For almost 20 years now, a violently mischievous little puppet named Jigsaw has dominated as a masterful torturer in the horror landscape. His horrific traps have lived in internet infamy, collecting thousands of views on clips of ultimate gore. The trend of torture-porn-heavy horror may have fallen off, but the stomach-churning scares of the Saw franchise are still here to stay.
Fan or not, Saw X (2023) will make you absolutely squirm in your seats, especially if you can handle it in 4K. A classic in the industry, this series’ numbers are finally catching up to other big name horror movies: Saw now trails behind Halloween with thirteen films released, and Friday the 13th with twelve releases. The release of the tenth film in the series certifies the Saw franchise as an iconic horror storyline, presenting us with gloriously disgusting traps and new depth into the franchise’s iconic characters.
The film is a half-prequel, and it may be confusing timeline-wise if you have only seen a few other Saw movies. The 2023 release takes place in between the first and second film, in which John Kramer (Tobin Bell)—also known as Jigsaw—goes to Mexico for a suspicious cancer treatment. Understanding the film’s place in the franchise requires knowledge of the plotlines of both the first and second films—we know this is after Saw (2004) because he already has his cancer diagnosis, and before Saw II (2005) because his condition isn’t nearly as bad. In treatment, he is manipulated by Dr. Cecilia Pederson (Synnøve Macody Lund), who tricks him into thinking she has a groundbreaking cure for his brain cancer. When he finds out that his surgery was fake and the drugs he was taking were placebos, he takes revenge. In the meticulously planned manner of Jigsaw, Kramer sets up torture traps for every individual involved in the scam. When this shift occurs, we are no longer watching a movie about John Kramer: rather, we are now watching Jigsaw.
Like every other installment in Saw, the film finds a way to push past the barrier the previous films set. Every new addition to Saw brings excitement for the grotesque creativity of the new traps. And Saw X did not disappoint; from a vacuum sucking eyeballs from one’s head to conducting brain surgery on themselves to flailing in front of a heating lamp while their skin melts off, Kramer’s actions can make anyone tremble in their seat. The film is shot exactly like a Saw movie should be, with quick adrenaline-filled cuts peppered with mind-numbingly slow moments of suspense through conversations with Kramer. The traps are actually shown at the end, featuring unprecedented gore: they not only make you gag, but they make your skin crawl and your innards writhe with discomfort.
The director, Kevin Greutert, is the mastermind behind the unease one feels when watching. As director of Saw VI (2009) and Saw 3D (2010) (the franchise’s seventh edition), Greutert has finally cemented his position in the Saw franchise with the release of Saw X. While his past two films were enjoyable, they were certainly not considered the best of them all. However, with this new release, Greutert finally proves himself: Saw X is significantly better than the previous two, as the story is more cohesive and fresh, while six and seven are limited by an overdone storyline.
Most of the other Saw films focus on Kramer as a vigilante, where, in his own words, he finds people who have done “bad” things, and “rehabilitates” them through various torture traps. However, Saw X takes a different route, in which those who are being punished betray Kramer right before the torture begins. The traps feel more personal to a viewer in this context. Moreover, this narrative approach allows us to see John Kramer as vulnerable. As Kramer deals with his cancer diagnosis, he grows continuously weaker, stopping his traps and forcing him to merely fantasize about individuals being tortured. When he arrives at Dr. Pederson’s program, he makes actual friends with the people who are helping him, even bringing a gift of a tequila bottle to share with the crew. Believing the treatment has worked, Kramer actually weeps tears of joy at the prospect of having his life back. This is a side to Kramer that has never been shown before; while we have seen him as a patient, the intense emotion that Saw X demonstrates sheds new light on the character.
Similarly, the return of Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith), an iconic character from previous films with a ruthless reputation, shows the viewer a different side of her personality. Known for her inescapable traps, we get to see Young’s potential for empathy. As a former heroin addict, Young is moved by seeing Gabriela’s signs of withdrawal, and she asks Kramer to let her go, even skipping over her trap to buy her more time. Amanda’s character’s humanistic qualities emphasize the anti-hero theme of Saw.
The traps in this film, a signature of the Saw franchise, are incredibly unnerving; they are already genuinely terrifying when imagining yourself in them, but Jigsaw also finds sinister new ways to manipulate and play with his victims’ minds. As any Saw fan would know, Kramer’s traps aren’t necessarily lethal. The person technically has a chance to escape, as John’s motive is to test the will to survive in each of his victims.
This satirically principled approach becomes clear in Saw X when Gabriela (Renata Vaca) successfully passes her test. Kramer demands she be taken to a hospital, but when Dr. Pederson surprisingly takes the upper hand, she kills Gabriela. Even though Kramer is putting these people through an immeasurable amount of trauma, he isn’t killing them. When we see Pederson kill Gabriela, this adds to the complexities of Kramer’s character. He is evil, but not as blatantly immoral as Pederson.
Even with all of the new depth this movie adds to the franchise, it still fails to deliver on some of the best Saw trademarks. The last death of the main “villain” was not quite satisfying when compared to traps depicted earlier in the film, with no gore or pain experienced by the character: simply, it was a letdown. Typically, Saw films use extreme violence in traps to produce the feeling of justice being served; unfortunately, this brutal catharsis was not portrayed in Saw X.
Additionally, the final plot twist was not nearly as much of a surprise as other Saw films, lowering it on the totem pole of the franchise. A great twist is dramatic, while still tying back into the storyline of the larger Saw universe. Instead, Saw X’s finale was essentially just another Kramer gotcha, paling in comparison to the shocking reveals of secret Jigsaw associates or the insanity of separate events happening simultaneously in other films. These twists are essential to the Saw franchise, and this new addition just doesn’t live up to the name.
Regardless, I still believe Saw X is a must-see. If you are a fan of the larger Saw universe, the tenth movie reveals a completely new insight into who John Kramer is as a person—he is not only a killer, but also a hopeful cancer patient hoping to have stumbled upon a successful cure. Amanda Young also provides new insight with her newfound moments of empathy, creating a more well-rounded sidekick. By plugging this in between the original Saw and Saw II, the actions of John Kramer and his relationship with his victims become three-dimensional. But even if you don’t care about any of that, the traps and gore are worth it on their own. If you haven’t seen any of the Saw films yet, make sure to fit Saw X and its companions into your horror-season binge.