As the “Saw” franchise crosses the $1 billion mark at the box office, with the release of “Spiral: From the Book of Saw,” I don’t think there’s a better time to pay tribute to the traps I feel exemplify the best this series has to offer. The appeal of this long-running string of splatter films — in my eyes — is having the unique distinction of unleashing a wave of ultra creative ways to show off the gory goods under the guise of a gloriously convoluted horror melodrama. The traps are merely the appetizers to the main course that is this series’ brand of twisted timeline gymnastics.
You’ll notice a constant throughout my list. While I find a lot of entertainment value in the traps that work as isolated set pieces (e.g., the Classroom of Chains from “Saw III”), I truly admire the ones that lean into the larger character drama at stake. But before I start, here’s something to keep in mind. This list is purely subjective and doesn’t invalidate your personal favorites. I fluctuated back and forth myself on which ones to leave off, and it kills me to do so. These are subject to change as time goes on, so consider these my favorites at this particular moment.
Anyways, let’s play a game, shall we?
*HEAVY SPOILER WARNING for “Saw” through Spiral: From the Book of Saw,” obviously*
10 – A Pound of Flesh – “SAW VI”
Participants – Simone (Tanedra Howard) and Eddie (Marty Moreau)
The Game – Whoever sacrifices the largest amount of flesh on the scale before the timer hits zero will survive, while the other will have screws drilled directly into their temples until — ya know — *crunch*.
Remember when John Kramer confidently said “killing is distasteful,” yet only one person can survive this game? Anyway, Simone and Eddie are among the first of many game participants in “Saw VI” from within the Umbrella Health insurance company. The metal head contraptions definitely give an incentive to move quickly as the screws dig deeper; nothing too complicated here. I have two words, however, that bumped this one up from an honorable mention to a must-include trap: Tanedra Howard. When she won the role from VH1’s “Scream Queens,” Howard came to the “Saw VI” set ready to play, and then some. Her wild expressions, coupled with the absolute brutal hammering of the meat cleaver to her arm, easily makes Simone one of the best “Saw” side characters.
9 – Pulling the Strings – “SPIRAL: FROM THE BOOK OF SAW”
Participants – Det. Zeke Banks (Chris Rock), Marcus Banks (Samuel L. Jackson) and William Schenk (Max Minghella)
The Game – Trust is the name of the game. A father is held up by wires and losing blood fast. For Zeke, the choice is simple: Save Marcus or face a consequence most ironic.
When going over my list, I was surprised at how highly I placed many of the “Spiral” traps. You can feel the influence of “Saw IV” in this one, especially with its conclusion. Much like Rigg, Zeke just couldn’t help himself. And instead of getting his weakened, bleeding father out of Schenk’s wire shackles, he foolishly ran after his perp, putting Schenk’s grand revenge into play. Having Marcus blown away by the very same excessive, impulsive tactics he implemented in his precinct brings a fittingly violent, shocking end to Schenk’s game plan, and continues the tradition of a “Saw” ending that leaves you on a high note. And that’s to say nothing of Max Minghella’s brilliant ‘shush’ gesture to Zeke as the elevator doors close.
8 – Caught in Venus Flytrap – “SAW II”
Participants – Michael (Noam Jenkins)
The Game – Once the timer starts, Michael has 60 seconds to decide whether he sacrifices his right eye for the key to freedom or be facehugged by a metal mask filled with long, rusty spikes.
The Venus Flytrap never fails to make me squirm. In theory, it’s one of Kramer’s easiest traps. But the psychological torment that comes with holding a scalpel to your retina freaks me out so bad. Jenkins is really great at conveying the ease of scooping it out, yet refusing to even push through the immense, temporary pain. I’d probably just let it happen too.
7 – Reverse Bear Trap 1.0 – “SAW”
Participants – Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith)
The Game – Retrieve the key from the stomach of a “dead” accomplice within 60 seconds or watch as her upper and lower jaws are permanently ripped open.
You know I had to do it. I don’t think anyone would refute that the original Reverse Bear Trap, placed atop Amanda’s head, is the trap that will define the legacy of “Saw.” It’s so ingeniously simple. The sheer panic on Smith’s face when she sees the question mark is perfect; she’s an exceptionally expressive actor. It’s no wonder she was later utilized as an invaluable piece to the “Saw” legacy afterwards.
6 – Pendulum Slice – “SAW V”
Participants – Seth Baxter (Joris Jarsky)
The Game – Crush the hands, which were used to kill, in the vices on both sides before the timer runs out, or the swinging pendulum above will slice thy self in twain.
I’m not sure where this one lands on most people’s list, but I love the medieval charm of the Pendulum. Just like the Venus Flytrap, this is another game where the sacrifice is simple, but the willpower to actually press the button is immense. Seth may end up going through with it, but Det. Hoffman has no qualms about playing fair, especially considering the man murdered his sister and he’s a bit salty. Because of that, and every “Saw” intro routinely involving a participant’s bloody failure, Hoffman dishes out his own brand of twisted retribution with slicing Seth right down the middle. All the props to the VFX team on this one; it looks great! As over-the-top “Saw” devices go, the Pendulum doesn’t disappoint.
5 – Heat Maze – “SAW VI”
Participants – Debbie (Caroline Cave) and William Easton (Peter Outerbridge)
The Game – Through the maze Debbie must go, for if she doesn’t reach the end in 90 seconds, a spear will pierce her skull, and only William above can offer relief from the blasts of blistering steam.
Kevin Greutert and Anthony A. Ianni really outdid themselves with the production design on this one. Most traps in this series involve a race against time urgency in order to make it out alive, but this one takes the cake. The heat is so intense down below that it causes third degree burns in milliseconds. Having the option for William to receive a less aggressive steam wave so Debbie can get through the three cage corridors works incredibly well, and makes you think about how long you could hold on for. And to top things off, the addition of Debbie having to now turn against her savior after learning her key to freedom lies inside William’s body creates an unexpected twist in this game that I can’t exactly blame her for wanting to follow through with. It’s yet another symbolic predicament of the insurance carrier holding someone’s life in their hands, and the rage they must experience through the eyes of the other party merely trying to stay alive.
4 – Shotgun Collar Or: The Gamemaker, The Doctor, His Protege and Her Lover – “SAW III”
Participants – John Kramer (Tobin Bell), Dr. Lynn Denlon (Bahar Soomekh), Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith) and Jeff Denlon (Angus Macfayden)
The Game – As Jigsaw lies on his deathbed, a doctor is his only hope. If John dies, the device loaded with shotgun shells will make a mess — and not just to her face.
In my eyes, the Shotgun Collar, however simple, is the most tragic of Jigsaw’s traps. Throughout “Saw III,” both Amanda and Jeff are being tested for their impulsive need to exact their bloody vengeance as they see fit, neither knowing the outcome. Kramer hiding Dr. Denlon’s relationship to Jeff, Amanda unknowingly participating in Kramer’s game, and Jeff being faced with a test of grave importance gives the ending of “Saw III” its powerful, melodramatic punch. Jigsaw’s tests rarely work out well, so it’s a no-brainer that both the protege and the test subject succumb to their worst tendencies. And, in the end, it’s Lynn, having fought courageously through Amanda’s outbursts and Kramer’s backdoor brain surgery, who ultimately suffers the consequences.
3 – Bathroom From Hell – “SAW”
Participants – Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes), Adam (Leigh Whannell) and John Kramer (Tobin Bell)
The Game – Follow the clues. If Dr. Gordon doesn’t put the pieces together and kill Adam by the time the clock hits 6 o’clock, then this hellhole will be both of their final resting places.
Kramer really went all out on this one, huh? I don’t think James Wan and Leigh Whannell could have foreseen what “Saw” would eventually become, but one thing’s for sure: The bathroom is “Saw” royalty. People who have never even seen “Saw” know about that ungodly filthy room that launched a million escape rooms. If there’s any opportunity for this series to revisit the “actual sh*thole” that Adam and Dr. Gordon woke up in, it will. Elwes and Whannell work wonders together as they put the pieces together, with each holding crucial information that could set them free. It must have been wild to see Tobin Bell arise from that floor — and bear witness to one of the greatest twists in contemporary horror — at the Sundance premiere.
2 – Reverse Bear Trap 2.0 – “SAW VI”
Participants – Det. Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) and Jill Tuck (Betsy Russell)
The Game – Jigsaw may be dead, but the dark apprentice won’t walk away without a test of his own. As instructed by John to Jill in his final will, Hoffman’s mouth-ripping fate lies in the outcome of Will’s forgiveness or death. Which will it be?
Amanda did it first and Jill did it last, but Hoffman did it best. Costas Mandylor makes a great “Saw” antagonist, and putting him in this game was long overdue. I like the sleek, modern look of this Reverse Bear Trap. In addition to the gut-spilling outcome of William’s hydrochloric acid-infused demise, the finale of “Saw VI” really tests Det. Hoffman’s surprise and panic, especially after the precinct basement massacre he just came from. And what a killer final shot! A barely escaped (and super pissed off) Hoffman screaming into the air, right cheek barely hanging on, is such a great cliffhanger to hold people off until the next movie. In other words: my favorite “Saw” ending by far.
1 – Shotgun Carousel – “SAW VI”
Participants – William Easton (Peter Outerbridge), Aaron (James Gilbert), Emily (Larissa Gomes), Gena (Melanie Scrofano), Dave (Darius McCrary), Shelby (Karen Cliche) and Josh (Shawn Mathieson)
The Game – I think Jigsaw said it best: “Six ride the carousel, but only two can get off.” It’s up to William to sift through their flaws to determine which will be the lucky two.
I don’t know if you could tell by this point, but I think I love “Saw VI.” When we arrive at the Carousel, William is faced with a trap that pushes him to his breaking point. This is where the film’s social commentary regarding predatory insurance practices comes to a head. William is tasked with enabling the same wicked tactics practiced in his firm to discredit potential lenders. It’s a harrowing, yet thrilling, back-and-forth that allows you to simultaneously embody the fear of both parties.
Now it is the scrutinizers who are begging for their lives, with some snipping at one another to save themselves from the shotgun when the carousel decides it’s their turn. Through Peter Outerbridge’s excellent performance, I love seeing just how much this truly breaks our game protagonist down. By the time he’s supposed to pick the second survivor, William is but a shell of a person who could care less about his end of the sacrifice. It’s less about the physical toll so much as the mental one. This is the tipping point. Had it not been for Brent pulling the DIE switch, I believe William would have exited the game having more than learned his lesson. And that is why I believe the Carousel represents the best of the many “Saw” contraptions.
Matt graduated from Keene State College in 2017 with a Bachelor’s in Critical Film Studies. A few of his favorite films include “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Army of Darkness,” “Before Sunrise” and “Certain Women.” Having already contributed to Bloody Disgusting, ELF Magazine and The Simple Cinephile, Matt aspires to expand and continue writing with various outlets. If there’s any chance to talk about horror films and/or Twin Peaks, he’ll very much jump at the opportunity.