If cinema does die this century, it’ll be messy, because the last moviegoers will be horror fans. No other genre has kept film alive in fallow periods more than horror, and no other genre remains relatively cordoned off from our malnourished pop culture. The world corporate order has fried attention spans on a mass scale, discouraged people from gathering in public in large groups, and stifled any real intellectual or artistic expression. America has never felt more hopeless in my lifetime; it’s certainly been scarier, but the stakes were higher 20 years ago. Nobody cares because everyone knows we already lost.
There are many indicators of a country’s ailing spirit, and there’s no greater indictment on American society than the fact that there hasn’t been a new horror franchise in nearly two decades. “Elevated horror” took off as a label about a decade ago with It Follows and The Babadook, followed a few years later by Ari Aster’s Hereditary and Midsommar and the rise of Jordan Peele—all of which were successful, but there were no sequels. The only thing that separates “elevated horror” from past franchises is that they really do live up to the tagline of Scary Movie: “No mercy. No shame. No sequel.”
Saw is the most recent American horror franchise by my count, with James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s debut entry coming out a month before the 2004 election and 18 months into the Iraq War. Concurrently, horror classics like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween, Friday the 13th, The Last House on the Left, and even House of Wax were being remade and making just as much money; Eli Roth followed up Cabin Fever with the excellent Hostel and even better Hostel: Part II, but hasn’t returned to that world since 2007, and neither has anyone else (Ti West did shoot a Cabin Fever sequel in 2009, Spring Break).
As a lifelong moviegoer who never saw horror movies regularly, there was something obviously gauche but admirable about the sheer number of sequels any given franchise would rack up; I never looked down on these movies, and I never thought sequels were “shameless,” but plenty did and do. For most of my life, Saw was a poster and a trailer, and its essential components were burned into my brain nearly 20 years ago. And in the lead-up to Saw X, out now in theaters everywhere via Lionsgate, I watched the first six—films with more energy, ideas, and life in them than their peers past or present. Along with Hostel, these are the Iraq War and Guantanamo Bay movies that I mistakenly thought we never got, too timid to look into our recent past for catharsis, if not answers.
Most were too timid. Not Jigsaw.
Tobin Bell returns as the iconic villain (technically not a serial killer, as he, his cronies, and Bill Maher like to point out), along with Shawnee Smith as Amanda Young, a key character in the first three Saw films. This one takes place in between 1 and 2, with Bell as John Kramer diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. He joins a support group for terminally-ill people, and runs into one of his group members in public. I was expecting this to be his breaking point: he realizes this dude isn’t terminally ill, was just going to meetings to get off or sate some compulsion like Edward Norton in Fight Club… but he shows John his scars. Convinced, he takes a trip to Mexico, wires thousands of dollars to a mysterious doctor in hiding, and agrees to undergo experimental surgery under the aegis of the doctor’s daughter Cecilia (Synnøve Macody Lund).
John finds out it’s a scam when he stumbles back into the “operating room,” an abandoned warehouse that looks like the aftermath of one of his own traps. It’s heartbreaking, and the most remarkable aspect of Saw X is the extent to which it sympathizes with John aka Jigsaw, even after he starts picking off the doctor’s daughter and her accomplices one by one. You’re cheering Tobin Bell on, not just because he’s a horror legend like Gunnar Hansen or Kane Hodder, but because of his circumstances: left to die alone by an indifferent for-profit healthcare system, and then scammed by supposedly benevolent people. Even this group tops the cynical mortgage lender in Saw VI—these people deserve to die, all of them, from the ice queen doctor to her cronies and flunkies she’s more than willing to sacrifice to save herself. None of them make it out in one piece, much less alive—but John and Amanda do, and fans are left to cheer for another decade of proper Saw movies, none of this origin story mythology bullshit. Saw X could’ve come out in that initial six year run, and it would’ve qualified as one of the best entries.
But where does the series stand today? Like I said, this is the most recent long-running American horror franchise, with Final Destination and Scream right behind it. There hasn’t been anything else of that magnitude since. So why more now? Opening weekend reactions have been positive: people want more Saw movies, classic style. The “back to basics” construction is in line with much of our pop culture now, which is seeing a recession of “lore” heavy storytelling and franchises in favor of simpler or more satisfying flavors. The best examples are Barbie and Oppenheimer, two subjects which any American needs no primer on, nor a dedicated subculture to join.
Saw X is a return to tortured form, with a much less frenetic and aggressive style than the 2000s films. Microsecond montages are gone along with the garish nu-metal aesthetics. In always-too-yellow Mexico, Saw X becomes elegiac as we follow John Kramer and Amanda Young exact their revenge on the sociopaths who’ve scammed hundreds. But John’s just as sick as them, and because Amanda is involved, this movie takes place after at least a few successful (and presumably semi-successful or botched) traps—in other words, not exactly The Bride in Kill Bill.
But there’s never been a movie monster like Tobin Bell. Jigsaw is fucking scary, but that doll is barely in Saw X. Kramer gives an astounding lead performance, perhaps the best of any aging horror icon; a performance that should get him an Oscar nomination. It won’t happen, because horror is the kid you kick at Christmas, after he’s made sure everyone has enough to eat this year.
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith