists are brilliant, while others seem too convenient and treat Jigsaw like an omnipotent god-like serial killer. The traps are a lot of fun, even though this is the point where Jigsaw’s games became pretty damn silly…even though they’re cool to see in motion. If you liked SAW and SAW II, there’s no reason why you wouldn’t dig SAW III. This is the last good film of the series for me, whilst the rest of the SAW sequels devolved into shameless cash-ins and convoluted continuity.

Grade: B

SAW II (2005)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Grisly Violence and Gore, Terror, Language and Drug Content

Directed by: Darren Lynn Bousman

Written by: Darren Lynn Bousman & Leigh Whannell

Starring: Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith, Donnie Wahlberg, Erik Knudsen, Franky G, Glenn Plummer, Emmanuelle Vaugier, Beverley Mitchell, Timothy Burd, Dina Meyer & Lyriq Bent

A mere year after the success of indie horror hit SAW, a sequel was rushed to theaters just in time for Halloween 2005. Unlike most slapdash sequels though, SAW II doesn’t show any signs of being a quick cash-in and is one of those rare instances where a second installment improves upon its predecessor. The plot is more focused this time around, the traps are oozing with creativity and menace, and the ending somehow manages to pull the rug out from underneath the viewer in many surprising ways. SAW II is not only better than SAW, but also ranks as the best film in the longer-than-it-needed-to-be SAW franchise.

Set after the blood-splattered events of the first film, this sequel follows Detective Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg) as he stumbles across the booby-trap-filled lair of the Jigsaw Killer. Once face-to-face with demented murderer John Kramer (Tobin Bell), Matthews comes to the horrifying realization that his son Daniel (Erik Knudsen) is currently trapped in one of Jigsaw’s sick games and he’s also now stuck in a game of his own. Elsewhere, Daniel and seven strangers awake in a fortified crackhouse that’s being pumped with nerve gas and eight antidotes are hidden in various death traps. However, the survival instinct of this new band of victims may be just as deadly as Jigsaw’s games.

One immediate improvement over the first SAW comes in SAW II’s performances. While the first film struggled with Leigh Whannell being an amateur actor and Cary Elwes coming off as laughably over-the-top during would-be emotional scenes, SAW II remedies its performances with much more believable actors and stronger dialogue. Some scenes do become a tad ham-fisted, mainly in Franky G’s performance as intimidating drug dealer Xavier. However, even Franky G’s acting is convincing for a most of the film. Erik Knudsen also does well as the youngest person stuck in the “Nerve Gas House” and Shawnee Smith makes a welcomed return to the series as former-Jigsaw-survivor-turned-player-once-again Amanda.

In the Jigsaw’s Lair storyline, we get a battle of wits and wills between Donnie Wahlberg’s detective and Tobin Bell’s serial killer. Their constant banter is especially fun as Bell milks bits of dark humor for all they’re worth and enjoys toying with Wahlberg’s already dire mental state. Their exchanges are just as entertaining and suspenseful as the gory carnage occurring in the Nerve Gas House, so that’s really saying something. Both characters return for later installments in the series and it’s easy to see why. Their performances breathe life into material that may have wound up overly clichéd in other hands.

SAW II’s dual structure does a remarkable job of balancing the two different storylines. The 95-minute running time flies by and never once comes close to overstaying its welcome. Much like the first film’s nightmare-inducing conclusion, SAW II’s ending is packed full of surprises and startling revelations. This film builds one twist on top of another and it all checks out completely, with any possible plot holes being easily filled in by quick flashbacks revealing the clues that were stored early on.

The film’s overall look is atmospheric and gritty. The crackhouse setting makes the viewer feel dirty from just looking at it and the design of Jigsaw’s lair looks like someone cranked their love for John Doe’s apartment in SE7EN up to the extreme. The editing is a bit too chaotic during intense moments, especially one scene near the end that would have been more effective if the camera wasn’t spinning around an act of self-mutilation like a flashy music video. Therein, lies my only big complaint with this sequel.

Last but certainly not least, SAW II’s traps are fiendishly creative and believable. There’s nothing that’s nearly as over-the-top as later films in the series and these simple devices are the most effective. Something like a gun-attached to a door or a spike-filled rendition of a Venus Fly Trap are sure to freak viewers out and delight gore-loving horror fans. One scene that made me wince as a teenager and still makes me wince as an adult is a twisted spin on the phrase “finding a needle in a haystack” that sees a character crawling through a pit of used syringes to find a key. The entire sequence is pure nightmare fuel and may be the single most terrifying creation in the SAW universe (which is really saying something).

With diabolical twists and fiendish traps galore, SAW II is hands-down the best film in the SAW franchise. This sequel improves upon everything that was irksome about its 2004 predecessor. The acting is better and the script is constructed in a way that keeps its hooks sunken into the viewer. There’s actual suspense and the chilling conclusion is bound to keep you thinking about it long after the credits have rolled. Before the series publicly devolved into the torture-porn punchline that it is today (with progressively ridiculous continuity and an eighth film arriving this Halloween), the first three SAW films hold up as a damn fine horror trilogy and SAW II is the biggest highlight of the entire series.

Grade: B+

SAW (2004)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 43 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Grisly Violence and Language


Directed by: James Wan

Written by: Leigh Whannell

Starring: Cary Elwes, Leigh Whannell, Tobin Bell, Danny Glover, Monica Potter, Michael Emerson, Ken Leung, Makenzie Vega & Shawnee Smith

The 2000s were an interesting time for horror cinema. Though many people are quick to say that the decade didn’t pump out many original horror flicks, it seemed like audiences got a solid amount of surprisingly great remakes (along with plenty of crappy cash-ins), cool indie fare and plenty of foreign scares. 2004’s SAW falls into that second category. After premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, SAW grossed 55 times its one-million budget at the U.S. box office and spawned the biggest horror franchise of the 2000’s. Whether or not that’s a positive thing is subjective, but I personally loved the entire series as a teenager and they’ve held up as guilty pleasures for me as an adult. Having now revisited SAW for the first time in years, I noticed that its faults definitely stick out now and yet, it still stands as a disturbingly creepy horror-thriller.


Photographer Adam (Leigh Whannell) and Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) wake up in an abandoned bathroom. Leaving isn’t an option because both men are chained to pipes on opposite sides of the room. A corpse, a tape recorder, and a gun lie in the middle of the bathroom. After some crafty maneuvering, the men soon discover that they are the latest victims in the sick “games” of a serial killer known as Jigsaw. To win their game, one man must retrieve the gun in the middle of the room and shoot/kill the other. Don’t worry though, because Jigsaw has left them a gift: hacksaws. These aren’t strong enough to cut through chains and are strong enough to cut through bone. You get where this is heading. With a ticking clock, the men must try to figure out of a way to escape…or face their grisly dilemma head-on.


SAW’s premise is wicked and simple, arguably too simple. If this were only 103 minutes of two men sitting a room with this insane scenario, then the viewer would probably die of boredom or find themselves depressed beyond belief. Director James Wan and screenwriter/actor Leigh Whannell wisely throw in flashbacks to subvert the viewer’s attention to backstories behind both men and their captor. The script also has a subplot involving a rugged cop who’s on the trail of Jigsaw and hostage shenanigans at Dr. Gordon’s apartment (his wife and daughter are being held as “prizes” to be won or lost). The way in which SAW slowly puts together its twisted puzzle of a story is kind of amazing. The flashbacks slowly fill the viewer in on who the two men are and give little clues that ratchet up the tension to high levels.


The Jigsaw Killer’s gruesome traps (which became more and more over-the-top with each passing installment) are realistic(ish) and leveled in this first film. The games are deadly scenarios with horrifying hazards (e.g. razor wire, broken glass, flammable goo, etc.) and the only big device used is a jaw-ripping reverse bear-trap that has become a symbol of this torture-porn franchise ever since this film’s release. The scenes with Jigsaw’s games are brief, but leave a shudder-inducing impact. A scene that has always made me squeamish involves a razor wire maze and a man stripped down to his undies. That’s truly terrifying beyond words and the verbal description of the crime scene makes the me cringe more than any gory visual could (though rest assured, there are definitely moments of gore).


Two big problems muddy SAW’s many positive qualities. The film frequently relies on frenetic editing, which makes intense moments seem more like a heavy metal music video than a horror movie. The gritty atmosphere and visuals keep things appropriately creepy, but the editing occasionally detracts from the film as a whole. The second issue is far more egregious. Most of the acting in SAW is terrible, like embarrassingly bad and unconvincing during many moments. Not every actor is terrible, because Danny Glover is well-cast and a few of the supporting characters have their moments. However, Cary Elwes should be ashamed of his unconvincing American accent, unbelievable mood swings, and hammy line delivery. He’s horrible in damn near every scene he’s in. Meanwhile, it’s fairly obvious that Leigh Whannell was new to acting in 2003 because he’s just as annoying as Elwes. Whannell has the excuse of being a newbie though, which makes Cary Elwes seem even more awful by comparison.


SAW has problems that cannot be ignored (frenetic editing and bad acting), but the plot, suspense and genuinely terrifying conclusion still holds up over a decade later (feeling old yet?). This is a rare case where great writing and terrifying ideas outshine crappy performances and amateur filmmaking. Though it’s not the stellar gory scarefest that I remember adoring as a teenager, I will still attest that 2004’s SAW is a good horror film. It’s a creepy indie effort with lots of disturbing scenarios, smart writing, a nightmare-inducing ending (I still get chills when I see it), and noticeable flaws.

Grade: B

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