The following review contains spoilers for Saw II and Saw III. For our spoiler review of the first Saw, click here.
When Saw hit theaters in 2004, something none of the creators expected happened: it was a roaring success. Grossing over $100 million on a budget in the ballpark of $1 million, Lionsgate had a bonafide hit on their hands. As such successes are wont to do, Saw immediately spawned a sequel. 8 of them, and still counting. Horror films are no stranger to starting franchises. What’s interesting about Saw as a franchise, however, is just how much the quality persists throughout. The precedent for this is set by two excellent sequels: Saw II and Saw III.
Saw II (2005)
On its surface, Saw doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a sequel. It’s in its tight, compact nature. How do you make a sequel to a movie not very open-ended? In the case of Saw II, it’s molding a movie that doesn’t have anything to do with Saw into a sequel. Screenwriter Darren Lynn Bousman was trying to get his script entitled “The Desperate” made. Lionsgate saw the script’s similarities to Saw and had Leigh Whannell mold it into Saw II, with Bousman hired to direct. The results? Seamless.
Saw II is better than the original in every conceivable way due to two main factors: elevation and refinement. The former comes from a far more ambitious plot structure. A new group, including previous Jigsaw survivor Amanda Young (a magnetic Shawnee Smith), wake up in a literal household of horrors devised by the mastermind. Meanwhile, Detective Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg) captures John Kramer/Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), but he is forced to have a conversation with him in hopes of having his son returned to him, who is in the aforementioned house.
Scenes between Matthews and Jigsaw sizzle off the screen. No longer a faceless threat, Bell gets a lot to work with here. His soft-spoken, frail Jigsaw is made interesting by his lack of malice, his genuine belief in what he’s doing. He’s a twisted mind, sure, yet he genuinely believes he’s making the world a better place. Matthews soon loses himself in the beautiful enigma that is John Kramer. Bousman and Whannell’s screenplay using the first film’s twist as a jumping-off point; exploring the “why” now that we know the “who”. The fractured philosophy of Jigsaw established here is a tenet that will go on to be one of the biggest flagships of the franchise.
Similarly, the other plotline involving the house with the “game players” sets a precedent for the series going forward. The traps are more creative this time around. A furnace containing two antidotes for the poison that is coursing through all their veins and a game of “find the antidote in the pit full of syringes” are notable highlights. Other than Amanda, none of the victims are particularly memorable. It’s their attempts to beat the games, most of which lead to their demise. Here Bousman gets his time to shine.
Like its predecessor, Saw II has a “no fat” approach. In addition to the Matthews/Kramer standoff, the central game moves a fast clip, helped by Kevin Gruetert’s glitchy editing. Each trap is gruesome and hard to watch, though hard to look away from. The color palette has an additional layer of grunge that further develops the “look” of the series. There’s a morbid fascination with seeing how postulating on if one can beat a trap, and it’s thrilling all the way.
Finally, Saw II one-ups the first film with a twist surprising, but under our noses the entire time. It turns that Amanda Young was Jigsaw’s apprentice all along, helping him set up all the games present in the film. As shocking as it is, it all makes sense, and it introduces a concept that will come to define the series: legacy. Speaking of, the legacy Saw II leaves on the franchise is undeniable. It ups the ante, making for a horror that ensures that Saw would have what John Kramer himself needed apprentices to achieve. Longevity.
Saw III (2006)
After the one-two punch of the first two films, Bousman and Whannell came back to finish their trilogy with a bang. Of course, we know this was far from the end. But if this truly were the final chapter of Saw, then it accomplished its goal and then some.
The plot this time around is once again divided into two narratives. The first is that of Lynn (Bahar Soomekh), a doctor who was abducted by Amanda to tend to the dying John Kramer. The second is the story of Jeff (Angus MacFayden), a man grieving the loss of his son to a drunk driver who is put through a series of tests by Jigsaw to see if he can forgive those responsible for his son’s death to a drunk driver.
Jeff’s storyline is where the typical Saw goodness happens. Shrouded in an even more stylized visual palette (lots of greens and yellows!) than the previous films, these are some of the best traps the series has ever come up with. Saving a chained naked woman from freezing to death as water is sprayed on her in a freezer room, trying to free a corrupt judge from a bath of pig’s blood – all are twisted in their own ways. And then of course there’s one of the series’ most gruesome traps: “The Rack”. “The Rack” individually twists each of its victims’ body parts all the way around. It’s as traumatizing as it sounds.
What makes the traps sing in this film is the connection between them. All related to Jeff, whom Angus MacFayden plays with a captivating instability, there’s a personal stake in each of the traps that feel like they truly test his character to a degree henceforth unseen. Where Jeff’s game falters is in just how gratuitous it is. Saw III is the longest film in the franchise. Too much of that time involves watching the victims of the traps writhe in pain. I’m no puritan, but at a certain point, it becomes a bit too much. Not quite “torture porn” as some critics have claimed; just too much. A dark spot on the otherwise fantastic story following Jeff that unfortunately continues to be a feature of further sequels.
For something a little more intellectually stimulating than visceral, look to the other plot. Let there be no pretense: there is an ultra gory scene of a makeshift surgery on Jigsaw’s brain that is absurdly tense. But that’s not the point. The ailing Jigsaw takes an almost mythological status. He’s someone who people view as a paragon of morality (ironically). Unlike Detective Matthews, Lynn is almost captivated by his words. Almost. It furthers the murky grey waters of morality that the series continues to mine for films to come. Just as well, the concept of legacy sees continual exploration in Amanda.
Amanda is the film’s strongest asset. Shawnee Smith puts on a tough-as-nails front that gives way to a heartbreaking vulnerability. She seeks to find redemption from her previous life as an addict by working with Kramer, yet old wounds continue to open. Smith is consistently watchable, far from just the successor to Jigsaw; she’s a character into herself and the core of the film.
All of these balls in the air, Saw III serves up a pile of twists so sky-high that I’ll just have to rattle them up. Ready? Let’s go. Jeff makes his way to the room where Jigsaw, Amanda, and Lynn are, where we find out that Lynn is his wife. Amanda kills Lynn. Turns out – this was her test from Jigsaw to “save a life” and she failed. Jeff kills Amanda. Jeff kills Jigsaw. Once again, this was a game. Because he was unable to forgive, his living other child is now locked up in an undisclosed location.
It is a Tazmanian Devil tailspin of a finale that, despite its apparent convoluted nature, never feels that way. Instead, it wraps all of the threads up in a positively epic fashion that brings the franchise as we know it to an improbably great close. While not quite as strong as Saw II, Saw III aims to be a tour-de-force and delivers on its lofty ambitions. Now how the hell do you continue after a finale like this? –James Preston Poole
Saw II and Saw III are both available on home video, digital HD, and streaming on HBO Max.