The Saw movies are almost as famous for their labyrinthine, borderline rococo plot twists as they are for their flesh-rending traps. The frenzied final 10 minutes of a Saw sequel will typically reveal that at least part of the narrative has actually been taking place before or during a previous sequel, rather than after, or that some new or established character has been in league with decrepit serial mangler Jigsaw the whole time. But even the disturbingly omniscient Jigsaw could not have foreseen this twist: as of this writing, the tenth Saw film Saw X has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 83 percent. This is a series of films that has bravely defied the so-called “elevated horror” trend for nearly 20 years, remaining firmly in the aesthetic and critical gutter. By the broad critical consensus Rotten Tomatoes measures, the series’ previous critical peak was the very first Saw, which was buoyed by a positive reception at Sundance when it opened in 2004. Its sterling numbers, likely further boosted by years-after-the-fact re-evaluations? 50 percent. Most of the subsequent sequels hover closer to 25 percent. The previous installment, Spiral: From the Book of Saw (2021), went to the trouble of hiring actual household names Samuel L. Jackson and Chris Rock– and was rewarded with a 37% on Rotten Tomatoes and series-low box office returns. So what the hell went right with Saw X? Why is this bargain-basement series, once tagged with the gruesome moniker “torture porn,” suddenly an unexpected critical fave?
In the spirit of Jigsaw’s maddeningly hard-to-win traps, there are several interlocking explanations for this renaiSawnce. Part of it is that film criticism has changed, and horror movies are no longer working at a critical disadvantage. This was starting to change in 2004, when the grimy, amped-up grindhouse vibes of the original Saw garnered more positive reactions than, say, the limp (but extremely profitable) American remake of The Grudge. But there was still plenty of residual disdain for the genre—and particularly the genre’s slasher wing, where the Saw sequels ensured the series would be classified. Recall that legendary TV duo and middlebrow tastemakers Siskel & Ebert were so well-known for their disgust toward “dead teenager movies” (despite Ebert’s admiration for John Carpenter’s Halloween) that they claimed some horror fans relied on their reviews—to flag with their thumbs down what horror movies were therefore must-sees.
Those reverse-psychology work-arounds are hardly necessary anymore; since the advent of the Internet, younger and more diverse voices have gradually made their way into the critical firmament, and appreciation of horror movies, even a good slasher, is no longer confined to the pages of Fangoria. Now there are respected critics who bring real context to something like Saw X—and even the old guard seems more willing to play along. (Witness the positive Saw X review filed by Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, who muses about the series’ odd power even while getting several details about its plot and characters completely wrong.)
As it happens, there’s a whole crop of would-be critics almost too focused on series context. The shift toward understanding, analyzing, and appreciating formerly disreputable subgenres like slasher movies, superhero pictures, and sci-fi thrillers has been accompanied by a sometimes-obsequious attention to the commercial fortunes of movie franchises. In the world of glorified fan sites and YouTubers, it’s not unusual to hear movies discussed more or less like sports, with wannabe industry insiders explaining what it means for the franchise to see John Kramer back on the field, before doing a Moneyball rundown of Rotten Tomatoes numbers, box office returns, and Letterboxd rankings. Saw X has a higher Rotten Tomatoes number than Saw not because it’s a vastly better movie (would even the positive reviews argue this point?) but because almost every franchise movie enters the arena with a surprising amount of Rotten Tomatoes slack. Earlier this year, Fast X technically posted slightly better numbers than The Fast and the Furious. The number of MCU projects that have “better” reviews than Captain America: The First Avenger would probably surprise you.
So that accounts for the raw numbers, the product of flawed systems (elevating bozos on YouTube) within flawed systems (the Rotten Tomatoes binary) within flawed systems (the entire co-opted internet). But at the same time, not every tenth entry in a slasher series engenders this degree of good will. Few slasher series have even made it this far; even fewer have managed to do so without sending their villain into literal outer space. Something about Saw has kept the series going for 20 years without a reboot—a feat that neither Jason Voorhees or Freddy Kreuger, both currently dormant, managed in their heyday. And that secret ingredient is Jigsaw himself.
The Jigsaw Killer, as he’s called in the first Saw movie, has an unusually lofty pedigree: He’s an experienced engineer who places people in death-trap torture devices as a way of forcing them to reckon with their moral failings. He would claim that the difference between him and traditional slashers is that he doesn’t “actually” kill anyone– he merely sets traps that anyone can escape from, if they have the fortitude to bravely mutilate themselves. The real difference, however, is that Jigsaw is dead. This is not a spoiler; he’s been dead since the climax of Saw III, when one of his victims put an end to his cancerous suffering by slashing his throat. Saw producers Mark Burg and Oren Koules have admitted that they regret this decision, which makes sense: Subsequent Saw sequels have been forced to write around Jigsaw’s death in order to include Jigsaw actor Tobin Bell, whose sonorous menace has become a series signature. Bell has still appeared in most of the post-Saw III sequels in some form or another, but the success of Saw X is due in large part to him reclaiming center stage, along with his character’s peculiar combination of mortality and invincibility.
Jigsaw has not returned from the dead in this installment; Saw X takes place sometime in between the first movie and the third, as the man also known as John Kramer desperately pursues a miracle cancer treatment that turns out to be fraudulent. Naturally, the scam’s perpetrators make Kramer’s already-long list of people he believes could use some moral instruction from a soft-spoken elderly maniac. As this scenario plays out, the requisite twists and reversals operate on top of a strange paradox. Jigsaw is impossible to defeat, because we know he can’t be effectively caught or killed before those things happen in earlier/later sequels. But we also know he’s doomed.
Freddy, Jason, Michael Myers, and all the rest have died, too; in some continuities, their deaths have even stuck. But as of yet the Saw franchise has spawned no no reboots, no alternate takes, no sequels that ignore everything but the first entry. (Even Saw X, which plays in a way like a legacy sequel welcoming back old fans, brings back characters from the Saw-verse to make clear that it’s also for the diehards who have been diligently following along since 2004.) Instead, Jigsaw is constantly depicted designing and building traps with various apprentices, in hopes that others can continue his work when he’s gone, a more workmanlike, engineering-based version of those nonsensical explanations by which earlier slasher sequels have brought Freddy or Jason back to life. He does this while remaining an old man who is either actively dying, or dead—a point underlined by Tobin Bell continuing to age, even when the sequels jump back in time to portray his living years. In Saw X, an 81-year-old Bell is playing the same role he originated at 62, in a story set mere weeks later, and it doesn’t register as especially strange or untoward.
Instead, it allows ordinary mortality to loom over the series, setting a melancholy mood that other later-period slashers can’t quite sustain. A certain (usually large) number of characters in any Saw movie will ultimately become trap fodder; the series doesn’t work if it can’t offer some Grand Guignol kills, which is probably why even the most supposedly fair-minded traps seem damn near unwinnable even for those willing to yeet off a whole limb. Yet for all his string-pulling, Jigsaw’s fate feels inevitable too, albeit in slower motion than his victims. It’s not hard to imagine this series wedging an infinite number of sequels into the gap between Saw and Saw III, letting Jigsaw live forever on his way to the grave. Maybe on a subconscious level, Saw fans—especially aging Saw fans, a group of which I am a member—recognize this strategy. That’s essentially what we’re all doing, isn’t it? Trying to fit in some more sequels before an inevitable ending? That might be part of why fans invest so deeply in any franchise; a saga that gets a Part Two, a Part Six, a Part Ten or a Part Twenty-Five creates the illusion that immortality is possible. Saw understands how to play that game, but also reminds us that it’s rigged.