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SAVED BY T. BELL
Saw X (18)
Director: Kevin Greutert
Screenplay: Josh Stolberg, Peter Goldfinger
Starring: Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith, Synnøve Macody Lund
Review: David Stephens
There’s no doubt about it. Horror produces the hardiest franchises in show business. From Universal Studio monsters to modern boogeymen, if it scares successfully, it endures eternally. From Chucky to Michael Myers, from Leatherface to Jason Voorhees. They’ve all been re-suited and rebooted for TV or the movies at some point. New horror brands are popping up all the time (Smile 2 this time next year folks!), but the Saw movie line has proven to be exceptionally resilient for something that mainstream critics continually sneered at and cold-cocked as mindless “torture porn”. But that didn’t stop the horror community from embracing each new movie, especially when they were scheduled as annual Halloween releases. Admittedly, the last two attempts to reboot the story and start again have been disappointing, mainly because they tried to water down the gore and push forward an unknown John Kramer protégé, rather than Jigsaw himself. So Jigsaw in 2017 (frickin’ laser beams!) and Spiral in 2021 (frickin’ Samuel L. Jackson!) just didn’t cut the mustard or bait the bear trap. Instead, let’s hear it for going back to basics. In a shrewd move, Saw X is actually Saw 1.5, in that it takes place between the events of the original Saw and Saw II. This means that original-flavour Jigsaw (the very great Tobin Bell) is still alive and kicking, without the need for flashbacks or excruciatingly misleading time jumps. We’re on board, especially as the helmer Kevin Greutert was the director of Saw VI (one of the best sequels) and Saw: 3D/The Final Chapter (erm… not one of the best). So let John Kramer take centre stage once more.
The film starts with an emotionally distraught character in a menacing device, only in this case it’s John Kramer (Bell, of course). Starting to near the final stages of his cancer, centred on a tumour in his brain, he still looks for potential victims for his insidious “live-or-die” traps. (NB: This leads to the “eye-trap” from the poster… but not in the way you might expect). However, his trapping days are interrupted by the discovery of a rogue surgeon operating out of Mexico City. Cecilia Pederson (Synnøve Macody Lund) is providing groundbreaking drugs plus operations, but only as long as she can avoid the attention of the big US pharmaceuticals. It’s all at a price of course, but Pederson seems so sincere… Still, when something seems to be too good to be true, it usually is. So John Kramer assumes his “Jigsaw” persona again and sets up operations in Mexico. Here, he is joined by his devoted apprentice Amanda Young (a very welcome return for Shawnee Smith), as they set their sights on Pederson and her scamming acquaintances.
What’s kind of surprising and heartening about “Saw X” (is it pronounced “Saw-Ex” or “Saw-Ten”?), is the amount of positive reviews it’s got from mainstream critics. With previous films slammed mercilessly in the press, at the time of writing the film is currently “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes with 86%! And for a film where self-amputation is graphically shown and human intestines are used as a lasso! This is in no small part due to the increased presence of Bell in the role of Jigsaw. The most screentime the character has had in any film, in this one we share part of the emotional journey with him and can (nearly) empathise with his extreme morality rules that drive every trap. The 81-year-old actor grasps the opportunity with both hands and relishes the chance to treat every line as if it were written by Shakespeare. Just watch his delivery of dialogue to a doctor when he’s given devastating news: “So what you’re telling me… is that I should die more easily”. Sheer class.
The structure and cinematic quality of the first quarter are also quite heartfelt and serious, as the human qualities of John’s situation bleed into a realistic grasp towards hope. The seemingly genuine generosity and support of Pederson and crew are often at odds with his perception of the wasteful nature of humanity. He even rips up a sketch of a trap at one point, suggesting that his Jigsaw persona is quashed. But it wouldn’t be a Saw film if that happened. And by Jiminy, these traps are back on point. Gone are the lacklustre and blood-lite contraptions of the last movies. Be prepared for full-on amputation, evisceration, and decapitation in unflinching detail. All accompanied by impossible deadlines and tension by the bucket-load. This is where Saw X has rediscovered the bones of what made the first movies tick and hit that sweet spot – melding a semblance of character growth, an interesting narrative, and unlikely plot twists, with genre-pleasing guts and gore that is entirely unapologetic in its presentation.
There’s also a sly bit of humour and satire mixed in there, something with which the franchise is not well-known for. However, one character openly mocks the “scary Jigsaw voice” in a meta moment. Amanda’s involvement aside, there are often Easter Eggs and references to events in the lore, with the flashbacks in Saw VI arguably linking straight to this moment in John’s life. Despite her potty-mouth bravado and nicely portrayed father-daughter connection with Jigsaw, Amanda is shown to have a heart and struggles with the moral conundrum at times. For real Saw aficionados, this leads into the unfair treatment she had in Saw III, and Hoffman’s manipulation of the situation. You have to love a franchise that has that much depth. Tellingly, there are no “heroes” or “cop chases”, with a saintly protagonist trying to prevent the demise of a victim. Jigsaw is very much the (anti)hero here and despite the gruesome ordeals that they face, his victims are certainly no angels.
This does lead to a bit of a misstep, where one character becomes so vaudevillian in their actions that you half expect them to grow a moustache and start twirling it! It serves to make John more sympathetic and gives him the higher ground in the denouement, but it does come across as overly melodramatic in some respects. You’re also probably wondering if there is a last-act twist and whether Charlie Clouser’s rousing “Hello Zepp” score accompanies it … well, we won’t spoil it. But as with most of the Saw sequels, the ending struggles to attain the impact of the original’s twist and is slightly less satisfying in comparison with the rest of the film, being slightly signposted in several ways. Bizarrely we even get a “walks-into-the-sunset” sequence. Who would have thunk it for such a nihilistic series?
As such, it’s not quite the humdinger that you may be expecting. Sure, it’s a definite return to form and it looks like it may well be a successful CPR for the series. It’s also immensely entertaining for fans of stomach-churning body horror and well-crafted tension. But it’s the sequel we wished we’d had 15 years ago, rather than a bold continuation of themes or a stunning new interpretation. Like Prey in the Predator franchise, Saw X is marked by the fact that going back to the basics is often the best way to return to its own greatness. Given that CGI ageing is (perhaps wisely) avoided Bell and Smith are still cool to watch and slip back into their respective characteristics like they had never left them. It actually feels a little frustrating that Lionsgate hadn’t taken this approach from Saw II onwards. Ah well…
And to be honest, that’s the only reason we haven’t given it a higher rating. Bell is terrific, really inhabiting the role and playing the in-scene ringmaster for the first time. SFX is pleasingly practical, with CGI only used for touch-ups. Pathos is present alongside the screaming and flying innards. All in all, it’s an extremely solid sequel and the best entry for years. Perfect? No. Entertaining? Definitely. Bloody? Hell, yeah! That leaves the hanging question around Saw XI? But judging by this, perhaps staying in the past is the way to go forward. Enjoy.
Is it a welcome return to form to the franchise? Well, yes, it is. A country-mile better than the last two entries and easily on par with the best sequels. Bell and Smith shine in their interactions and there’s some good acting and pathos in there. There is room for improvement, but it’s outstandingly gory with some sly humour. There’s definitely an X-appeal here for Saw fans, so let’s hope Bell rings again.
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