Ten films! That’s an achievement, no matter which way you mutilate it. It’s remarkable that this vast Saw franchise was extrapolated from a 2004 indie (“shot in 18 days”) by two no-name Australian directors. James Wan and Leigh Whannell have now moved on to truly bigger and better things, turning out Hollywood horror of variable quality. But the Saw franchise lurches forward, always, apparently, on the verge of collapse (see 2021’s dreadful Spiral: From the Book of Saw), but sustained by a reliable army of sickos who will happily sit and watch somebody pretend to get torn apart by a complicated mechanical apparatus.
If you have macabre taste, it is fundamentally entertaining. Edgar Allan Poe invented the whole thing with “The Pit and the Pendulum.” And the Saw twist has an undeniable power (again, if you’re a sicko): how much pain would you cause yourself out of a desire to go on living? As the franchise has continued, none of the torments has quite matched the purity of the original: “Would you saw off your foot if you really had to?” I remember going to see Saw V at the cinema and being completely baffled by it – I hadn’t seen III or IV, but all the same I don’t think it would have helped me much. It really was just a numbing sequence of increasingly ridiculous death.
But Saw I and II are both excellent horror films. Like Eli Roth with Hostel, the second parent to the torture porn genre, the directors of those films recognised that gratuitous violence is pointless if you can’t create an atmosphere of suspense and some okay characters – if you don’t have any kind of story to hang it on. Obviously it’s all about the violence, but you need the other stuff too. And Saw X really tries its best to have a story. It doesn’t work out.
X, the third film in the series directed by Kevin Greutert, takes place between I and II. John Kramer (Tobin Bell), the Jigsaw Killer, is a terminal brain cancer patient, months away from death. In his desperation, he reaches out to Cecilia Pederson (Synnøve Macody Lund), who claims to possess the cure for cancer. He flies down to her clinic in Mexico and undergoes what he believes is a life-saving treatment. He soon realises that he has been scammed by Cecilia and her team of charlatans. He calls upon his protégé Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith) to wreak his revenge.
This film is on a pretty good track in the opening. There’s an interesting angle with regards to Jigsaw’s personality, which the filmmakers could have explored further. Tobin Bell is pretty good when the script lets him pretend to be a normal person. You can really feel Kramer’s terror of death, and his futile faith in the most dubious prospect of a cure. There is a funny scene where Kramer, believing he’s been healed, sits in a park sketching some kind of awful cranial torture device – and then tears the page out of his notebook and throws it in the bin. Obviously now that he’s going to live, he doesn’t need to inflict death on anybody else. He just wants to sit and enjoy the sunshine.
The suspense does build. It’s about 40 minutes into the film before the violence really gets going. And then? The film kinda falls apart. The gore isn’t earth-shatteringly horrible, and the film struggles to sustain tension in a locked room scenario with Jigsaw, Amanda, and their victims. Worst of all – and this is really the film’s death knell – it somehow, against all reason, tries to make us feel bad for Jigsaw himself. An innocent Mexican boy, Carlos, is introduced to the plot to remind us that he doesn’t hate all human beings, just drug users and petty criminals.
I think that the film could still have worked if it did not, unbelievably, lapse into sentimentality and melodrama, which is the last thing on Earth that you want from a Saw movie. There are moments where the movie is obviously trying to be funny, but it feels like the director is using that as a crutch to excuse the stupidity of the rest of the plot. The really frightening thing to me is that we can’t even turn out a bad horror movie of the calibre of Saw II anymore.
Saw X is currently playing in cinemas.