Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Few horror franchises have made it to entries in the double digits, let alone ones that actually have one consistent, ever-expanding storyline. While the Saw films undoubtedly have their own peaks and valleys, they can sit proudly next to the Scream and Child’s Play franchises as part of the most consistent continuous horror series of all time. In comparison to the grounded, back-to-basics approach of this surprisingly moving entry, by the tenth movie, Jason Voorhees went to space. Michael Myers saw his timeline reset for the third time, and Pinhead brought in angels and porn-level acting. In many ways, Saw X could be viewed as the ultimate movie in a franchise that constantly builds on previous entries. Supercharged by a career-best Tobin Bell, Saw X acts as a love letter to a wonderful franchise that defined my teenage years.

If it’s Halloween, it must be Saw. So was the case from 2004 – 2010, capped off by an underwhelming 3D “final chapter” that favored effects over story. Next came 2017’s underrated Jigsaw, and 2021’s Kramer-less Spiral: From the Book of Saw. Due to some calendar rejiggering, Saw X slices into the month of September for the very first time. A newfangled approach returns the series to its roots, presenting a sort of mid-quel set in between the events of Saw and Saw II. Lest one thinks a movie unfolding near the beginning of the franchise timeline would be a waste of time, screenwriters Josh Goldberg and Pete Goldfinger (Spiral: From the Book of Saw, Jigsaw) have got something to say. 

This go round, John Kramer (Tobin Bell) appears to be running out of time as his brain cancer grows more aggressive. How remarkable that Bell looks to have aged barely a day since the lair discovery of Saw II. In X, we get a glimpse into Kramer’s actual worldview for the first time. A potent early sequence sees Kramer daydreaming about a grisly trap after he observes someone in the wrong. The scene is a full Jigsaw trap through and through, giving rabid audiences exactly what they came to see without uselessly discarding a major character early on. Something about this entry feels different, almost more personal. Bell fills the shoes of Kramer with ease—there’s a reason the entries featuring the series figurehead more frequently place near the top of the heap. Not only does this mark Kramer’s finest outing as a character, but it also gives Bell material worthy of a horror legend.

After a member of Kramer’s cancer support group suffering from stage four pancreatic cancer makes a miraculous recovery, John sets his sights on an experimental medical procedure that promises lofty, miraculous results. With an entire puzzle of intricate traps and grand plans swimming around inside his mind, John will try anything at this point to ensure that his legacy carries on. Not yet approved by the FDA, doctor Cecilia Pederson (Synnøve Macody Lund) promises a surgery/medicinal cocktail that will bring John’s cancer to its knees once he travels to Mexico. Saw X takes its time setting up the inevitable—while we already know this treatment will not work out in John’s favor, seeing it play out so harshly actually makes the viewer sympathize with the central baddie.

Scammed and robbed of his hope and dignity, John vows to hunt down those in charge of this unbelievably cruel attack on the most vulnerable. Director Kevin Greutert—responsible for both one of the best and one of the worst entries in Saw—redeems whatever doubt may have been present previously by doubling down on gory realism and character dynamics. Mainstay Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith), a longtime fan favorite, also returns with her signature sharp wit and conflicted morals. What makes Saw X such a blast to watch is its slightly more meta approach; why go through the motions to deliver a carbon copy of what came before? Isolating the setting to Mexico prevents any conflicts with an occasionally muddy timeline. 

The shift in perspective helps to make Saw X feel special and singular. That said, this is a movie made for and by the fans. It’s difficult to imagine some of these moments hitting as hard for those who did not go to every Saw midnight show, screaming along with the audience. As it emerged in the mid-2000s, Saw became an overnight horror sensation, buoyed by a twist ending that no one saw coming. The final act of Saw X is among the very best. Easter eggs to series lore are sprinkled like breadcrumbs throughout. Whereas after awhile, Saw sequels were churned out so quickly year to year that only diehards (me) could follow along, there is a quietness to Saw X that showcases an immaculate attention to detail.

As the longest Saw movie to date, Saw X never wastes a single second. John Kramer’s character receives more depth and vulnerability than ever before. For once, we are made privy to the inner workings of his mind. Whatever happens from here, Saw X is a welcome return to form overflowing with pulse-pounding scenes of gory suspense and captivating moral quandaries in equal measure. I may have to mull over it for awhile to figure exactly where it ranks among the other nine entries, but Saw X captured my whole heart, without even requiring brain surgery. Past, present, or future—wherever the games take us next, I am down to follow the rules.

Saw X is now playing in theaters worldwide.

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