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The Saw Franchise: Recapping What You Need to Know

by Joe Aranda
Tobin Bell as John Kramer aka Jigsaw smirking with guns up to his face as seen in Saw II.

When discussing the Horror genre, audiences tend to consider slashers, monsters, and the paranormal. While the Saw franchise doesn’t necessarily fall under any of these categories, it has cemented itself as a staple in all of Horror. In 2004, James Wan and Leigh Whannell kicked off an iconic legacy with their first feature film, which has since spawned 7 sequels with a new revival now debuting in theaters 17 years later.

Wan and Whannell eventually moved on to other endeavors, but that didn’t stop Lionsgate, the studio behind the series, from spiraling this title into the chaotic abyss. The Saw name is known for its signature twists, convoluted plots, and insane thrills, so much to the point where it often feels like a soap opera filled with gore. As Spiral: From the Book of Saw nears its premiere, what better time to attempt a franchise recap? Bare with us as we try to make sense of 7 sequels in all their intertwined bullsh*t. We only cover what you need to know the most to get a solid grip on what Saw is all about, and bold the more important names to remember for extra help. Without further ado…

Birth of the Game: Saw – Saw II

It all starts in Saw when the mysterious Jigsaw killer traps Adam Stanheight, a photographer, and Lawrence Gordon, an oncologist, in an undisclosed location known to fans as “The Bathroom.” This location is later brought back multiple times in the series, with the lights somehow still working. Shackled by one foot on opposite sides, the duo face a series of tests and an all but random dead body with clues at the center of the rusted room.

Starting here, participants in Jigsaw’s games are always initially strangers until it’s eventually revealed how their lives are more intertwined than realized. Lawrence soon finds out that Adam was paid to take photos of him as he was having an affair with one of his medical students. After they seemingly fail their tests, Lawrence saws his foot off and crawls away to save his family from Jigsaw’s schemes, promising to return and save a wounded Adam. But then the most iconic moment in all of Saw history happens: that one dead body actually gets up and boom it’s the real Jigsaw killer. Pulled off with fake blood and sedative drugs, Jigsaw is revealed to be a man known as John Kramer, and leaves Adam to die in the dark with his unforgettable “Game Over” line read.

Jumping to Saw II, Detective Eric Mathews is on the clock to rescue 8 people, including his son Daniel, trapped inside a house filled with a nerve gas that will kill them within 2 hours. In order to save them, Matthews must come face to face with John Kramer unmasked and play a new (more literal) type of game. One of the people trapped in the house is Amanda Young, the only known survivor of a Jigsaw trap as seen in the first film (which apparently no one questions, not even the police watching as John gives a bonus features-like commentary). Continuing the tradition, everyone trapped inside the house besides Daniel is a victim of Matthew’s past shady arrests.

For every Jigsaw game that people endure, there is always a way to survive. For Adam and Lawrence, it’s a hidden key and a couple of hacksaws found within a bag. For the people inside the house, it’s a series of ironic tests based on their crimes in order to obtain an antidote (hilarious because the locked door to the house was set to open after 3 hours but they would never be able to leave as the gas would kill them by then). Special circumstances in the games also usually present themselves to certain characters; Lawrence has the choice to shoot Adam for his freedom while all Detective Matthews has to do is stay and talk with Jigsaw until the 2 hours were up. John’s exact words are, “If you do that long enough, then you’ll find your son in a safe and secure state” and in the end, Daniel is found inside a safe in the same room they were talking in from the very beginning… cinema at its finest.

Lawrence, Amanda, Detective Matthews, and Daniel are the only ones to “survive” the games in Saw and Saw II, but apart from Daniel, John Kramer has a plan for the others that is eventually told in future installments.

Jigsaw's apprentice Amanda Young as seen in the finale of Saw II.
Shawnee Smith as Amanda Young in ‘Saw II’ courtesy of Lionsgate

The Apprentice: Saw II – Saw III

We first met Amanda Young as the only person to survive a Jigsaw game by cutting her boyfriend’s stomach for a key to escape the iconic “reverse bear trap” to the face. Saw II ends by revealing that she is actually Jigsaw’s apprentice, as she drugs and traps Detective Matthews (in the bathroom of all places, right next to Adam’s skeleton) after he fails his test. Her life of drug addiction and jail time was turned around by her own Jigsaw game. She is shown confessing multiple times that her survival was the key to changing her life around.

Although she is meant to live on as the successor to John Kramer, as he suffers from terminal cancer, she is faced with a new test of her own in Saw III. This officially makes 3 games that Amanda has been a part of, I guess 3 strikes and you’re out? She is instructed by John to manage a situation in which Dr. Lynn Denlon would perform surgery to keep him alive until her husband named Jeff searched for their abducted daughter in his own series of games. So in each of the first 3 films, Jigsaw holds the main character’s children hostage, this will prove to be more symbolic later.

Throughout Saw III, Amanda’s psyche takes a turn for the worse as she starts questioning John and his philosophies as Jigsaw. It all boils down to the moment where Amanda shoots Lynn in the back as her husband comes close to finishing his final test. This results in Amanda’s death as Jeff enters the room and immediately shoots her in the neck with a gun planted earlier in his game, we’ll dive more into this insane contingency plan later.

Though Amanda is mainly seen in Saw II and III, she is crucial to the series as she continues to appear in flashbacks in later films. We see her acting as Jigsaw, straying away from Jigsaw’s vision by setting up traps that would cheat the victim and interacting with John’s second apprentice Mark Hoffman (more on him soon). The intertwining stories of the entire franchise goes into peak effect with Amanda, as it’s shown in Saw IV (stay with me here) that she is more linked to John’s origin story than originally thought. John’s wife, Jill Tuck, held a miscarriage due to an accident where a crook slammed a door on her baby bump at a clinic. This man was Amanda’s boyfriend Cecil Adams, and she was the one who initially insisted he go to the clinic to get drugs.

John never knew of this secret, but it was later used as blackmail against Amanda by Mark Hoffman to get rid of her. Amanda’s last action before her death was getting revenge on Mark by warning Corbett Denlon, Lynn and Jeff’s daughter, about the person that would eventually save her with the hopes that she would identify him as Jigsaw’s second appreciate to the police. Having trouble keeping up? Well, this isn’t shown until Saw V and, once again, the way these movies keep cutting back or take place hours within each other is absolutely mad.

John Kramer played by Tobin Bell on his death bed as seen in the pivotal finale of Saw III.
Tobin Bell as John Kramer in ‘Saw III’ courtesy of Lionsgate

John Kramer’s Death: Saw III – Saw IV

John Kramer’s death was inevitable since the day he was diagnosed with terminal cancer by Lawrence Gordon, the doctor that sawed off his foot in the first film. Before his prognosis, John was a respected civil engineer and property developer (What other horror movie villain could say they were as educated as John?) but all that came to an end after Jill’s tragic miscarriage of his unborn son. The two eventually got divorced, he got diagnosed, and his will to live waned until he survived a suicide attempt. John drove off a cliff, hoping to put an end to his misery, but instead gained a new appreciation life. In hoping to do so for others, he became Jigsaw.

His reign of terror toward individuals who no longer valued their lives is seen in all the films, even post-mortem as they show that John truly has a plan for everything. This is shown to great effect in Saw III, where John was being kept alive by Dr. Lynn Denlon while she wore a shotgun shell necklace that was linked to his heart rate and would go off upon his death (Incredible if he died by accident). As Amanda begins to breakdown emotionally and lose sight of her own test, John says that in the same way Lynn’s life is tied to his, Amanda’s is tied to Lynn’s as he left a gun to Lynn’s husband, Jeff, during his game… so that in the event of Lynn being attacked, Jeff would shoot and kill Amanda.

Even though John survived while Amanda and Lynn were both down, he still had another trick up his sleeve that dealt with the survival of Jeff’s daughter, Corbett Denlon. Unfortunately, this was not enough to sway Jeff as he slices John’s neck with a power saw (ha), also tragically killing Lynn in the process. John Kramer is officially dead but the games did not end there as a pre-recorded tape was readied for Jeff, who now has no way of finding his abducted daughter.

This is where Mark Hoffman, John’s second apprentice who was being warned to stop disregarding what he was taught as there would be repercussions, takes the spotlight. Original creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell were only involved in this first trilogy, leaving the door open for more madness to come after John’s physical death. The title of Jigsaw, of course, lived on.

Mark Hoffman played by Costas Mandylor in the morgue overlooking Jigsaw's corpse as seen in Saw IV.
Costas Mandylor as Mark Hoffman in ‘Saw IV’ courtesy of Lionsgate

Pseudo Jigsaw: Saw IV – Saw VI

As shown in flashbacks, Mark Hoffman’s life is filled with tragedy. His sister Angelina was brutally murdered by her ex-boyfriend, Seth Baxter, during a domestic dispute. Hoffman then suffered a mental breakdown, which lead to him obtaining revenge as he duplicated Jigsaw’s m.o so that he could murder Seth in cold blood with no suspicion towards himself in the game known as ‘The Pendulum Murder’. Of course, this got John’s attention as he soon trapped Mark in a game of his own, testing his loyalty to the cause (of putting people in depraved traps). Even though he somewhat passed, Mark wasn’t immune to the intoxication of feeling like God when he inherits the Jigsaw mantle.

Mark was different from Amanda because she initially believed in what John was teaching her, even though her mental state worsened to the point where she stopped. Mark is never actually shown to believe in the philosophies of Jigsaw, as he did not outwardly gain an appreciation for his life after his game. He was initially reluctant to join the Jigsaw crew, but was partially forced to after John coerced him with the notion that Mark’s work in the pendulum murder would be revealed to the police.

After John’s death, Mark essentially stopped testing people as his desires became selfish. His games eventually grew less articulate (an understatement since he legit produced games that were unwinnable) as he started trapping the law enforcement who were hot on his trail of blood. The sequels with Mark see him going through this journey while simultaneously overlooking more complicated “group games” that John had left behind. He manages to succeed up to the end of VI, but straying away from John’s vision along with leaving his tracks make his days as the pseudo Jigsaw numbered.

Jill Tuck, John’s wife, becomes involved in Mark’s affair which leads to a game of cat and mouse as Jill had learned about Mark’s betrayal that got her husband killed (Blackmail is apparently still done by letter in these movies). Now, Mark not only has to worry about Jill but also the feds, who are nearing their ability to identify him as Jigsaw. Mark slowly loses his grasp on reality and eventually goes on a berserk killing spree, making Jill his last target before he can disappear forever. Enter John’s secret apprentices and the more ridiculous twists of the Saw franchise.

Cary Elwes returns as Dr. Lawrence Gordon standing in the iconic bathroom dungeon as seen in Saw VII: The Final Chapter.
Cary Elwes as Dr. Lawrence Gordon in Saw VII courtesy of Lionsgate

John Kramer’S Legacy: Saw VII – Jigsaw

John Kramer’s legacy is further cemented in the last two films as it’s revealed he had two other apprentices unbeknownst to Amanda and Mark (also not known to the fans and maybe even the producers). In Saw VII: The Final Chapter, we see that Lawrence Gordon, who at this point had not appeared in real-time at all after escaping his game in the first film, was saved by John and has been acting as his secret final apprentice ever since.

While Mark and Amanda where the apprentices shown on-screen the most, it was Lawrence who fulfilled the duties of Jigsaw in the shadows as it’s shown that in many events throughout the whole series, it’s Lawrence whose influence is actually felt. He performed the medical procedures on many of the subjects in past games (such as cutting people open and hiding keys underneath people’s skin), he suggested abducting Dr. Lynn Denlon for John’s surgery in Saw III, and is relied on by John to take care of Jill should anything happen to her – perhaps John’s biggest big brain move. This promise by Lawrence is fulfilled in Saw VII: The Final Chapter, as Mark takes it upon himself to murder Jill with a classic reverse bear trap to the face. After Jill’s death, Mark is subdued by Lawrence and trapped in “The Bathroom” to eventually wither away and die.

The out of left field reveals don’t stop there because John’s very first actual apprentice is unveiled in Jigsaw as Logan Nelson, a medical examiner who was negligent when labeling John’s x-rays all those years ago, which led to a delay in his diagnosis of an inoperable brain tumor. During his Jigsaw trap, Logan was unconscious when it was about to kill him so John stepped in and saved him. His only possible regret, he ultimately did not believe that Logan should die due to a simple human error (when mislabeling his X-Rays by accident), so he takes him under his wing.

While Logan didn’t have the same amount influence in the series as Lawrence, John still trusted him with his teachings and eventually he produced a game of his own as seen in Jigsaw (which was, again, unwinnable and went against John’s philosophy of using traps for selfish needs, 1/4 on your apprentices succeeding is not a record to be proud of). While the game itself had no ties to the others in previous installments, it was evident that the legacy of Jigsaw had lived on as the last sequel takes place 10 years after the event of Saw III.

Spiral: From the Book of Saw takes the story in a new direction, producing what “just might be the best of the entire franchise.” How connected it is to the legacy of John Kramer is best left unspoiled for now, but one thing is clear: there is a new Jigsaw copycat on the loose. With theaters re-opening and positive buzz, success seems to be on the horizon for Saw, paving the way for more stories to come. And you can bet that we’ll be diving back into it right here on DiscussingFilm.

Spiral: From the Book of Saw debuts only in theaters May 14

Our ★ ★ ★ ★ review – The Strongest Entry in Years

Follow writer Joe Aranda on Twitter: @JoeySpielberg

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