When James Wan and Leigh Whannell made the original Saw back in 2004, and followed it up with two sequels before walking away from the series, I’m sure even they couldn’t begin to conceptualize just how convoluted, retconned, and bastardized their creation would become. The mixed bag of follow-ups started to look more like police procedurals, and the stand-out Saw VI would be followed by a lame 3D sequel, a miserable attempt at a reboot, and a Chris Rock-led spinoff I’m still not sure if I like after two viewings.
Either way, Lionsgate and company could churn out ten more Saw films and I’d dutifully show up for every single one. My obedience would be greatly rewarded if future installments are as top-shelf as Saw X, a gloriously gory and wickedly meditative return-to-form for a series that, for more than 10 years, has been chugging along in search of a direction.
Consider Saw X a Lion King 1½ installment in the long-running franchise. The film takes place between the events of the original and Saw II, and we’re reacquainted with John Kramer (Tobin Bell), weeks after trapping Cary Elwes and Whannell in a grimy basement. Kramer is grappling with brain cancer, and his options are thinning with months to live. Following some advice from a member of Kramer’s cancer therapy group, he ventures to Mexico (complete with “Mexico Filter” cinematography) for experimental treatment by Dr. Cecilia Pederson (an outstanding Synnøve Macody Lund). However, Pederson and her medical team enrich themselves by scamming desperate yet hopeful patients, and as soon as Kramer discovers this, it’s game on.
After several installments of simplified and thus underwhelming traps, Saw X is bolstered by the civil engineering brain of Kramer. While there are fewer traps than in previous films, it’s a quality over quantity approach that simultaneously allows the innerworkings of the traps to be understood by the viewer and ample time to watch them play out. None top the horrifically tormented “Rack trap” in Saw III, but most wind up leaving an indelible mark on the viewer, specifically the one in which Mateo (Octavio Hinojosa), Pederson’s “anesthesiologist,” finds himself.
Saw X takes a page out of Saw VI‘s playbook (also directed by Kevin Greutert) insofar that there is a justification for the torture. Pederson and her cronies are contemptible slimeballs, and Tobin Bell chews up every monologue he’s afforded when it comes to drilling down how disgustingly inhumane their actions are. The film also marks the return of Shawnee Smith’s Amanda, Kramer’s protégé, who is in full disciple-mode here, acting as everything from Jigsaw’s handler to hype-woman, sometimes in the same beat.
At just a tick under two hours, Saw X is by far the longest in the series. More remarkable is how it doesn’t waste any time keeping things moving. Screenwriters Peter Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg have us spend considerable time with Kramer during his diagnosis, pursuit of treatment, and eventual “operation.” The first act is so glacially paced that it almost comes as a surprise when Kramer and Amanda start kidnapping Pederson and her team because the tone shifts from that of illustrating an antihero to reminding us why we bought a ticket in the first place.
Kramer has long been one of my very favorite horror movie villains for the simple reason that his status as a villain is open for debate. Some don’t like when monsters have their own tormented backstory (see Rob Zombie’s Halloween and the divisive nature of the film’s first 20 minutes as a prime example). I love any character development I’m afforded.
Many elements about Saw X feel refreshingly different than the films that came before it, a rare feat when we’re up to the tenth installment in any franchise. Time away from the series made Tobin Bell no less effective as the sinister trap-maker, and Greutert’s reclamation of the material is long overdue. It’s no surprise Wan and Whannell thought this idea was smart enough for them to give their seal of approval (in the form of producer credits). By this point in horror franchises, we’ve come to expect less. Saw X suggests a renaissance has arrived; I’ll take that over a reboot.
NOTE: Saw X is now playing exclusively in theaters.
My review of Saw (2004)
My review of Saw II
My review of Saw III
My review of Saw IV
My review of Saw V
My review of Saw VI
My review of Saw: The Final Chapter
My review of Jigsaw
My review of Spiral: From the Book of Saw
Starring: Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith, Synnøve Macody Lund, Steven Brand, Michael Beach, Renata Vaca, Joshua Okamoto, Octavio Hinojosa, Paulette Hernandez, and Jorge Briseño. Directed by: Kevin Greutert.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!