“Saw X” begins with the kind of reverse time jump that only a horror franchise on its tenth film would dare to attempt. After the previous eight sequels advanced the story of John “Jigsaw” Kramer and his many imitators in a relatively linear fashion — while relying heavily on flashbacks to keep including Tobin Bell after his character’s early death — “Saw X” takes place in 2004, just three weeks after the events of the original film.

John Kramer is still alive in the new movie, battling a deteriorating cancer diagnosis that simultaneously serves as his motivation and an explanation for why he appears to have aged 20 years in three weeks. When his prognosis looks bleak, he travels to Mexico City to participate in an experimental treatment program that offers him a new lease on life. But when he finds out that the costly procedure was a scam and his cancer wasn’t actually cured, he sets out to exact revenge in the only way he knows how: playing a game with an arsenal of lethal homemade traps.

The narrative gambit turned “Saw X” into the most emotional film in the franchise, but it also placed its team in the predicament of having to deliver a tenth “Saw” movie that feels like it’s the third one. The early “Saw” films were sparse affairs that took great pride in constructing traps out of easily available materials that actually worked from a mechanical standpoint. But as the series grew, so did its narrative ambitions. It wasn’t long before Jigsaw and co. were using lasers and trains to make outlandish traps that were almost cartoonish in their violence. They served a narrative purpose in the wackier sequels — but for “Saw X,” everyone knew it was time to return to the barebones simplicity of early traps like “The Magnum Eyehole” and “The Needle Pit.”

“We knew we wanted to make the traps less complicated,” executive producer Mark Burg said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “We wanted to make traps that you could basically put together from Home Depot. At some point our traps got bigger and more complex, and we wanted to bring it back down.”

The task of constructing the stripped-down traps fell to production designer Anthony Stabley, a newcomer to the franchise who took the assignment seriously. Stabley told IndieWire that he limited his research to the first two “Saw” movies in order to ensure that his designs aligned with their place in the franchise’s larger timeline. Once it was time to start building, he prioritized simplicity to drive home the point that Kramer built these traps himself with limited resources.

“As far as the traps were concerned, our main objective was to make sure that everybody believes that John Kramer made these traps,” Stabley said. “We wanted to make sure that it reflects the early ‘Saw’ films.”

SAW X, (aka SAW 10), Paulette Hernandez, 2023. © Lionsgate / Courtesy Everett Collection
“Saw X”©Lions Gate/Courtesy Everett Collection

The simplified ethos extended all the way up to director Kevin Greutert, who previously directed “Saw VI” and “Saw 3D” and has edited all ten films in the series. He told IndieWire that, after 20 years of working on the franchise, he has a keen eye for discerning which shots are actually necessary to advance the larger story. On “Saw X,” he resisted the temptation to indulge in flashy cinematography in favor of a more utilitarian shot list that parallels the earlier films.

“I think I have more experience knowing exactly what kind of coverage I want,” Greutert said. “DPs and directors always want ‘cool shots,’ but to me the cool shot still has to tell some of the story. It still has to ground you emotionally and in the characters and not just be auteurish-looking.” 

By simplifying everything, the team was able to pull off the kind of smooth timeline reset that has evaded countless other horror franchises. Bringing the action back to 2004 had the dual benefit of placating longtime “Saw” junkies who missed the feel of the original films and offering an easier entry point for new fans who haven’t ingested all the mythology.

“We tried to accomplish two things,” executive producer Oren Koules said. “We wanted to bring it back to O.G. We wanted an original ‘Saw’ movie. We wanted John Kramer very featured in this movie. But we also wanted a movie that was accessible to people that had never seen a ‘Saw’ movie.”

A Lionsgate release, “Saw X” is now playing in theaters.

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