You can’t keep a good man down. John Kramer, otherwise known as the Jigsaw Killer, makes a savory comeback in Saw X. Lionsgate has had difficulty keeping the Saw franchise relevant ever since the main saga came to a close with the seventh entry, Saw: The Final Chapter (also titled Saw 3D). 2017’s Jigsaw was meant to serve as a soft reboot but was criticized as one of the worst films in the series. Fast forward to 2021 and the studio tried its hands at another relaunch with the spin-off Spiral: From the Book of Saw, which took place after all the previous 8 films and followed a new copycat Jigsaw Killer. As entertaining as Spiral was (with huge thanks to returning series director Darren Lynn Bousman), it didn’t generate the desired box office and fan reception, proving one thing: Saw isn’t the same to general audiences without Tobin Bell.
Enter Saw X, the tenth installment in the franchise that stands as a prequel set between the first two films. Kevin Greutert, who previously helmed Saw VI and The Final Chapter, returns as both director and editor. It’s worth noting that Greutert has served as the editor on every single entry in the franchise, having a heavy hand in pioneering the visual style of Saw from the very beginning. He’s joined by writers Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger, who wrote Jigsaw and Spiral. The creative minds behind Saw X have had their knees deep in the franchise for years, seeing its many highs and lows. Perhaps this is why the movie, in many ways, feels like a direct response to what fans have been longing for. Gone are overtly complicated plot twists that require homework. This is all about John Kramer, and his latest traps are as twisted as ever.
The story kicks off in what the filmmakers have said to be mere weeks after the first movie, where John Kramer is given the devastating news that he only has months to live due to his progressing brain tumor. With no options left, John takes a risk with alternative treatment. Doctor Cecilia Pederson (Synnøve Macody Lund) runs an independent operation with the goal of healing terminal cancer patients through an experimental surgical procedure. When she’s referred to John by a fellow cancer patient who now claims to be cured by this “miracle” treatment, the Jigsaw Killer packs his bags and heads down to Mexico where Doctor Pederson’s practice is currently located. After being put through a suspicious “surgery,” John discovers that he’s the latest victim of a fraudulent medical scheme.
Clearly, Doctor Pederson didn’t know that she was scamming the Jigsaw Killer, setting her as the main player in his next master trap. John kidnaps Pederson and her group of paid actors, Gabriela (Renata Vaca), Valentina (Paulette Hernandez), Mateo (Octavio Hinojosa), and Diego (Joshua Okamoto), to put them through the ultimate test. In classic Jigsaw fashion, these players must do the unthinkable to survive. Additionally, with this being such a large group, John brings in his apprentice Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith) to teach her a thing or two about his twisted methods. Going into Saw X, viewers only need a very basic knowledge of the franchise, as the film doesn’t spend any time getting caught up in complex lore. However, to those who’ve been following along for years, the master and apprentice relationship between John and Amanda is gratifying to see in this new light.
Whereas past films have only shown John Kramer as the puppet master behind the scenes, never taking the spotlight for too long before passing it to someone else, he’s now the center of attention. Saw is a rare case because every horror franchise beefs up the main villains’ screen time as they get deeper into multiple sequels, but not John. Spoiler alert (though not really since the image of his corpse is featured on so many film posters): John dies pretty early into the series, yet has remained a dominant presence through flashbacks. And let’s be honest, Saw is at its very best whenever Tobin Bell is on screen. Saw X paints him as an anti-hero, getting payback on those guilty of screwing over vulnerable cancer patients on their last days of life. However, John’s games are never as straightforward as getting simple revenge.
It’s fantastic to see Saw X not only give Tobin Bell more material to work with but also make room for surprises that will even have long-time fans shocked. The nature of these latest games due to the international setting sees John more actively involved with the people in his traps. While he still doesn’t break any of his rules, it does present a fresh twist for the audience. Bell is clearly having some of the most fun he’s had in the role, fully playing into Kramer’s sick methodology but through this film’s exciting anti-hero angle. The same goes for Shawnee Smith, who effortlessly slips back into Amanda and unravels unforeseen layers that further enrich her story going into Saw II and Saw III. Obviously, reuniting John and Amanda is a form of fan service, yet the script thankfully chooses to deepen their relationship instead of just offering cheap nostalgia.
Needless to say, this is a very mean movie and is not recommended for the faint of heart – which is exactly what fans want to hear! It’s about as gory as most of the past sequels and director Kevin Greutert doesn’t slip into full-on exploitation territory, keeping this in line with the franchise’s known levels of violence. Still, this is arguably a harder movie to stomach than Spiral. Saw X, more importantly, doesn’t always take itself so seriously. Given the heaviness of the cancer plotline, the movie offers a few hilarious moments of horror to balance out the more cruel scenes. It’s got just the right amount of camp and melodrama without turning into a soap opera like some of the sequels. Furthermore, cinematographer Nick Matthews brings back all the dirty shades of green, blue, and yellow that fit this prequel nicely between the first two films visually.
For as great as Saw X is, it’s hard to ignore some of the choices that center around the Mexico setting. For one, the transition from the United States to John Kramer arriving in Mexico City under an obnoxious yellow filter feels incredibly dated. There are other decisions in the plot that may also come off as in poor taste due to real events in Mexico. While it’s not the best look for the franchise, some of these instances feel more like overlooked coincidences rather than the filmmakers choosing to be harmful or ignorant. Otherwise, Saw X has tons of fun with its setting in more than a few ways that are best to find out on the big screen during a first viewing.
This is for the horror freaks, for those who have stood by this franchise’s side through thick and thin. Imperfect sure, but Saw X is still a great film on its own merits, not just because of its violence or gore. Though the traps are extremely memorable as they go back into the realm of possibility, resulting in gruesome visuals will scar viewers’ minds. Not to mention that returning composer Charlie Clouser has provided yet another immersive score. This is the glory the franchise has spent the last slew of years looking for and if there’s any movie to see in theaters this Halloween season, it’s going to be this one. Tobin Bell further cements himself as an icon of modern horror and reminds audiences of why Saw has persisted for so long. One thing has never been more clear than right now: Billy the Puppet is here to stay.