From Frankenstein's monster to Freddy Krueger, horror franchise villains tend to be unkillable entities, capable of returning to life in sequels regardless of what seemingly terminal blow they endured in the previous movie. One exception? John Kramer, a.k.a. Jigsaw, the cancer-stricken, torture trap-building big bad from the Saw franchise. Actor Tobin Bell's terrifying character died at the end of 2006's Saw III and has stayed dead through the many ensuing sequels, with Kramer being seen in flashback sequences only.
"Listen, we're the idiots that killed off the lead after Saw III," franchise producer Oren Koules tells EW. "[But] how long can we suspend disbelief when the guy has terminal cancer?"
Saw X (in theaters this Friday) does not bring Jigsaw back from the dead and yet the franchise's overlords have found a way to showcase Bell's acting talents as never before, with Kramer stepping out of the shadows to take center stage for the first time. "I think Tobin has more screen time in this movie than the last five, six movies combined, easily," Koules' fellow producer Mark Burg says. "He opens the movie, he's through the whole movie, and he ends the movie."
Lionsgate Tobin Bell in 'Saw X'
Saw X is set between the events of 2004's James Wan-directed Saw and the following year's Saw II. In the new film, Bell's ailing Kramer visits Mexico and undergoes a radical and expensive treatment for his cancer overseen by Synnøve Macody Lund's Cecilia. After discovering he has been conned by Cecilia and her associates, Kramer goes full Jigsaw, teaming with Shawnee Smith's franchise favorite Amanda — who also died in Saw III — to teach the swindlers a bloody lesson.
"This film opens with that cancer diagnosis and John Kramer learning that there is some kind of experimental, semi-outlawed treatment that's available in Mexico City," director Kevin Greutert says. "He gets his operation and finds out, after thinking he's been cured, that maybe it's not all what it seems. And we go from there."
The previous entry, Spiral: From the Book of Saw, was a departure for the series. The film starred franchise newcomers Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson with no Bell at all. Released in May 2021, the movie earned $23 million in the U.S., making it the least successful Saw movie to date. Burg explains that, while the box-office performance of Spiral encouraged himself and Koules to go back to the franchise's roots with this 10th installment, they actually began thinking about the movie half a decade ago in 2018. "This was the movie Oren and myself were planning on making," he says.
The pair's plan was put on hold when Michael Burns, vice president at the Saw-distributing Lionsgate, found himself sitting next to Rock at a wedding in Brazil. According to Burg, "Chris Rock goes, 'Oh, you work at Lionsgate? I love your Saw movies. I got an idea for one.'" Burg explains that, "originally, we were bringing it way more into the Saw universe, with Tobin Bell. Lionsgate convinced us to do a standalone movie. I loved Spiral, I'm really proud of it, but it did not do what we had hoped at the box office. We decided to go back and do the story that we originally planned on doing."
Lionsgate Tobin Bell in 'Saw X'
Saw X is written by franchise veterans Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger, and foregrounds Bell's Kramer as first a desperate patient and then the angel of death familiar to fans of the series. Filmmaker Greutert has a long association with the actor, having edited the first five franchise entries before going on to direct 2009's Saw VI and 2010's Saw 3D. Greutert feels this new movie is the "great work" of the actor's life. "He was very involved at the script level, he participated in post-production, he even was coming up with additional dialogue after we shot the film that we incorporated into the story," the director says.
Greutert explains that, when it comes to Jigsaw, Bell "sets the rules in a way, because he's so deep into the John Kramer character and channels himself in a sense. Not that he has a dark side like that, but as an artist. He has an integrity that's really recognizable in John Kramer's character. If he thinks we're doing something that violates the lore of the character and the whole Saw saga, he'll make it clear to us that he thinks it should be a different way. And he's always right in this regard."
Alexandro Bolaños Escamilla/Lionsgate Shawnee Smith in 'Saw X'
Shawnee Smith's character Amanda also appeared in the first Saw movie, playing one of Jigsaw's victims. She later became one of Kramer's accomplices. Koules explains that, while Amanda's return makes commercial sense, it also fits with Saw lore. "It's after Saw I, and she's lived through the trap. She's been reborn or whatever, so time-wise it worked," the producer says. "She's a character that the fans absolutely adore and so it seemed natural to have the two of them together again."
Bell and Smith are now 15-plus years older than when they played their characters in the first three Saw films. Greutert reveals, "There was talk before we were shooting that maybe we would do a little bit of VFX work to clean them up. I'm personally glad that we didn't tamper with them at all. When you look at some of the films that have de-aged their actors, it puts some distance between the character and the audience. We're so intimate with [Bell and Smith], and they have such emotional close-ups, that it's better to just see them as they look, and they were both totally fine with that."
Alexandro Bolaños Escamilla/Lionsgate 'Saw X'
Arguably, the real stars of Saw X are not its cast but the film's baroquely engineered array of traps. The film's marketing has highlighted these torture devices, including some sort of eyeball-traumatizing device and a trap in which a victim has to perform brain surgery on himself. The Saw team further stoked interest in the film via a parody of the AMC theater chain's famous Nicole Kidman's commercial with Jigsaw's creepy avatar Billy the Puppet replacing the multi Oscar winner and intoning, "Somehow self-amputation feels good in a place like this." The clip went viral after Lionsgate premiered the spoof earlier this month, but the company then took down the video upon the request of AMC. (The clip remains widely available to watch on the internet.)
"It's like Voldemort. It's the Thing That Shall Not Be Named," producer Koules says, with a laugh.
"It was 100 percent the genius of the marketing team at Lionsgate," Burg adds. "It's a shame that AMC did not share our joy in it."
Still, you can't keep a good evil puppet down. On Friday, viewers of KTLA 5 morning news in Los Angeles saw Billy cycle behind journalist Kimberly Cheng as she reported on low-cost housing at UCLA.
Billy the Puppet has shown up on the news. pic.twitter.com/lbBIe0gmH9
— DiscussingFilm (@DiscussingFilm) September 23, 2023
While the producers are superstitious about discussing the future of the franchise before the release of Saw X, Burg teases that he has spoken to a couple of other veteran cast members regarding a possible return to the series. "There are two other [actors] that have said, 'Hey, if you make one, can I be in it?'" he says.
Being in a Saw movie, it seems, is no torture at all.
Saw X will be released Sept. 29.
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