When it comes to reinvigorating a beloved horror franchise, there’s a level of difficulty that the filmmakers surely face when it comes to balancing the elements that devoted fan bases love, and having a fresh, original concept for the already established universe. As the blood-and-guts filled Saw series seemed to max out it’s gory potential at seven movies full of the most inhumane torture traps ever put to film, it seemed inevitable that prequels and spin-offs were to be explored.
But the tenth entry in the Saw franchise, Saw X, created its own path, and in true franchise form decided to twist the timeline by being a sequel to the original James Wan cult classic, but a prequel to the gory upgrade that was Saw II that sees the legendary and fan favourite Tobin Bell return as horror icon, the Jigsaw Killer. And it’s not onlyback on board for this film, as Saw VI and Saw VII director (and editor of almost every film in this franchise) Kevin Gruetert returns to the blood-soaked hellscape that began his feature film directorial career.
John Kramer (Bell) does not want to take what’s left of his life for granted. As he battles an inoperable and terminal bout of brain cancer, John discovers through a cancer support group that there is an experimental group of scientists working out of Mexico who may be able to perform the surgery he needs to beat his disease and live on.
However, what seems like a legitimate lifeline for Kramer soon turns out too good to be true, and he is scammed out of hundreds of thousands of dollars and left deserted in Mexico. This awful event just so happens to take place as Kramer is homing in on his craft as alter ego, Jigsaw. Deciding to take revenge on those who took his life for granted, and with the help of his newest protégé, Amanda (Shawnee Smith), Jigsaw tracks down his betrayers and places them in rusted, makeshift traps where they have a choice: live and be reminded of the pain you’ve cause or die in an abhorrently gruesome fashion.
In regards to bringing a fresh take to this franchise, Saw X spends it’s first hour or so focusing on John Kramer as a person, and not just the horror icon he has become. The script from Spiral scribes Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger strays away from kinetic and fast-paced death scenes, and instead patiently forces the audience to sympathise with John Kramer, not Jigsaw, a man suffering from terminal brain cancer. Even though the story feels more personal to Kramer, there are some interesting and insightful instances in which the audience gets a peek inside the mind of Jigsaw and how he chooses the players of his twisted game.
Tobin Bell is synonymous with this character due to his genuine ability to obscure any sense of morality by having some just reasons as to why he puts people in these traps. In Saw X however, Bell gets to bring out a side of Kramer that hasn’t been shown in this series, in this way, and he adds such a personal dimension to the character.
The film is so patiently paced, following John as he struggles with his impending mortality, the hopeful discovery of this experimental treatment, and then his journey to get there, that it truly feels like nothing the Saw franchise has done… which does hinder the film slightly. While there is praise deserved for trying something interesting and new in Saw X, it does fail to be overly engaging because it is quite emotionally surface level. The slow pacing drags what could have been a 30-minute opening act out to almost one full hour of the movie, and it’s noticeably slow and choppy.
There are at least two instances of the brutal violence Saw is known for during this first hour, and those moments are toe-curling (or perhaps finger curling!) to say the least, but it does feel like the traps were shoehorned in due to the slow paced start the film gets off to. It’s a double-edged sword in a way due to the fact that even though it is not necessarily the most exciting way to start a Saw film, it does lead to a very satisfying second half that showcases all the things fans love about these films!
Once Jigsaw and Amanda get their hands on the slimy, scamming scumbags, they’re all put in individual traps in a rusted, dingy barn in the middle of Mexico. And one-by-one, they are put to Jigsaw’s tests, leading to bloody entertaining results (if you’re into this sort of horror, of course)! The best way to describe the second half of Saw X is a hard-boiled, revenge flick!
No body part is safe in traps that would even make the most hardened of person watch at least some of it through the gaps of their fingers! It’s during these insanely graphic, disturbing, and wickedly twisted traps that Saw X thrives, reigniting a classic feeling from the earlier films, where the traps didn’t have to be outlandish contraptions that required an engineering degree, they just had to be a blood-filled nightmare.
The creativity from Stolberg and Goldfinger, along with Gruetert’s experience in bringing Saw traps to life previously, and the welcomed addition of acclaimed production designer Anthony Stabley, is taken to a new level, making the most of it’s gritty aesthetic to convey an oddly enjoyable disgust. Tetanus is the last thing to worry about in this rusty barn when Jigsaw is around, that’s for sure. And in true Saw fashion, the way the traps align with the ‘crime’ that these people have committed against Jigsaw takes the level of satisfaction up significantly.
Also in true Saw fashion, it couldn’t end without the iconic ‘Hello Zepp’ theme by Charlie Clouser to announce that some insane (and often ridiculous) twist is on its way. Saw X’s final moments don’t necessarily hit as hard as previous entries, and part of that reason could be that the story for John Kramer and Amanda continues on from this point into Saw II (technically). But, even in a standalone film sense, the big finale (which is quite grand in scale) doesn’t cause the toes to curl as much as other scenes preceding.
While there is an interesting attempt to try a more personal, human story to being Saw X, and features Tobin Bell’s best performance as John Kramer to date, it’s noticeably tonal difference from the rest of the franchise does make the first half of the film a bit rough to get through. But when the film goes into hard-out, full-on Jigsaw mode, it harkens back to earlier entries in the series by unapologetically filling the screen with what the fans love, blood and guts.
Saw X is in Australian cinemas September 28th, courtesy of StudioCanal. You can also watch my interview with director Kevin Greutert and production designer Anthony Stabley HERE.
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