When James Wan’s Saw arrived in theaters in 2004, it was a cultural reset for the sub-genre of splatter films that would be later known as “torture porn.” The term was originally coined by critic David Edelstein in a New York Magazine op-ed titled “Now Playing at Your Local Multiplex: Torture Porn.” He was referring to Eli Roth’s Hostel, but the term eventually pivoted over to the Saw franchise. Soon enough, “torture porn” became a sub-category to compile features featuring excessive violence and gore.
Saw was conceived by Australian director and writer duo James Wan and Leigh Whannell, who gained the inspiration from the low-budget horror The Blair Witch Project. In order to minimize the budget, they agreed that shooting with two actors in one room would be most efficient. The concept of Jigsaw came from Whannell’s heath scare; he went to the neurologist convinced that his migraines were a brain tumor, which paved the way for John Kramer, a serial killer with colon cancer and a frontal lobe tumor.
Since 2004, Saw has spawned eight sequels thus far with a ninth (Saw X) on the way. While the original is a captivating whodunnit, the sequels rely far more on shocking twists and convoluted death traps that’ll make you wince. As we await Saw X, let’s break down the extensive history of the Saw franchise.
When we first meet John Kramer, we know nothing about him other than the fact that he’s the infamous Jigsaw killer. And even then, we aren’t privy to that information until the climax. His moral and backstory aren’t explored until later sequels, which is where we learn about his then-wife Jill and his unborn son Gideon. Only when we get some insight as to John’s history do we start to understand — to some extent — why he does what he does.
In Saw IV, we learn that it all started with Jill, who was heavily pregnant with John’s child. But things turn awry when Jill meets Cecil Adams, a junkie who holds her at knifepoint as she’s leaving the rehab facility she founded. He had stolen methadone from the clinic, but during his escape, found himself cornered by Jill. As he rushes out, he slams a door into Jill’s pregnant stomach, which causes her to miscarry. We later find out that Amanda Young, John’s apprentice, was the fellow junkie who coerced Cecil into stealing from Jill’s clinic, thus indirectly causing Gideon’s death.
John is diagnosed with colon cancer
According to Jill’s dialogue in Saw IV, John received his stage-four colon cancer diagnosis “soon after” Gideon’s death, so that’s just the icing on the proverbial cake. In Jigsaw, a former medic for the U.S. Army mislabels John’s X-rays, resulting in a late diagnosis for Kramer, who might have had better odds had he found the cancer sooner. William Easton, a health insurance executive, declined Kramer’s several claims for coverage, prompting John to suggest experimental gene therapy. William discourages the idea, confirming that John is, effectively, a dead man.
This leads to John making an attempt to end his life by suicide, which he survives, and discovers a newfound appreciation for life. He decides to devote his remaining years to forcing morally impaired people to reassess their will to live using convoluted death traps, which he calls “games,” and this becomes his modus operandi.
The first-ever trap
Also revealed in Jigsaw is John’s first-ever trap, known as the “Bucket Head.” Logan Nelson is the key participant as punishment for mixing up John’s X-rays. Nelson is the fifth player, whom we see slumped over in the corner at the game’s commencement. All present players must confess to their crimes, no matter how big or small. What they don’t know is that regardless of whether or not they confess, they still die.
Meanwhile, John changes his mind about punishing Logan, believing that a small, unintentional human error such as mixing up X-rays doesn’t warrant such cruel reprimanding. John takes Logan under his wing, and the latter even helps design the Reverse Bear Trap that’s used on Amanda, Mark Hoffman, and Jill.
Jigsaw is born
During a flashback in Saw IV, we see John abduct Cecil. He dons a pig mask and stalks Cecil during a Chinese New Year celebration — the Year of the Pig, as it happens — then renders him unconscious and takes him back to his workshop. Inside, Cecil is strapped to a chair with a device carefully positioned in front of him that’s comprised of eight kitchen knives in a linear formation. John gives him the choice to either bleed out from his wrist and ankle restraints, or push his face through the knives to free himself. Miraculously, Cecil rises to the occasion and does just that, but his altercation with John causes him to take a tumble into the wire pit (as seen in Saw).
We also see Amanda Young’s test play out as she becomes Jigsaw’s first known survivor. She admits to feeling liberated by the experience and becomes John’s apprentice, helping him to set up the bathroom game for Adam and Gordon.
Enter Mark Hoffman
We see Detective Mark Hoffman’s backstory in Saw V. He kidnaps a man by the name of Seth Baxter, who killed Mark’s sister during a domestic dispute. Seth was sentenced to 25 years in prison but only served five due to a technicality, so Mark chooses to play God himself. Mark chains Seth to a table and forces him to crush his limbs in order to escape a swinging pendulum that’ll slice him in half. However, Mark made the trap purposefully inescapable, which Amanda begins to replicate later on. Mark hoped to frame Jigsaw for Seth’s death.
As Mark heads home, he runs into John, who abducts him and straps him to a chair with a shotgun pressed against his chin. John tells him that killing is distasteful and ever since that wake-up call, Hoffman has been directly connected to every Jigsaw murder.
Bobby Dagen’s lie
Bobby Dagen, the main character in Saw: The Final Chapter, signed a book deal to make a profit off of his alleged experience with the Jigsaw killer. His (fictional, in-universe) book, S.U.R.V.I.V.E.: My Story of Overcoming Jigsaw, flew off the shelves and amassed a huge audience. But there’s a catch: Bobby never actually underwent any test from Jigsaw, and instead exploited Jigsaw’s victims to leech off the public as part of a money-making scheme.
During a book signing, Kramer approaches Dagen under the guise of wanting an autograph and hints that he knows he’s lying. And thus, Bobby Dagen becomes Jigsaw’s latest target. In another Saw IV flashback, we see Jill meeting with Amanda outside John’s laboratory, implying that Jill knew all along what he was up to, but chose not to intervene. John hands Jill a key, which she wears around her neck, and tells her she’ll be “released” from his work soon.
And that brings us up to speed with the present-day beginning of the franchise, whereby Adam and Dr. Gordon are trapped inside a bathroom and chained to steel pipes. Dr. Gordon’s wife and daughter are brought into the fold, which forces Gordon to saw off his own foot. At the same time, Detective Tapp thinks Gordon is behind all of this, and his paranoia is his undoing. We know that Gordon isn’t responsible, not when Kramer rises from the dead and appoints him one of his many helpers.
In the sequel, Detective Kerry and Detective Matthews team up to find the latter’s son, Daniel. Saw II largely takes place in a run-dow house poisoned with nerve gas, while the players each have some kind of criminal history — be it murder, drug use, etc. And if they don’t find the antidote to their condition in time, they’ll choke on their own vomit and die. How charming.
And a series of twists unfold; first, the house is a decoy; second, the “game” occurred some time beforehand, and the footage the detectives are seeing is a play-back; and third, Daniel is in a “safe place,” as John promised. However, since Detective Matthews didn’t listen to simple rules, he’s imprisoned in the same bathroom as the decaying Adam, by Jigsaw’s right-hand woman, Amanda.
It’s important to note that the events of Saw III and Saw IV take place simultaneously, so things can get a bit confusing, especially as numerous timelines begin to overlap. Hoffman finds Matthews chained in the bathroom, having severed his foot, while Amanda kidnaps Dr. Lynn Denlon on John’s orders. This will be Amanda’s final test, we just don’t know it until after the fact. Denlon is forced to perform emergency brain surgery on Kramer, but if he dies, so will she. Amanda manages to kidnap Detective Kerry too, strapping her to the “Angel” trap, which is inescapable.
At the same time, Lynn’s husband Jeff undergoes various tests involving the parties responsible for his son’s death, including the judge, and the drunk driver who struck and killed him. Later circumstances lead to the deaths of Lynn, Detective Matthews, and Amanda, who all perish.
The police discover the remains of Detective Kerry, leading FBI Agents Strahm and Perez to suggest that Jigsaw has another apprentice, since Amanda would have needed help. That evening, Rigg and Hoffman are kidnapped, and Rigg is informed that Detective Matthews is still alive. Rigg undergoes a series of tests during which he meets a sex worker, a serial rapist, and a husband accused of abusing his family. All of these victims were defended in court by Art, Jill’s lawyer.
Rigg enters a room where Art, Hoffman and Matthews are all suspended in various traps. If the door opens before Matthews’ timer goes off, Matthews would be crushed between two ice blocks and Hoffman would be electrocuted. Hoffman, revealed to be Jigsaw’s other apprentice, seals Strahm and Riggs inside the factory after Matthews is killed.
Inside the storage room, Strahm awakens to find his own tape, but while John instructs him to stay put, he ventures down a passageway. Next thing you know, he awakens with a large tank sealed around his head, which is quickly filling with water. Strahm goes into survival mode and pulls a ballpoint pen from his pocket, performing a tracheotomy on himself to last long enough for law enforcement to arrive.
Jill receives a box of “materials” from John’s lawyer and uses the key around her neck to unlock it. Inside, she finds several file folders, a manila envelope, and a Reverse Bear Trap. In the finale, Hoffman and Strahm duke it out inside an isolated room, where the walls close in on Strahm and crush him to death.
Strahm is absolutely no more, so Hoffman continues his rampage as the “new” Jigsaw. Meanwhile, William Easton (remember him?) is responsible for deciding the fate of his own lawyer, his employees, his sister, and a woman and her young son, whose father died soon after William’s company denied him coverage.
In Jigsaw’s file folders, Jill finds one of his dying wishes: to put Hoffman to the test. She carries this out gladly, placing Hoffman in a Reverse Bear Trap and leaving him for dead. Just before the timer counts down, however, Hoffman jams the device between the bars around the room, preventing it from fully opening. He somehow weasels him way out and only suffers minor injuries. And this sets him on a revenge quest against Jill.
Saw 3D (The Final Chapter)
When we open with The Final Chapter, it’s the first-ever Jigsaw trap to be conducted in a public setting. In fact, the glass that separates the participants from the general public is entirely transparent, so the audience watches what they believe to be some wort of elaborate magic trick, only to discover the horrific truth. Don’t even get us started on the trap with Chester Bennington (RIP).
That’s without a doubt one of the gnarliest in the whole series. This is also when we see Bobby Dagen’s various tests play out, including the one where he’s forced to pierce his pectorals with meat hooks and hoist himself up to save his wife from being burned alive. (Spoiler alert: he fails.)
As we discover from various flashbacks, the game we see conducted in Jigsaw occurs a whole decade before the present-day. Jigsaw super-fan Eleanor, Logan Nelson, and detective Halloran all end up at the Tuck Family Pig Farm, the location of Jigsaw’s first-ever trap. Logan and Halloran are abducted and moved to a room with collars strapped around their necks.
All they have to do is confess to their wrongdoings, but pride gets the better of both of them. Halloran, despite eventually confessing, still dies. As for Logan, he reveals his own lasers to be fake, and then announces himself as another one of Jigsaw’s apprentices. How many does John even have at this point?
Spiral: From the Book of Saw
We’ll ignore the fact that Chris Rock’s character, Detective Banks, claims Jigsaw never targeted cops, especially when Detective Matthews is standing right there. Detective Banks wants to be a great cop like his father, but his past keeps creeping up on him. As we see in a flashback, Banks was investigating a crime and called for backup, but when no one returned his call, and he was shot. And this prompts some important reflection concerning the corrupt justice system and police brutality.
In present-day, Banks is partnered with rookie William Schenk, whom we discover to be a Jigsaw copycat killer. As we await Saw X, which takes place between Saw and Saw II, more will be revealed.