The 10th installment in the horror franchise is easily the best since the first film, with Tobin Bell giving his finest performance yet as John Kramer.
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There might not be a series as bumpy in quality as the “Saw” franchise. The first film is an excellent, contained thriller, but the subsequent sequels are like a grab bag, you don’t know what you’re going to get. You might be getting a golden egg or you might be getting a pile of dog poo.
Even if some of the films in this franchise are rubbish, I have a special attachment to them. It wasn’t even that long ago that I first marathoned through these films, COVID and the post-college blues will do that to you, and I was entertained. Some have been quick to dismiss these films as “gore porn,” but when these films work, you can see the passion the filmmakers have for this world, even for as muddled and confusing as it can get.
“Saw X” is, as the title suggests, the tenth installment in the franchise, and is set between the events of the original “Saw” film and “Saw II,” unconventional serial killer John Kramer (Tobin Bell) only has months left to live. With his options becoming more and more limited, John becomes desperate and resorts to attending a cancer support group where he befriends Henry Kessler (Michael Beach), who is resilient in his battle with the disease.
A few weeks after attending his first session, John once again runs into Kessler, who looks much more alive, and tells John that he’s now in remission, thanks to an experimental medical treatment from Norwegian doctor Cecilia Pederson (Synnøve Macody Lund). John is quick to get into contact with Pederson and is quickly flown out to Mexico City for his surgery.
Shortly after his procedure, John realizes that he has been scammed by Cecilia and her team of fraudsters. Disgusted by the con, John ropes in his apprentice Amanda (Shawnee Smith), and kidnaps the fraudsters, hooking them up to a series of deadly traps that offer them a small chance of survival.
Before “Saw X” it was safe to say that this franchise hadn’t ever been able to top the greatness of James Wan’s original movie. Chris Rock attempted to bring his take on the franchise back in 2021 with the spin-off “Spiral: From the Book of Saw,” with mixed results. Upon first glance “Saw X” looked like just another “Saw” movie.
In a shocking twist, perhaps even more shocking than any of the dozens of twists that this franchise has had, “Saw X” doesn’t only match the quality of the 2004 film, but it might have also surpassed it as well.
Since his inception, John Kramer has become one of the most fascinating characters in the horror genre. He’s not a senseless killer, he has his reasons, and in his mind, he’s completely justified in his acts of violence. He’s giving his victims a chance to live and to learn a lesson that will lead to a better path in life, well a better path minus a limb or two.
While “Saw IV” was able to delve into the backstory and the origins of John Kramer, after his death, “Saw X” feels like the first film in the franchise that makes him the protagonist. The tenth installment turns the table on the audience, no longer are we rooting for the characters to get out of John’s twisted “games,” instead we’re rooting for John and Amanda to exact their revenge. This time, some of John’s victims have even greater psychopathic tendencies than him, to the point where the character who has long been the antagonist of this franchise, seems completely reasonable and valid in his methods.
Bell gives his greatest and most memorable performance yet as the iconic character. He allows himself to be vulnerable, but also never forgets that his character is morally questionable. It's just that everybody else in the cast is ramping up their performances to an 11. Sure, John Kramer has very poor judgment. Who in their right mind would contemplate sucking somebody’s eyes out over petty theft? But hey, at least he’s not going after children, and the same can’t be said for some of the other characters.
Director Kevin Greutert returns to the franchise after directing the highly underrated sixth installment (and the lackluster seventh), and tones down the cartoonishly violent elements. The creative team for “Saw X” has claimed that this entry relied heavily on practical effects, and you can tell. There are plenty of bloody and gory moments that will leave you squeamish, but also for the sick and twisted fanbase (as I, myself, am a part of), the violence here is just so satisfying, that you can’t help but watch. John Kramer and Amanda are going after questionable adults, it's not like they’re going after kids, puppies, and kittens. Give them a break.
“Saw X” does run into some of the same conundrums that all the previous entries have run into (including the first film). The script is incredibly on-the-nose, and the acting, outside of Bell and Smith, is overly done. It’s been a staple of the franchise, but it will also inevitably take you out of the movie for a minute or two (or more in the especially bad entries).
Longtime fans of the “Saw” franchise will likely find their love for these films rekindled with the latest installment. It’s the perfect kind of reinvention that the previous two films promised, but never fully delivered on. It’s also a genuinely well-made film and one of the better horror films to come out this year.