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7 horror movies that execute Saw’s tropes better than the Saw franchise

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Spiral: From the Book of Saw is now available for cheap digital rental and in various home-video formats, so any Saw fans who might have missed this combination reboot (with Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson) and legacy sequel (with Saw II-IV director Darren Lynn Bousman) in its May theatrical run can now be affordably disappointed from the comfort of their own home. (Spiral’s first digital rental window opened in June, but it was initially premium-priced as a simultaneous theatrical release.)

Though some fans may enjoy the attempt to revive the sprawling, complicated Saw franchise, or at least might like Chris Rock’s early-movie tight five on divorce and Forrest Gump, Spiral doesn’t reach the heights of fan favorites Saw III or Saw VI. As the filmmakers insisted, it isn’t exactly Saw IX, but it isn’t exactly a new type of horror trap, either. Fortunately, anyone in the market for Not Quite a Saw Movie has plenty of other options available — starting with the recent Escape Room: Tournament of Champions, which sequelizes the original 2019 Escape Room by making the premise play even more like Saw Junior.

There are an awful lot of Saw imitators on the market, taking advantage of that first film’s low-budget, grimy aesthetic and elaborate deathtraps. Not all of these Sawalikes are as conceptually close to the original as the Escape Room sequel, but they all offer more interesting variations on the series’ familiar tropes than Spiral, and together, they reveal that doing Saw better than Saw has become a cottage industry over the years. Hell, the Fast & Furious films could be considered a form of Saw spinoff, given how they’ve paralleled the series’ wonderfully wonky, ever-expanding later-period continuity. That said, horror and horror-adjacent movies tend to offer the closest approximation of the Saw experience. Here are seven solid movies that play the Saw game more successfully than Spiral:

The Escape Room series

A young man with glasses standing on what appears to be a snowy road outside puts his hand up to the fourth wall and encounters a glitchy force field in 2019’s Escape Room

Photo: Columbia Pictures

Sony clearly has its eye on a long-running B-movie saga with this PG-13 version of the house-of-traps subgenre. The first movie sets up a sequel, and the new sequel, like both the Saw series and its Sony stablemate Resident Evil, immediately follows through on some of the setup, while deferring other developments to as-yet-unmade future installments. It’s essentially Saw without the grimy self-help angle, though some horror fans will doubtless find these virtually gore-free alternatives overly sanitized. But it’s fun to see what Jigsaw might have worked up if he had a larger operating budget, and the characters, led by Taylor Russell’s Zoey, convey human emotion more convincingly than most of the actors in Saw, whose house style involves a lot of sweaty screaming. The first one is more novel. Tournament of Champions has pretty typical sequel problems, in that it’s more of the same without enough new wrinkles. They’re both briskly entertaining.
Escape Room is available to rent on Amazon, Vudu, and other platforms. Escape Room: Tournament of Champions is in theaters.

Till Death

Megan Fox, in a silk camisole and underwear, weeps on the floor at the foot of a bed while handcuffed to the corpse of a bloody man in Till Death.

Photo: Screen Media

A new horror-tinged thriller starring Megan Fox premiered on VOD and a few theaters in July with little fanfare, which is too bad, because after an unpromising start where Till Death comes across as a somnolent marital drama, it kicks into gear: Fox’s character winds up in a remote cabin, handcuffed to a dead body, with bad men after her. The limited location, occasional gore, and messages left for her from a vengeful ex-husband all have Saw vibes, even as the movie is ultimately a bit more cat-and-mouse hunt than endurance test. It’s also tightly directed by relative newcomer S.K. Dale, and while Fox may not be up for a depressing relationship wallow, she’s aces at the over-it dark comedy of dragging a corpse around as she evades merciless pursuers. Like the Escape Room series, Till Death feels like it’s modifying elements of the Saw cycle without wholesale ripping them off. It also benefits from a metaphorical simplicity — a relationship as a near-impossible burden — that would be unthinkable in the tangles of delightful but baffling Saw continuity.
Till Death is available for rental on Amazon, Vudu, and other platforms.

Wrong Turn

An eerie figure with a horned skull for a head and a black fright wig stands in the woods in blue light in the 2021 Wrong Turn

Photo: Saban Films

Spiral wasn’t the only 2021 project to sorta-reboot a gory early-’00s horror movie that unexpectedly became a low-budget series, though the Wrong Turn franchise was confined to DVD, and never reached the heights of the Saw saga. This is a blessing for the recent Wrong Turn remake; unbeholden to any particular iconography from the original 2003 film, it’s free to riff on the basic young-people-menaced-by-country-folk premise (itself a ripoff of countless other horror movies) with an ingenuity that Spiral sorely lacks. Case in point: 2021’s Wrong Turn mixes in bits of Saw’s fellow class-of-2004 horror film, M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, in replacing the usual cartoon-villain hillbillies with a secret, insular society accidentally invaded by weary travelers. Plus, there are traps — less elaborate than what Jigsaw or his protégés put together, but still pretty gnarly.
Wrong Turn is streaming on Showtime and available for rental on Amazon, Vudu, and other platforms.

The Platform

An elderly man clutching a nasty-looking knife and reading a book sits on his bed in a dimly lit concrete cell in The Platform.

Photo: Netflix

The Saw movies often attempt (and sometimes fail) to offer trenchant social commentary through Jigsaw’s supposedly thought-provoking ironic moral quandaries. The Platform doesn’t have a Jigsaw figure to moralize about humanity; its whole system is an indictment of ours. A man wakes up stuck in a grimy room with a stranger, Saw-style, but the setting is more of a Snowpiercer-like dystopia. He’s stuck in a tower where prisoners are fed by a descending platform. It starts out on the top full of immaculately prepared foodstuffs, then slowly descends through dozens of levels, as people take what they want and leave progressively less for anyone below them. (To keep people motivated, they are relocated every month of their sentence, so they can nearly starve one month, only to live high on the hog the next.) Sound familiar? The movie’s life-under-capitalism metaphor isn’t remotely subtle, but neither are the Saw pictures, and The Platform is a more provocative science fiction thought experiment than most of those.
The Platform is streaming on Netflix.

Vacancy

A grubby Luke Wilson puts protective arms around a grubby Kate Beckinsale as they both look shell-shocked in Vacancy

Photo: Screen Gems

Another in a long line of travelers-menaced-by-locals horror movies, Vacancy came out in 2007, the same year as Saw IV. At the time, they didn’t seem much alike, and to be sure, this is more of a standard horror thriller in many ways. There aren’t any soap-opera backstories, MPAA-testing kills, gravelly voices on microcassette, or sweating, hulking cops with ulterior motives. Yet the story of a bickering couple (Kate Beckinsale and Luke Wilson) who must navigate their way through a motel rigged with trap doors, murderers, and surveillance cameras echoes several Saw entries in the notion of working through interpersonal strife via a terrifying, limited-location ordeal. (And here, none of the games, such as they are, appear to be rigged.) Director Nimród Antal works with great efficiency over his 85 minutes; his other genre features, Armored and Predators, stray further from horror, but are worth seeking out, too. Vacancy also pulls off what Spiral attempts with its addition of Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson: It classes up a disreputable genre exercise with more familiar stars than the usual Saw lineup of B-and-C-list odds and ends. The ease with which Beckinsale and Wilson play their early marital-tension scenes make all the running, hiding, and screaming play better later on.
Vacancy is streaming on Starz and available for rental on Amazon, Vudu, and other platforms.

Cube

Four people in matching grey jumpsuits examine the class box they’re trapped in in 1997’s Cube

Photo: Trimark Pictures

Though the rest of these movies all have some conceivable influence from the original Saw or its sequels, Vincenzo Natali’s nasty 1997 indie sci-fi horror movie Cube is probably the series’ closest progenitor. It follows a group of strangers who wake up together in a cube-shaped room, part of a vast, trap-laden maze. Naturally, some of them will tear at each other nearly as readily as the maze’s vivisecting mechanical horrors tear at them. It’s easy to picture Jigsaw watching Cube as inspiration — a platonic standard of existential dread that his grubbier warehouse settings are constantly failing to meet. Though this is obviously more of a sci-fi story than Saw, it’s a similar feat of filmmaking, as it creates nightmarish tension from modest, low-budget settings.
Cube is streaming on Kanopy, with an ad-supported version on Tubi, IMDB TV and other services, and a rental version on Amazon, Vudu, and other platforms.

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