The Saw franchise and I have a tumultuous relationship with one another. Although I can absolutely, absolutely recognize the many, many faults that the series has overall.
I like it.
The relationship I have with the Saw franchise is not unlike the relationship I have with Friday the 13th, Halloween, Child’s Play, or A Nightmare on Elm Street. Although I have many friends who don’t share my enthusiasm for it, the Saw franchise has wormed its way into my brain and, someway, somehow, become one of the boys. John Kramer has become a horror icon, arguably one of the only two we have seen since Wes Craven’s Scream franchise introduced us to the Ghostface Killer. (The other being Pennywise, with my love of the first Sinister, and my budding appreciation of Art the Clown in mind.)
I will admit, for every good one, there is a bad one. Saw (which I enjoyed) was followed by Saw II (which I did not), and Saw III (which I enjoyed) was followed by Saw IV (which I did not). The lackluster, but occasionally enjoyable Detective Hoffman era featured a series of bad films, with only one film – Saw VI, being the highlight. So, in summation, we received three good Saw films and four bad Saw films in the original seven (and a decent Saw videogame and a bad Saw videogame). This isn’t too different from the track record of other franchises I have mentioned and is, in fact, surprisingly better than it has any right to be, considering the circumstances.
Seven years after The Final Chapter, John Kramer and his friends were brought back from the dead, because no horror series truly stays dead. In 2017, we received Jigsaw, a decent but throwaway film. It was better than The Final Chapter, but it was too muddled and, frankly, pointless, to justify itself, especially after a seven year wait. Spiral: From the Book of Saw was a far better film. It had ambition and a slick, clever little script that brought us what I would call the fourth good Saw film (so, the track record became five bad, four good).
I am happy to say that Saw X is the best film of the series thus far.
I feel a little stunned to write such a comment, and honestly, a part of my mind still doesn’t want to accept it. I am aware that Saw X has also received the best reviews across the whole franchise, and part of my brain wonders if I am subconsciously hopping on the bandwagon.
Truth is though, I am not. This is, in my opinion, absolutely the best Saw film.
Although it isn’t the reinvention of the formula that Spiral: From the Book of Saw was expected to be, it is the first solid and strong John Kramer film we have received since Saw III. In some ways, I am actually happy about the way things played out. Although the prospect of having Spiral bring in Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson and, in theory, deliver a David Fincher quality film, was wonderful, it was neither realistic nor was it the best outcome for the Saw franchise. The best outcome was to have Tobin Bell back as John Kramer and, if not James Wan, a classic Saw director come in and hit it out of the park. Kevin Greutert not only directed the best Saw film from the Hoffman era, but he directed one of the worst films from the whole series. It is poetic that it would be him to knock it out of the park.
It is also nice to have Peter Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg (the writers of Jigsaw and Spiral) write the script for Saw X, because I thought their script for Spiral especially was among the best of the series, betrayed by outside variables.
Saw X is a Saw film, at the end of the day. However, it makes several welcome changes to the series I particularly enjoy. For starters, it develops John Kramer more in one film than what the prior nine films had done for him combined. Set after the original film, John Kramer is nearly on his death bed, with his brain cancer doing what brain cancer unfortunately does. The character is portrayed as desperate, but hopeful, and that desperation and hope is taken advantage of when snake oil salesmen tell him they have an experimental treatment that can rid him of his affliction.
Early on, we, the viewers, are fully aware that something is afoot. The first half-hour plus is spent waiting for the other shoe to drop. However, despite that, it doesn’t feel like the film is turning its wheels in the least. Instead, we are welcomed into a series best performance from Tobin Bell, successfully accomplishing the undesirable task of making John Kramer a sympathetic leading man. His twisted, if, at times, inconsistent philosophies have never felt more realized. His character basks at human connection, and shows a hopefulness that feels paradoxically heartbreaking to see be taken away from him. In the real world, we know John Kramer is a serial killer and a bad man that deserves the worst things to happen to him. Similar to Dexter, however, Tobin Bell is able to pull you in by his performance and by his devotion to his moral code.
As the film begins to Saw, we are treated to some of the most creative, brutal and mean traps throughout the series – he is mad this time around and it shows through harsher, more brutal traps than we have ever seen.
It offers lines of reasoning for John Kramer, and emotional depth that we have always largely assumed or had glossed over, but never actually seen demonstrated in such a declarative fashion.
It is brutal and, for the most part, Saw X subscribes to the age-old mentality of its victims being mostly pigs to the slaughter, a formula that has been around since the eighties, with Friday the 13th offering a similar philosophy. It isn’t ideal, and normally, it would bog the film down with the rest of the Saw franchise, where its characters are archetypes and largely one-dimensional. This applies to the characters in Saw X (although I would argue they are on par with the best of the series – which isn’t a high standard), but the character development of John Kramer elevates the film is significant ways. In particular, a twist at the end which is largely predictable, is largely elevated by new expressions of character and cracks in its armor.
Let’s keep our expectations in check before we watch Saw X, assuming you haven’t. It isn’t a David Fincher caliber film, and it isn’t an all-time great horror film by any stretch of the imagination. But, it is a good film. Not a good Saw film, but a good film. It has some of the same problems as the rest of the Saw franchise, but, by offering new depth to the John Kramer character and by ditching certain things (complicated plot lines, new antagonists, the nonlinear flashbacks, for example), it fits nicely as a sequel to the first film, while also celebrating the series that came thereafter.
As for what comes next, I am not certain. On one hand, after seeing this film, I am left believing the series has a new life. How could I ask a series to end after releasing its best film yet in a ten-part series? On the other hand, however, I realize that the film offers no reason to believe the film has new life in it. John Kramer is dead after Saw III. Amanda is dead. Hoffman is dead. The film fits snugly between Saw and Saw II and offers no new chapters for The Book of Saw. It offers nothing for what comes next. What it does offer, however, is a great end. You did it. The best Saw film. The best portrayal of John Kramer ever.
Maybe the answer for what comes next in the Book of Saw is that, at long last, you close it.
If you don’t, and you won’t, however, I can only hope they see this as a satisfying end for John Kramer and come back with a new, exciting way to breathe life in the series again (The Collector was an example of a good, unique route the series could have went).