Fantastic Fest Review: Saw X
Least-secret secret screening still has some twists
By Richard Whittaker,
10:14AM, Thu. Sep. 28, 2023
Fantastic Fest prides itself on keeping its secret screenings secret. Every year, audiences speculate and rumors spread, but they're usually to naught. This year, attendees had varying degrees of pleasant surprise at unannounced screenings of Saltburn, Dream Scenario, and Luc Besson's queer revenge fantasy Dogman.
But no one seemed surprised when the final of this year's quartet of hush-hush titles turned out to be Saw X, a resetting and readjustment of the beloved but increasingly spotty Saw franchise.
There were no leaks, just vibes, common sense, and the fact that the festival had announced that revival screenings of the first two films would be happening under their Fantastic Fest Presents banner – the ultimate blood-drenched red flag.
And the result of those rumors (so commonplace were they that some became convinced that they were a deliberate red herring) was that some people were claiming that they would walk out, that a bleeding edge genre festival was no place for a studio horror opening the following day.
The reality is that people stayed, and had a good, gruesome time.
Narratively, it's Saw's Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, a realization that the series really needs after sidelining its most recognizable human character (as distinct from Billy the puppet). However, that sidelining of the Jigsaw Killer aka John Kramer (Tobin Bell) came with his death in Saw III. However, unlike the venerable but even more erratic adventures of Jason Voorhees, dead has to mean dead for Jigsaw. No zombification, and no flashback sequences – well, unless you classify the entire movie as a flashback, as Saw X takes place between 2004's original giallo-tinged Saw and the more gory 2005 sequel, Saw II.
The ingenuity of the Saw movies is that Kramer is the most unlikely slasher, even less of an obvious physical menace than the gangling Freddy Krueger. An aging cancer patient, he's no Victor Crowley, no bulldozer of chaos, and ultimately his murders are cerebral; moreover, they're arguably self-inflicted, as his games always have a way to win (grisly as they may be). This time, the empathy is ramped up as Kramer faces his cancer diagnosis and grabs desperately at one last life raft of hope: an experimental therapy.
So he heads off to Hollywood's version of Mexico, the only place with more yellow filtering than the average Saw movie, where he is convinced by a caring physician (Synnøve Macody Lund) that healing is just a surgery and drug cocktail away.
Superficially, it's a return to the pointed political message of Saw VI, in which the pharma-insurance complex was the real villain, but making foreign hospitals the villain may cause more cringing than the horrors John and returning also-not-dead-yet sidekick Amanda (Shawnee Smith) inflict on the medical team when their treatment is revealed to be less than efficacious.
All the Saw signatures are there: a surprisingly tricky timeline, the open-ended narrative, the accelerated judder shots, tortures that put the American Guinea Pig films to shame, a ghastly color palette, and Charlie Clouser's deliciously atonal score. After the gimmicky Saw 3D: The Final Chapter, the clunky semi-reboot Jigsaw, and the misguided Spiral: From the Book of Saw, with its heavy-handed ACAB text, Saw X feels like a welcome return to form.
But this isn't just a rehash. Kramer's flawed and very Catholic "redemption through contrition and self-flagellation" philosophy finally has to confront a blunt reality: Just because a rat will chew off its leg to escape a trap, it doesn't mean they've been redeemed. Survival instincts mean that, one day, Kramer will face a survivor that isn't an acolyte but an apostate. So for all Saw X's "return to its roots" claims (which, let's face it, they've all made), its future may be in finally dealing with that logical consequence. That perennial problem of having a sadist with a messiah complex as protagonist is solved by finally adding an antagonist who likes to play as rough as he does.
But that shift in predator/prey relationship alters the dynamic of the series, and our emotional engagement with characters. The Saw franchise relies on our pleasure in terrible things happening to awful people, but there's a disconnect when the sin does not justify the punishment. Maybe, in finally giving Jigsaw a Daffy Duck to his Bugs Bunny, the series has worked out how to move into its third decade.