I’m on a hunt for the scariest movies of all time! I’ll be looking at films of any era, from any country, and then reviewing them based solely on how terrifying they are.
If you have a suggestion for a horror movie, please let me know on Twitter.
Please be advised, spoilers may lie ahead!!
Saw X (2023)
Director: Kevin Greutert
Starring: Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith
Going an entire October without a new All-Time Scariest entry is a crime punishable only by ironic torture device, and lord knows I lack the scruples to make my daring escape in time. As such, I lazily drifted towards the next barely-a-horror-movie candidate in my recent viewing history.
As its title indicates, Saw X is the tenth instalment in the oversaturated franchise — a disappointing revelation if you were hoping it was a cute play on the word ‘socks’ — and it places notorious angel of death John Kramer (Bell) in a new and unexpected role as protagonist.
Excessive violence has long been the bread and blooder of the Saw films, coupled with a growing sense of tension as the inevitable twist draws ever closer. If you like yucky stuff, it’ll be right up your alley. But what if you want to experience some form of dread, the kind that freezes you to the spot, and you simply cannot bear to turn away from?
It’s time for us to play a game (the game of reading this article).
Taking place between the first and second films in the franchise, Saw X transports naughty old John to a shady clinic in Mexico City. The people there claim that they know of an advanced form of treatment that can cure him of his cancer, giving him a new lease on life to do all kinds of lovely murders.
Alas, when he returns afterwards to give his thanks, he finds the premises abandoned, with only the evidence of their deceit left behind. Much like Beatrix Kiddo, Bryan Mills or Gladys Hippo, the crooks learn the hard way that you don’t fuck around with the wrong person, as John tracks them down and enlists them all in Jigsaw’s unique form of redemptive selection.
Right from the jump, you know where this is going. I’m all for a film taking its time setting the stage and letting its cast marinate, but by now it feels arbitrary; of course John’s cancer isn’t cured, and of course everyone involved is going to be made to pay.
The ways in which they do so are appropriately grotesque, though could be said to suffer from diminishing returns. The second victim is forced to saw off her own leg with a Gigli saw, and it is downright cringe inducing. It’s Saw at its most Saw-like, literally and figuratively, so if that’s what you’re after, you won’t have to wait too long to get it.
Afterwards, it’s a bit of brain extracting, a bit of face burning, a bit of waterboarding, and a bit of boring. I wouldn’t say that I’m desensitised to the depravity, I just don’t think that a gallery of self-destruction makes for especially good viewing.
There’s a B-plot thrown in there with another former patient, but it’s mostly treated as a palate cleanser to introduce the familiar sense of whodunnit that made the first movie so compelling. In that vein, that was what made that film perversely alluring; the mystery surrounding the whole situation. Now that it has become so iterative upon itself, the torture porn is really the only card it has left to play.
Seemingly to its credit, Saw X takes the formula backwards by first showing these characters’ crimes, rather than drip feeding their sins to us as it goes. Remarkably, putting the spotlight upon Jigsaw himself has made for the highest rated entry in the franchise, boasting a 79% Rotten Tomatoes rating that dwarfs its nearest competitor (Saw itself, at 50%).
There is no question that these movies are better with Tobin Bell. The issue with Saw X, from a horror perspective, is that he comes far too close to an avenging hero instilling justice on those who take advantage of the terminally ill. Bell’s calm portrayal lends a sense of chilling righteousness to a character who has become iconic in the genre, but here, he is the closest thing available to a good guy.
Nothing removes the stakes of a survival story like putting that onus upon the villains. We don’t want them to live, as we already know they don’t deserve that kind of redemption. The whole point of a horror film is to put yourself in the shoes of the victim, no matter how mundane they might be. We’re afraid of what Freddy Krueger would do to the kids of Springwood, because we could be next. We’re afraid of Jaws emerging from the water, because we all enjoy the beach. We’re afraid of Jigsaw’s traps, because we’re only as safe as the people he deems worthy of discipline.
…Except here, because I didn’t cheat any cancer patients out of their life savings.
Again, the players of the Jigsaw games are all proven to be assholes one way or another — that’s how they ended up in the crosshairs in the first place. But until proven otherwise, we ride on the notion that they could be a soul worthy of saving. Without that thread of relatability, we’re left with an exaggerated, two-hour long episode of Dexter. Did you ever fear for the lives of his victims? No, because you weren’t supposed to. And you won’t here, either.
Zero fucking scary paws. Also, stop doing the ‘Mexico is yellow’ thing with your filters, Hollywood.
Saw X makes the curious decision to forego its usual plot beats in favour of a ‘Mr. Kramer Goes to Mexico’ storyline, immediately rendering him — the mass murdering torture lord — into a sympathetic figure.
I do not fear for the people at his mercy, for they have done nothing to earn mine as a viewer. Instead of filling me with apprehension, I was given a series of grisly deaths apparently under the pretence that I would enjoy it for some reason.
This reward is akin to a cat bringing you half a dead mouse. You’re just kind of repulsed and left wondering why this keeps happening. And yet, we’ll inevitably end up right back here in Saw XI: Another Dead Mouse.