I want to play a game.

Those iconic words haven’t been uttered in a good Saw movie in a long time. At least, according to the teenager who was ripping my ticket at the theater on opening night.

But he’s not wrong.

I thought Saw V was weak, especially compared to the great original trilogy (Saw I – III)Saw IV had issues, but I liked the twist and it was very close to the tone and style of the first three.

Saw VI was another very strong entry, but then we had a string of disappointments, with Saw: The Final ChapterJigsaw, and whatever Chris Rock’s Spiral was supposed to be (because it sure wasn’t a Saw movie).

And yet, the franchise still has loyal fans, like my younger brother and I who always go to the theater on opening night to check out the new Saw movie, good, bad, or ugly.

I think it’s a testament to the franchise that it has spawned countless clones, fans, and parodies like the one below.

However, with Saw X we get a nice course correction by going back to the basics. This film is set between Saw I and II, so the legacy characters we want to see are all alive, and are fair game to bring back.

Another plus is that the story is simple:

John Kramer (Jigsaw) is dying of brain cancer. He hears about a miraculous new treatment from someone in his cancer support group, and, with no other options, dives in head-first.

John pays a large, undisclosed amount of money for this miracle cure (I don’t believe the exact amount is ever given. At one point, John says he will wire the other $250 grand after the operation, and I assume there was also an upfront charge).

Then, he flies to Mexico and is taken by masked strangers in a dark van to a location off-the-grid for his surgery. They claim this is because they have a cure for cancer, but big pharma is hunting them, so the researchers have to stay hidden. It’s a clever enough excuse, and, since they are dealing with desperate people, there aren’t a lot of questions asked.

And don’t worry about all the story and setup, as we still get a gory trap to break things up. At the hospital, after John is told that he has only weeks to live, he notices a custodian stealing from an unconscious patient.

We quickly flash to the custodian in a horrific trap where his eyes will be sucked out of his head if he doesn’t break all of the fingers on one hand within the time limit. I won’t spoil what happens, but I will say that the family with three small children who sat in the same row as me began to regret their decision to take kids to a Saw movie right about this time.

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After this scene, we snap back to the hospital where the custodian notices John watching him. He quickly puts the items back and apologizes, at which point John says: Good choice.

Now, I have a theory about this. I think that this game didn’t really happen. The custodian SAW (pun intended) the error of his ways and put the items he stole back, so Jigsaw didn’t have to punish him. The trap was just a representation of what would have happened if the custodian had made a bad choice and decided to keep the items.

Now, that’s just my theory. My little brother is not convinced and thinks that I am reading far too much into it. And that may be true – maybe I am hoping for these films to be narratively and structurally a little deeper than they are.

Regardless, this trap never comes back up, and has no impact on the plot.

So, back to John’s trip to Mexico:

Once he has arrived at the old, abandoned factory where the surgery will be conducted, he meets the team of surgeons (soon-to-be victims), a current patient (who is just pretending to be a patient), and the head of this whole operation: Doctor Cecilia Pederson. Talk about a great villain – and what a ghoul Cecilia is. A wealthy woman who preys on the desperate and dying by making false promises and draining them of every last cent in their bank accounts.

When John wakes up from his operation, he is told that it was a success and that he has the rest of his (hopefully long) life ahead of him. If you’ve seen the trailers, or any of the films after Saw I, you know this isn’t true, and the whole thing was a scam.

Now, let’s talk for a second about this – if you’re going to scam someone into thinking they had brain surgery, wouldn’t you do a little bit of work to make it seem real? I mean, wouldn’t you at least shave the patient’s head? Make a tiny scar on their cranium so it looks like you got in there and cut something out? Would you be sure to clean up all the incriminating evidence, just in case the patient ever returned to the scene of the crime?

If your answer to any of the above questions was YES, then congratulations, because you thought further ahead than anyone in this fake clinic.

Because of their stupidity, it doesn’t take John long to figure out that the whole thing was a scam and that he has been duped. And if there is one person you do not want to mess with, it is the Jigsaw killer.

We then move on to the fun and (sick) games section of our film. Having deduced that he was tricked, John calls his apprentice Mark Hoffman (a police detective) to find him some information on the scammers. Remember, this is set between I and II, so Hoffman, Jigsaw, and Amanda are all alive and working together.

He also calls his other apprentice, Amanda, to come down to Mexico and help him set up the game.

From there, we do the typical Saw jump-scare-extravaganza where each victim is going about their day when, surprise, there is a figure in a robe and pig mask who knocks them out.

The victims (the fake surgeons from John’s operation, and Doctor Cecilia Pederson) are all chained up, and separated from one another in one large room. This is, of course, the abandoned factory where they supposedly did the “surgery.”

I like this for several reasons – it’s a new twist on the typical group game. We’ve never seen victims trapped together who have to do their tests one-by-one, and watch the others fail and die in horrifying ways.

It also makes sense in terms of the plot – as my little brother said, Jigsaw wasn’t on his home turf, so he had to improvise and set this up quickly.

And then it is off to the races with gory trap after gory trap. There is also something here that I like – Jigsaw is not a hero, he is a psychopath and a murderer. When Jigsaw muses “This is not retribution.” to one of his victims, there is cynicism to his words and a venom to Tobin Bell’s performance that let the audience know that this is indeed punishment. And this retribution is going to be bloody and painful.

This also carries into the games themselves – most traps are tough, nearly unwinnable even in the best of circumstances, but Saw X shows that not all games are created equal.

What I mean by this is that these games were not meant to be won. For example, we have a game wherein a victim must saw their own leg off with a Gigli saw, then stick a tube into the stump (the exposed bone) and suck out enough bone marrow to stop the razor wire at their throat from slicing their head off. Oh, and they only have three minutes to do this.

There is also a brain surgery bit where a victim has to operate on themselves. This one made me look away, so props to the franchise for pulling out something so gory that even a horror-aficionado like myself considered it too much.

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Now, I will say that both my brother and I were a bit disappointed that the real villain of the piece (or at least one of the villains) didn’t get a super gory ending. Again, no spoilers, but it felt like there was an opportunity for a really gratuitous (and well-deserved) death scene which was sorely missed.

Also, we were disappointed that Jigsaw didn’t slam the door at the end and yell GAME OVER! This is an iconic line, and they chose not to include it in this film for some strange reason. It probably won’t matter to most viewers, but it was noticeable and it bothered me.

Of course, you’re now wondering about the twist – something all Saw movies are known for. Like any franchise, some twists are better than others, and Saw X’s twist fell a little flat.

No spoilers, but when Jigsaw says that everything is planned and will work out exactly as he predicted, it’s probably best to believe him, no matter how dire things may seem. About halfway through the movie, my brother turned to me and whispered: Saw V.

If you know, you know.

Now, before I get to my final rating, I do want to share my concerns.

See, I really enjoyed this movie, and it felt like a return to what we all love about the franchise. But I can’t help but point out that Jigsaw has been dead since Saw III and, while it was nice to see him back in this prequel, the franchise needs to find a way to move forward and to explore Jigsaw’s influence on the greater world around him.

This has already been teased in some of the lesser sequels, and I believe that’s what Chris Rock’s Spiral was trying to do. However, it hasn’t fully been capitalized on, and it’s unfortunate, when there is a very clear path forward that would set the franchise up for years, or even decades, to come.

What I’m saying here is Lionsgate, hit me up. I’ve got the answer to all of your Saw woes and I’ll be happy to share, assuming you pay me very well and give me full creative control 

Seriously, though, the franchise came back with a bang and, as a Saw fan, I was extremely happy to see it.

So, if you’re a Saw fan like I am, this is a strong SEE IT review. If you are a casual fan, or just looking for a gory good time, then I would say RENT IT, as it’s a fun time, but it will probably mean more if you are caught up on all the lore.

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Also, stay until the mid-credits, as there is a scene that ties up a loose end in the film and sets up Saw XI!

Thanks so much for letting me kick Horror Month off this year! Stay spooky everyone!

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