Saw X (2023)

SEPTEMBER 29, 2023


Let's get the most important thing out of the way first: the red dungeon logo is back! Lionsgate had phased it out in the early '10s, and since they basically stopped making horror movies it wasn't really an issue, but many fans (including me) were bummed that they didn't resurrect it for Jigsaw or Spiral. But this time they listened, and it really did go a long way into making Saw X feel like we were back in familiar territory after those aforementioned films went so far out of their way to welcome newcomers instead of catering to the hardcores.

It's ironic, then, that this movie also does that, but in a way that is still satisfying to the Saw faithful in ways those two were not. Once again they have designed a film for people who may have given up on the series along the way, but instead of making it a twist (Jigsaw) or just going off in a completely unrelated story that takes place in the same world (Spiral), this one just presents itself as an entry that takes place in between Saw I and II, something that's obvious right off the bat. If memory serves, Saw II took place six months after the first film, and at the beginning of II John "Jigsaw" Kramer is on an oxygen machine and needs help getting around, so anytime we see Kramer up and about, we know it's prior to that film. The only reason we know for sure this takes place after the first movie was given away in the movie's marketing, but treated as something of a reveal about forty minutes into this one, so if you haven't seen the trailers yet, you might want to steer clear if you want to preserve the surprise.

Still here? OK, so we know it's after Saw I because Amanda is shown to be helping John throughout this one, with her face healed up from her appearance in that one. This allows the film something we never really got before: extended scenes of John and Amanda talking, working as a unit, etc. In Saw II her being his accomplice was one of the twists, and of course in Saw III he was at death's door throughout, so it's only been a handful of flashbacks (in III and VI) that we've seen them together with all their facilities intact. And, again, they were flashbacks, so they were overshadowed by whatever was happening in the present day story. That's not the case here; even though it's a prequel story, it's ENTIRELY a prequel, without any present day scenes, no bookending or anything like that. For all intents and purposes, with the exception of "ruining" Saw II's twist re: Amanda (and a post credits scene I'll mention later), you could just watch this one directly after the original and then keep going after there - it's basically Saw 1.5.

It's also director Kevin Greutert's "revenge" of sorts for the untimely box office failure of Saw VI, which despite being universally agreed as one of the best entries, ended up being clobbered in theaters by both the reception of Saw V and the surprise powerhouse of Paranormal Activity. So it's nice to see this one getting healthy reviews AND box office, as once again the target is the healthcare industry. If you recall in VI (though this isn't necessary info to have beforehand, I should stress) John mentioned a doctor in Norway that had a radical treatment he wanted to try, only for his insurance to turn him down (hence why he went after the whole lot of them). This takes place, presumably, shortly thereafter, when John learns that the doctor's daughter Cecilia is also providing those rogue treatments, albeit in Mexico, and has an opening. John heads there, undergoes the surgery, feels optimistic, and then accidentally discovers that the whole thing was a sham, and he was just knocked out with anesthesia for a bit - they didn't even really cut into his head a bit to sell the ruse!

So naturally, he calls up Amanda and has her round up the doctor (Synnøve Macody Lund) and her accomplices, brings them to a fairly standard Saw-esque basement dungeon, and puts them through death traps. But he doesn't do this one at a time, or have them make their way through a building like the groups in II and V - they're all in one room the entire time, each locked into their own unique trap. So John and Amanda will talk for a bit, and then tell one of the four that their test is about to begin, at which point we get a traditional trap scene, and then the cycle repeats. There are some complications of course, primarily another victim of their scam who comes around wanting his money back but doesn't quite agree with Jigsaw's methods of refunding, but it's a refreshing twist to the formula, as most witnesses to trap scenes either have a good reason not to help (Jeff in Saw III) or have to inflict some kind of pain on themselves to do so (William in VI), but here they're helpless, chained to their own trap and rooting for each other to succeed as one getting free would presumably be able to help free the others or at least run for help.

And it really works well! The traps are impressive, with only the mildest deja vu reminding us of others (namely VI) as they're all medically-charged in some way - a self surgery, a radiation wave set to "melt", etc. The story also remains suspenseful even with the prequel element weighing it down some (i.e. we know John and Amanda will succeed/survive), as some new sympathetic characters are worked into the mix and could theoretically survive even though we've never seen them again (this series can retcon anything, so they're never painted into a corner in that way). And Lund is a wonderful antagonist, as her accomplices are a mix of losers that were posing as healthcare practicioners, but she actually has the background and know-how for what she claims to be doing, so when John is explaining the traps to them, you can almost see her smile at times, impressed with the science behind them and also not really caring if any of them die because it's one less person to split John's payment with. This series has always had trouble coming up with worthy adversaries for Kramer, so it's nice to see one who (if she survives) could be on his level but (for once) not a potential accomplice.

I guess at this point I should note it's a slower paced entry than the others; in fact it's the longest entry in the series but has the lowest body count (four, or five if you count the post-credits scene, which I'll get to soon, promise!). They even throw in a dream scene early on to provide the movie with some kind of Saw type moment in its first act, as it otherwise acts as a full on drama for the first half hour or so. Apart from the dream scene and a cutesy joke about what he does for a living ("You're sort of a life coach?" they ask, and he says "Something like that") there is nothing in that first chunk of the film to suggest this is anything but a drama about a cancer patient trying a new treatment, and Bell is clearly relishing having a chance to explore the character in ways we've only seen in brief flashbacks in the past. Telling a complete story, in sequence (the only flashbacks are the usual "here's footage from before now that you know something new" montages), is something the series has literally never done before, as they've all had two timelines or hefty uses of flashbacks (even Spiral), and it pays off in his performance. Shawnee Smith unfortunately doesn't get as much to do (and she's saddled with a hideous wig to help with her de-aging), mostly going through the same inner turmoil she had in III, but again, seeing her and John discuss matters as mentor/mentee (and a whiff of father and daughter) for more than a few seconds in a flashback is a welcome sight.

It could have been a little tighter, though. For example, Amanda makes her grand reveal (the trailer shot) when she helps John kidnap Lund's character, but then we get flashbacks showing how she was the muscle behind the kidnapping of the three accomplices, and we see her pull the mask off for each one of those too. I mean, not for nothing, but she gets them all when they're isolated and then walks around without her mask in front of them for the entire movie, so why she even needed the pig mask in the first place is beyond me, but we certainly didn't need to spend another 90 seconds of the movie watching her do it over and over. Even the trap scenes themselves run a bit long, which has a weird (presumably unintentional) side effect, in that they kind of seem unfair at times. One victim actually does as they're asked with regards to the self mutilation, with another minute (!) to go to put the gory stuff in the device that will unlock their shackles, but the tubing that runs them together is just slow I guess? So they die anyway? It's one thing if they're slow and are "too late" because the clock runs out just before they finish mangling themselves, but to go through all the work (i.e. choosing to live) and then die because the trap was being sluggish seems cheap.

And the post-credits scene (obvious spoilers here, so skip this paragraph if you haven't seen it yet) is one of those things that opens up other questions, and also seems to suggest another cheap move on John's part, as he's shown trapping another accomplice (the person who told him about the treatment) along with... Hoffman! Who we haven't seen since Saw 3D and is, in the current timeline, presumably still sitting in that bathroom. Neither of them are masked, so I guess they plan to just shoot the guy if he survives his trap, but being reminded of his other accomplices makes me wonder why, when going up against medical jerks, John didn't enlist Gordon and/or Logan to help out, as they'd presumably be better to have on hand to help with all these medically-centric traps than Amanda the heroin addict. And Hoffman's appearance is spoiled early, when John makes a phone call asking for help, and it could have been to Amanda (or at least, we could have just assumed it was) but he starts the call with "Detective", giving it away early that Hoffman might be showing up (the trailer didn't help, using his one line of dialogue and giving it away to anyone who recognized his voice). Didn't they learn their lesson in Saw 3D when literally no one was surprised to see Elwes pulling off the mask when he already showed up earlier in the movie for a nothing scene?

So there are a couple of missteps, but for the most part it's a fine return to form, offering the best entry since VI and succeeding where the previous two movies didn't quite measure up with regards to toeing that line between making a movie for newcomers and one that can also satisfy, well, the folks who actually keep asking for these things. Fans of Bell as an actor get his biggest showcase to date (even in II and III, when he was still alive, I don't think he's had this much screentime/dialogue), the series gets a formidable opponent in Cecilia, and, via the post-credits scene (a first for the series, save for one on the director's cut of VI), a suggestion that the ongoing story dropped after 3D might actually come back into the fold someday. And we get to see a guy drill his own brains out. What else can you ask for?

What say you?

P.S. Minor spoiler here, but they had an opportunity to tie up a series-long loose end re: how John could afford all this stuff but also needed his insurance to cover his treatments when John finds the doctor's loot, and blew it by having him give it to someone else. Sad!


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