A glorious return to form, “Saw X” delivers the best kind of fan service while reminding us what made this franchise such a tour-de-force.
Having been involved with Saw since the beginning, director Kevin Greutert’s extensive knowledge of the franchise and the complexities of its characters does wonders to help him steer this ship back to its original glory and anchor it in the kind of depth and intelligence that first made Saw great.
I still remember what it was like to experience the original Saw in theaters on opening weekend.
Horror devotees like myself — many of us hungry for something new in the wake of the cheesy, mostly PG-13 teen slasher trend of the 90s that still dominated in the early 2000s — went to see an ultra-low-budget, nasty little hard-R indie film from a then-unknown director making his professional feature film debut, starring and co-written by an ex-film critic and little-known actor.
We couldn’t have known going into that viewing that we were about to witness a seismic shift in the genre: the birth of a new subgenre, the emergence of future genre royalty, and the beginnings of a juggernaut franchise that would continue to generate fan frenzy and a box office boon nearly twenty years later.
Though the original doesn’t really deserve to bear the derogatory “torture porn” label it got slapped with, it did usher in the age of splatter horror and inspired a slew of imitators, including Hostel and Wolf Creek.
Subsequently, the sequels, which came fast and furious following the unexpected success of Saw, gleefully leaned into the grisly aspects of the franchise and focused more on elaborate, exceedingly cruel traps rather than the dramatic tension, jaw-dropping inventiveness, and engaging mystery that made the first film such a revelation.
Despite what many refer to us as the downward spiral of the Saw franchise following the first film and its well-received sequel, I’ve remained a loyal fan for years.
As much as I have an enduring soft spot for this franchise, I’m not naïve enough to overlook its flaws or the way the series seemed to lose its footing after the first few entries, especially following the death of its compelling and strangely sympathetic villain, John Kramer, aka Jigsaw (the brilliant Tobin Bell).
It’s hard to argue that the franchise didn’t suffer from becoming too convoluted, too melodramatic, and too removed from that brilliant element of twisted psychological horror and philosophical quandaries that first made it so unique and memorable.
Saw X smartly goes back to basics and delivers a stunning return to form.
Saw X is being hailed as one of the franchise’s strongest entries, perhaps second only to the original, and that’s well-deserved hype.
It absolutely nails the balance of human drama and squirm-in-your-seat horror that makes the franchise work so well when at its best.
Director Kevin Greutert and writers Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger make the wise decision to center the story around the franchise’s tragic anti-hero, forcing the audience to understand and sympathize with him in a way they may not have previously done.
For the first time, we see the world through John Kramer’s eyes. This is his story; it’s his pain and pathos we feel.
Up until this point, the story has been told through an audience proxy, typically one of the investigators desperate to end the tyrannical reign of the Jigsaw killer. We’ve also been given victims with little to no backstory in the past, many of whom seemed merely flawed rather than truly despicable in the way that might make us root for karmic justice.
While prior films have emphasized Kramer’s sadism and his twisted sense of justice — which felt cruel and severely misguided given the extent of his victims’ suffering — Saw X emphasizes his warmth and humanity, making him far more relatable and investing as a character.
It’s the first Saw film that doesn’t throw the audience right into the nastiness of Kramer’s brutal justice but rather eases us in slowly with a thoughtful setup. There’s no rush to get to the elaborate traps and fulfillment of the audience’s perceived bloodlust.
Instead, Greutuart takes his time to help us understand the film’s victims — letting us truly understand why they end up in a sadistic game and, more importantly, why Kramer feels at least somewhat justified in his actions.
This slower setup does wonders to emotionally invest the audience and rewards viewers immensely for their patience with a thrilling and intensely satisfying payoff.
We’re also giving much more dramatic meat on the bones to help us understand those doling out the punishment, including Kramer and his troubled protégé, returning franchise fan favorite Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith).
As problematic as it may be, Kramer is a man with a strict code of ethics. And whether he’s truly justified in his actions or not (most would argue he’s definitely not), it’s a code he at least genuinely believes in, steadfastly standing by the strength of his convictions.
While I heap praise on the film for its focus on emotional gravitas, make no mistake about it: there’s no shortage of satisfying carnage and grisly gore.
The traps are just as devasting as ever, but they are stripped down in a way that returns the focus to the pain and torment of the victims.
The ever-increasing complexity and WTF insanity of later Saw traps is replaced by a gripping, nail-biting uncertainty regarding, to borrow a turn of phrase from another iconic horror property, who will survive and what will be left of them.
This is a film that fully understands its core appeal and ensures it delivers all the genre goods, but it also respects its audience enough to know that those sickening, shocking deaths pack a lot more punch if you actually care about the outcome and see the victims as more than murder meat and the villain as more than a one-dimensional madman.
The stellar cast of newcomers fully commits to their performances and ensures the audience truly feels every agonizing moment of their fight for survival.
These are victims who desperately want, and quite possibly deserve, a second chance at life. They are, for the most part, pitiable prey, and they give even their predators pause when it comes to watching them pay for their sins.
This opens the door for interesting ethical considerations about morality, choice, circumstances, and free will.
Without giving away too much, there is also a character who gives Jigsaw a run for his money when it comes to intellect, shrewd insight into human behavior, and the ability to remain two steps ahead of everyone else at all times. This creates a wildly fun and incredibly tense dynamic that will keep viewers guessing until the very last frame.
Further, it results in, perhaps, one of the most unexpected and gratifying endings in the franchise, save for the jaw-dropping twist in the original.
Saw X is a love letter to the franchise and its loyal fans, made with great reverence for the franchise’s roots.
Seeing Bell and Smith return to such glory and given such meaty, deliciously complex roles is an absolute treat for every Saw devotee.
It’s also a stunning introduction to the franchise for new fans and can be thoroughly enjoyed even without having seen a single other film in the series.
One criticism that the franchise regularly gets is how convoluted the timeline became towards the end and how difficult it was to keep track of the increasingly bloated plot and backstory.
Saw X gives us a refreshing rewind that made me feel like I was watching horror history being made again, as if, for the first time, witnessing the birth/rebirth of a killer franchise at the peak of its game.
Whatever you do, be sure to stay through the credits for a bonus scene that had the packed audience in my theater cheering loudly.
If Saw X is any indicator of where the franchise is headed, this beloved property still has ample life left in it and may continue to thrill genre fans, new and old, for years to come.