There’s a thematic irony at the heart of the latest installment of the now two-decade Saw franchise. That the exploitation of hope is the central moral strand should strike a chord with horror fans. Continuously lured back to endless sequels across myriad titles hoping to find something worthwhile among the diminishing returns it’s unclear whether its loyalty or gullibility that keeps us coming back. But an entry like Saw X is the reason that hope persists. It’s far from perfect, but it strips away the excessive lore that muddied later installments and gives us a far deeper insight into Tobin Bell‘s Jigsaw than in any other entry. And the traps are as nasty as they have ever been, which is obviously the main thing.

Set between the events of Saw and Saw II, a desperately ill John Kramer is conned by a shady outfit promising medical miracles and left cast adrift in Mexico. With a reconfirmed death sentence and a reinforced sense of murderous moral outrage, he resolves to do what he does best, and give those responsible a chance of redemption. Or his own twisted brand of it at least. Enlisting former victim turned protégée Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith) to put his contestants/ victims to the test, the scene is set for one brutal evening of sick games with an aptly surgical slant.

Cheekily assuming anyone is nostalgic for the heyday of the ‘torture porn’ sub-genre, Saw X functions as a period piece. Series alumnus Kevin Greutert takes us right back to the aughts, flooding the screen in the same diseased, industrial greens that permeated the earlier sequels. Also present are the swirling, jagged cuts as the various victims awaken and discover their predicaments. All that’s missing is some meathead nu-metal to soundtrack the proceedings. Yet front and centre is the studied, quietly-spoken Tobin Bell, a figure of restraint in the role that’s come to define his career. It’s rare that fleshing out an iconic monster’s backstory benefits a franchise, yet it’s successful in this case, with the added character work and motivational framework a welcome addition for this most cerebral of sadists.

Shawnee Smith has also come to be defined by her role as Amanda, and she rolls back the year and the character to budding psychopath. Smith gives it both barrels for sure, but the script veers Amanda between morally-tortured ingenue and blood-drunk banshee. And this treatment is symptomatic of the film’s main weakness, sacrificing character at the altar of plot mechanics. Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger‘s script is far less convoluted than some of the other sequels, yet is as constructed in its twists and contrivances as Jigsaw’s machines themselves.

There’s also the sense that the filmmakers don’t trust the viewer to deal with Kramer’s ambiguous moral reasoning and through a truly evil antagonist in Synnøve Macody Lund‘s Cecilia pretty much leaves Jigsaw slotting perfectly into the anti-hero role. Aside from some rather puritanical attitudes towards addiction and sex work, we’re pretty much encouraged to root wholeheartedly for our MacGyver of the macabre.

However, we all know why we’re here, and once the blood, bone marrow, and brain matter start flowing they don’t stop. Even among earlier entries Saw X is a wild ride, with some truly vile effects work capped off with an equally nasty streak of humour. See it in a busy cinem and enjoy watching some more squeamish audience members try and burrow into their own seats. Does the story all hang together? Not if you think too hard about it. Yet, can you virtually hear the writers cackling over their own cleverness? As you can hear the sea in an empty shell, for sure. But will you leave with your appetite piqued for yet another piece of the Jigsaw down the line? As stated earlier, there’s always that hope.

In cinemas nationwide now