The Saw franchise has shown incredible life over the years. What was just a small independent horror film has now become one of the biggest properties in the genre. After going nonstop for over half a decade, there were pauses, but it always comes back to Saw. While both Jigsaw and Spiral: From the Book of Saw weren’t quite able to relaunch it back to its horror heights (though the latter is one of the best films they’ve done), Saw X has a great chance to do it. By going back to its roots, namely with the return of Tobin Bell, this is what many have been asking for. The results are deeply satisfying, provided that this is your sort of thing.
Saw X is both old and new, which very much works in its favor. Taking place in the early days of the series, when the central character was still alive (remember, there have now been seven follow ups to the third installment, where he died), this one is able to fill in blanks, while also telling a different kind of a story. Here, you’re with Bell’s character throughout, which is a notable difference. Not only is his presence a real boon to the work, it almost makes for a bit of nostalgia. Overall, this is an upper echelon Saw film.
Set between the events of the first and second Saw films, John Kramer (Bell), also known as Jigsaw, is dying of brain cancer. Desperate for a cure, he hears about a miracle from Henry Kessler (Michael Beach) a member of his cancer support group. John is put in touch with Dr. Cecilia Pederson (Synnøve Macody Lund), whose father has apparently come up with a revolutionary treatment. She’s carrying on his work and thinks he’d be a good candidate. Willing to give it a shot, John heads to Mexico where they’ve set up a facility, needing to stay off the radar of Big Pharma. Introduced to the men and women who will be helping him, John meets Gabriela (Renata Vaca), Diego (Joshua Okamoto), Mateo (Octavio Hinojosa), and Valentina (Paulette Hernandez), as well as fellow patient Parker Sears (Steven Brand). They perform their magic and he awakens to hopefully the rest of his life. Of course, he quickly learns that it’s all a ruse when he goes to thank them. However, they didn’t count on essentially robbing the one man who can give them their just desserts.
Calling in help from his apprentice Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith), they abduct the con artists and a new game begins. Trapped in the abandoned facility they used to trick John, they’ll now have to test themselves in order to live. One by one, their traps engage, with dire consequences if they fail. Of course, this being a Saw movie, there are twists and turns, with little as it initially seems. By the end, we’ll be clearly set up to go forth where the series continued, but with some new understanding of John/Jigsaw.
Tobin Bell finally gets to headline a Saw flick and the results speak for themselves. Bell is an underrated actor and easily brings out the humanity in this villain. More so than in any other of the movies, you feel for and relate to his character. Can you possibly approve of what John Kramer does? No, of course not. However, this time it feels different, and you’re not necessarily rooting for the potential victims to make it out alive. Not only is Bell front and center, Shawnee Smith is in this more than you might expect, really fleshing out some of the work her character did in the sequels. Bell and Smith have a nice chemistry together, and a quiet moment or two between them is far more tender than you’re expecting from this horror effort. The game players are fairly run of the mill for the franchise, though Synnøve Macody Lund is best in show. Other supporting players include Isan Beomhyun Lee, Jorge Briseño, and Donagh Gordon, as well as old friend Costas Mandylor as Detective Hoffman.
Director Kevin Greutert, as well as screenwriters Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg, are franchise veterans, so they know what works. The big change here is to focus on character a bit more, as well as watching Bell’s John Kramer as the traps are going on. Greutert doesn’t pull any wild visual tricks or go wild shaking the camera, instead making it all matter of fact. It’s personal for John, which the script by Goldfinger and Stolberg never forget, but it’s also still the early days of his work, so it reflects that. The traps are sometimes cruder than usual, befitting a game made on the fly. The flip-side to this is that the nearly two hour runtime is a bit of an ask, considering the material, but they make it work. You’ll feel the length, but the twist they have set up is as satisfying as any that the franchise has put forth since the first one.
Saw X is made for the fans, of course. It’s not necessarily going to win over any new converts to the property, but it’s actually not a bad entry point for newcomers. It works as a prequel installment of sorts, as well as a standalone entry. Basically, if you like Saw, you’re likely to love this. If you’re just a fan of horror overall, there’s still lots to like. I’m a member of both parties, so this was a bloody delight. If Tobin Bell and company want to keep this up, I’ll be as excited as anyone for the followup carnage!