Saw X review: Brings back some much-needed tongue-in-cheek mischief to the franchise

The latest instalment flashes back to show a little love for its arch-architect of murderous escape rooms

Clarisse Loughrey
Thursday 28 September 2023 15:12 BST
Saw X - trailer

A good horror franchise can only survive so long without showing a little sympathy for the devil. Chucky is a family man now, and he’ll stab you in the head if you don’t respect his genderfluid kid’s pronouns. Michael Myers has slowly pivoted from a vessel of all-incarnate evil to a vessel of all-incarnate generational trauma. Now, the time has come for the Saw franchise to show a little love to its arch-architect of murderous escape rooms, John Kramer, aka the Jigsaw Killer (Tobin Bell). And so, in its latest instalment, Saw X, we get up close and personal with the puppet man himself.

In all fairness, Saw has always toyed with its audience’s sympathies. John – who only picked up his sadistic hobby after facing serious tragedy and a terminal diagnosis of cancer – dedicates himself to teaching blackmailers and insurance fraud types about the preciousness of life by forcing them to chop off their own limbs. Does he always choose the best victims? No (he loses a few points for his zero-tolerance policy towards addiction and sex work) but there can be no Saw, really, without the secret, guilty hope that his victims will fail to escape their respective traps and be pulverised into instant mincemeat. And so, while no one would really argue they’re on John’s side, audiences would be lying to themselves if they claimed the opposite to be true.

Saw X puts that theory into practice. John becomes both anti-hero and protagonist in a film that brings back some much-needed tongue-in-cheek mischief to a franchise that last suffered the hammy yet self-serious, Chris Rock-headlined Spiral. Since John kicked the bucket at the end of Saw 3 in 2006, the events of Saw X actually take place between the first and second films, as he struggles to accept his own mortality. We see John get an MRI scan and attend a cancer support group. It would be almost moving, if he hadn’t just recently put a woman in a reverse bear trap.

John travels to a clinic outside of Mexico City to receive an experimental treatment vaguely and repeatedly referred to as a combination of “drug cocktail and surgery”. Turns out he’s actually been scammed. As soon as the realisation sets in, John whips out his leather-bound notebook full of torture ideations and gets to work on entrapping medical mastermind Cecilia Pedersen (Synnøve Macody Lund) and her minions.

Bell, who has played John since the very first outing in 2004, is the primary reason why this concept works. The actor doesn’t play the character as maniacal, but as a control freak who’s really only enacting the murder version of a one-star Yelp review. He’s the perfect combination of psychotic and everyman, and is certainly more reasonable than his apprentice – and franchise regular – Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith) with her early 2000s-primed grunge look, cropped hair and inappropriate enthusiasm. Between murders, the pair sit down for a little pep talk and the air turns thick with irony – earlier on, John tells Cecilia that his work involves him helping people to “overcome inner obstacles and make a positive change”.

As for the traps, they’re suitably surgery-themed – one could most aptly be described as “Edward Scalpelhands”. Ten films in and it’s a routine we’re so intimately familiar with that it’d be hard to call any element of Saw X original but returning director Kevin Greutert knows what’ll satisfy his audience: a few buckets of blood and the gag-inducing sound of crunching bone. Here, they’ll get exactly what they want. And so will John.

Dir: Kevin Greutert. Starring: Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith, Synnøve Macody Lund, Steven Brand, Michael Beach, Renata Vaca. 18, 118 minutes.

‘Saw X’ is in cinemas from 29 September

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