Horror series are known for escalating gruesomeness. The body count in the original film often feels downright cute in comparison to a few sequels later, when barely anyone in the cast is left unmutilated.
This is especially true for the Saw series, which began as James Wan’s low-budget introduction to the film industry (he’d go on to direct The Conjuring, Furious 7, and Aquaman) and turned into the most famous slasher franchise of the modern era. And with each new sequel came another chance to upgrade the “traps” the series became famous for.
So, to celebrate Saw X, the 10th installment in the series, here’s a countdown of the 10 most ludicrous traps Jigsaw and his many, many copycats and proteges were able to devise — one from each movie before Saw X, and a bonus one from the world of video games. As the plotlines became more and more convoluted, and the seeming immortality of Jigsaw’s legacy became increasingly baffling, the intricacy of the traps would race to keep up.
[Ed. note: There is a considerable amount of gore to follow.]
Saw - The Reverse Bear Trap
The traps in the early Saw films are admirably low-rent, and thus have also never been more relatably visceral. Many of them center around things like “barbed wire everywhere” or “glass on the floor” or “a lot of shotguns.” These are all things that don’t necessarily scream “criminal genius” as much as “weird guy with a lot of time on his hands.”
So the reverse bear trap, which attaches to the victim’s face and is set to rip their skull apart, mouth first, stands out and would become the perverse mascot of the nascent series. Combine that with the fact that, in order to unlock it, Amanda has to dig the key out of someone else’s stomach, and you have the gory Rube Goldberg machine that set the standard for what was to come.
Saw II - The Razor Box
One major beat that appears in a few Saw entries is the part where a bunch of people find themselves in a room or situation together and have to figure out why they’re there and what connection they have. It allows for a more Friday the 13th-esque plot development, with people being offed one by one, rather than the more Seven-inspired detective work of the first film.
In Saw II, many of the traps are just as simple as the first film’s, but this time, people have to actively fall into them (like the gun behind the door or the pit full of needles). What takes the cake here, though, is a box with arm holes lined with razors that you’d have to be curious enough to literally stick yourself in. Trapping the victim with the sharp edges cutting into their wrists, it provided yet another image to build the brand around.
Saw III - The Classroom Trap
There’s a lot of chains in Saw III! The first film had a bunch of helpless people trying to bust out of various rooms and the second had folks being lured into traps, but most of the third film revolves around victims chained up in elaborate ways.
Of course this might just be due to the preferences of Amanda, Jigsaw’s apprentice, who ends up chastised by her master for creating traps that victims can’t actually escape from, like the opening classroom trap. In a look reminiscent of the “Jesus wept” scene in Hellraiser, a man is hooked by the flesh to various chains and has to free himself before a bomb goes off. He doesn’t, though, leaving a bunch of charred body parts around the room. Like Amanda’s own aims, it’s little more than an excuse to see someone bleeding, and an indication of where most of this was heading.
Saw IV - Drawn and Quartered and Blinded Trap
If you can get past the film’s obnoxious nu-metal-music-video editing sensibilities, Saw IV is clearly an attempt to return to what made the first Saw stand out so much. The traps serve as a kind of obvious punishment/lesson, rather than a flimsy vehicle for more violence.
However, by 2007, Saw was in an arms race with series like Hostel and the extreme Asian and French cinema that was becoming more present on home video, so going back all the way wasn’t an option. In Saw IV, a murderer is first strapped down, then blinded by little stabby contraptions alongside his head, and then drawn and quartered, his limbs coming off in an explosion of blood. It’s a very elongated process, a stark contrast to the iconic trap of the first film, which promised to end with just a quick exploded head.
Saw V - 10 Pints of Blood
If Saw IV was a haphazard attempt to get back to the simplicity of the first Saw, Saw V is a redux of Saw II, with another group squabbling and then inevitably being murdered by a sequence of bizarre workshop projects.
For Jigsaw, though, it’s pretty much the equivalent of a summer camp team-building exercise, and the pinnacle here is a door that won’t open unless two people stick their hands into some saw blades and collect 10 pints of their own blood. It’s the most cartoonishly brutal thing in the franchise so far — two people screaming their heads off as they cut through their hands and then collapsing in relief. It’s also a situation that only Saw V could conjure as a victory; it’s a series so ridiculously dedicated to bloodletting that gathering a bucket of it is seen as a proper climax.
Saw VI - Shotgun Carousel
By primarily focusing on the choices of a single character and letting sequences breathe rather than editing them into incomprehensibility, Saw VI can actually be rather effective. Its traps, though, remain as outlandish as possible, whether characters have to cut off their own flesh or make their way through a maze filled with hot steam (the latter looking less like a Saw trap and more like a Riddler puzzle from Batman: Arkham City).
The most memorable is the shotgun carousel, which sees six people strapped to a playground carousel with a shotgun pointed at them. In a game of musical chairs, disgraced health insurance higher-up Will Easton has to decide who lives, mostly by listening to them inanely scream at him about their own selfish value. But, because this is the sixth iteration of Saw, stopping the wheel also means getting your hand stabbed by a drill bit. The trap (and the associated yelling) goes on for, no kidding, over seven straight minutes.
Saw 3D - Love Triangle Trap
Saw 3D is the wildest film in the series. It follows a similar formula to the previous one, mostly featuring a single man in a Jigsaw funhouse trying to save people (he doesn’t succeed once, turning the film into a montage of a guy who’s just very terrible at being a hero). It also includes giant traps that have been apparently picked out of a Saw hat, like the white supremacist who has to tear his own glued skin away from a car seat in order to avoid mangling all three of his pals at once.
The most ridiculous, though, is the opening trap, in which two guys have to pull each other toward saw blades in order to save a woman dangling over yet another saw blade. However, both men soon realize she’s cheating on each one with the other, so they decide to give up and let her drop. Oh, and it’s also done as a public spectacle, something that looks kinda like performance art to the bystanders… until the intestines start flying.
Jigsaw - Laser Collar Trap
After Saw 3D, Jigsaw is remarkably subdued, or at least as subdued as a series about increasingly extravagant torture methods can be. Luckily, much of the action takes place in a barn on a farm somewhere, meaning audiences can delight in constant dull browns rather than dull grays.
Unfortunately, the traps are nothing special. Until the end, that is, when the villain finds himself trapped in a collar that slowly aims a few lasers at his head. Unlike the rusty traps of the franchise’s origin, this laser collar is shiny and new, and when it cuts into the bad guy’s head, instead of typical, practical blood spatter, we get a big CGI rendition of a skull splitting open multiple ways like a watermelon. We’ve come so far.
Spiral - Finger Trap… Trap
Much like Jigsaw, Spiral is oddly restrained. Once again an attempt to redo the first Saw without actually rebooting the entire thing (meaning we get another police procedural with a store-brand Jigsaw), its death scenes lack the delirious abandon of what we were seeing in the franchise’s middle entries.
However, we do get a trap that’s a rendition of the finger trap toy, the thing kids get when they earn a few tickets at the arcade. This time, it pulls your fingers off instead of just annoying your younger siblings. The makeup and prosthetic work is pretty effective — a testament to leaving a camera pointed at something for long enough for the viewer to actually get a chance to inhale all the pain and gory details. But most of the joy comes from seeing an ubiquitous children’s toy turned into a death trap.
Saw II: Flesh & Blood - Elevator Trap
2010’s Saw II: Flesh & Blood managed to pull out all the gory stops, especially as the films began to steer toward a tamer, softer side of torture set-pieces.
The most bizarre trap involves a woman, shackled in an elevator shaft, who risks being torn in half by the descending elevator. Like all of the traps in this series, you try to save her, minigame style. It’s like Mario Party if you constantly hear shouts of “I DON’T WANNA DIE!” in the background, and failing to provide the right series of combinations here will see the woman bisected at the waist. Your treat for losing? The Jigsaw puppet laughs at you.