While the “Saw” series lost some cultural cachet after releasing nine films over 17 years, it’s remained a great party franchise for horror fans. Living and dying by Jigsaw’s gruesome traps, the overarching story has become increasingly convoluted in the pursuit of keeping the elderly (and, midway through the series, dead!) antagonist’s work alive. Originally spearheaded by John Kramer (Tobin Bell), a serial killer named Jigsaw who tried to get his victims to appreciate their lives through murderous games that demanded sacrifice, the series soon swelled and grew complex. Kramer died in the third installment, opening the door for a new Jigsaw, Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), who never really took on the mantle correctly. Along the way family members, enemies, friends and protégés are introduced, creating a surprisingly dense “Saw” family tree.
Stylistically, there are many touchstones running through the series: The iconic “Hello Zepp” theme music, which plays during the films’ many twist endings; puppets; gory traps and frantic music video editing.
Never a critical favorite, the series’ top-rated installment on Rotten Tomatoes sits at 50% rotten, but has captivated genre fans enough to have rebirth after rebirth, thanks to some surprisingly boffo box office conjured up with a cheap budget.
To celebrate the franchise’s ninth installment — the shockingly star-studded “Spiral: From the Book of Saw,” featuring Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson, and helmed by series vet Darren Lynn Bousman — Variety has ranked the films, taking into account gore, games, acting, plot and fun.
(Warning: spoilers abound for every film except “Spiral.”)