Jessai Flores

Warning: spoilers ahead!

A few weeks ago, I made my final journey to the now-closed Bow Tie Cinema in hopes of seeing a horror movie. Do I like horror movies? No! Do I usually avoid such films like the plague? Yes! Ever since seeing “Hereditary” — and struggling to sleep for weeks afterwards — I’ve made it a rule to engage with horror as little as possible. 

However, it’s almost Halloween, and I thought that in the spirit of spookiness, I should give one a go. After doing careful research into the “right” horror film for me, I decided that “When Evil Lurks” was the best fit. Though supposed to be utterly terrifying, the film had good reviews and even premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. One Letterboxd reviewer advised potential viewers not to see the film in an empty theater, so a friend kindly agreed to go with me. 

To our dismay, Bow Tie wasn’t showing “When Evil Lurks” (though I’m pretty sure I saw it on their website). Nevertheless, I was determined to see a horror movie, so I chose the next “best” thing: “Saw X.” I bought some Sour Patch Kids and steeled myself.

I haven’t seen the first nine Saw movies, and I had no idea what to expect beyond the bicycling puppet of Twitter lore. ( I later learned the puppet is named Billy the Puppet, and my primary critique of the film is that he didn’t get nearly enough screen time.) 

I was on edge as soon as the movie began. The veneer of normalcy over the opening scenes of a horror film always makes me uneasy; I sat waiting for the next shoe to drop. Quickly, I figured out the film’s premise: John Kramer, an older man with terminal cancer, conceives of himself as an arbiter of vigilante justice. He crafts “jigsaw” traps, torturous puzzles intended to match his victim’s crime. If the person can escape their trap, they are absolved and free to continue their life. Desperate for a cure for his disease, Kramer is seduced by the promises of Dr. Cecilia Pedersen, an exiled doctor who claims she can fix him with a “drug cocktail” and surgical intervention. As soon as Pedersen said “drug cocktail” for the fifth time, I knew her miraculous cure was a scam — the film could have done away with about half of the build-up to the betrayal we all knew was coming. 

Things soon took a turn for the gross. Each person involved in Pedersen’s scam was kidnapped and brought back to the scene of their crime — the warehouse where Kramer was supposed to receive his treatment— and attached to a jigsaw trap. I watched the next hour or so of the film with my head inside of my sweatshirt and my hands over my ears. Every once in a while, when the screaming quieted, I would peer out of the safety of my hoodie, only to be met with severed limbs and singed skin. Eventually, I was so desensitized to the blood and bone dust that I couldn’t help but watch with disturbed fascination as a man cut open his own skull and removed some of his brain tissue. It was the most disgusting thing I have ever watched, but the magic of the film is that you can’t really look away no matter how much you want to. “Saw X” was never really scary, but the relentless gore was certainly horrific in its own terrible way.

In the interstices of each violent challenge, Kramer and his sidekick Amanda Young, a reformed drug addict whom Kramer “saves” in the original Saw film, argue about whether their ambitions are just. From my Google searches, I learned that Shawnee Smith, the actress who plays Amanda, is honored among the ranks of “scream queens”— actresses known for their contributions to horror. 

Amanda is positioned as the moral foil to Kramer’s project: she believes in his games but wants to play them fairly. But Kramer is so deep in his own world of right and wrong that he is cut off from the humanity that Amanda represents. The clash of their ethical codes was initially interesting, but the conversations never went beyond surface level complaints from Amanda that what they were doing “wasn’t right” and Kramer’s insistence that she fully commit herself to his project. These conversations started to feel more like filler than a catalyst for change. Again, I must stress that my knowledge of this franchise is isolated to this singular film that I watched mostly through the cracks between my fingers, so I can’t really judge Amanda beyond the fact she had a terrible haircut and was perhaps a bit too quick to cry for someone in her line of work.

For all of my confusion about and criticism of this film, I will confess to thoroughly enjoying the final twist (spoiler alert): Parker Sears (initially introduced as another of Dr. Pedersen’s betrayed patients) is actually the doctor’s boyfriend and accomplice. This revelation was genuinely surprising and gave the ending an energy that was lost in the earlier slog of torture.

The penultimate trap of the film raises the stakes even further, putting both Kramer and a young boy named Carlos (roped into the drama by Dr. Pedersen) in mortal danger. They are strapped down at two ends of a metal platform and blood begins pouring down from the ceiling, relentlessly bloodboarding them. The platform acts as a see-saw, and each person has a lever which can raise or lift their side to put them out of harm’s way. For a moment, it seems like Kramer is going to sacrifice himself for Carlos and drown in a torrent of red, but he is, of course, always one step ahead. He uses Dr. Pedersen and Parker’s unifying greed to exact his revenge on both, poisoning them with gas when they inevitably try to steal back their money. Whether the doctor lives at the end of the film is unknown. Though I could have done without the gallons of spilled blood, the intricate logic and suspense of the ending was frankly the most interesting puzzle of the movie.

If body horror is what you seek in a film, I cannot recommend “Saw X” enough. What the film lacks in well-paced plot it makes up for in blood and guts. I’d also suggest watching the first few Saw films before skipping ahead to this one, and I’ll readily admit not doing so was my first mistake. As the encyclopedic Saw Wiki page can attest to, the films are riddled with easter eggs and minute references to other iterations of the Saw universe. Had I been able to tap into even just the most basic of this background knowledge, I would have had a much more gratifying experience watching the film.

Nevertheless, this film is not for the faint of heart no matter how you slice it. “You are a warrior, my boy,” Kramer tells Carlos at the end of the film. I, too, felt like a warrior after surviving nearly two hours of gore that tested my capacity for taming my own nausea. From now on, I look forward to keeping my Saw exposure limited to tweets about Billy the Puppet attending a screening of Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour.

Idone Rhodes is a junior in Pierson majoring in English and Film and Media Studies. She will be writing a regular film column for WKND. Rhodes was formerly a managing editor of the Yale Daily News Magazine.