Saw is one of the most recognizable and iconic horror films of all time. It may not be quite as universally loved as classics such as Halloween, Candyman or A Nightmare on Elm Street but its’ influence has been felt throughout the genre and it even helped kickstart the much debated and criticized torture-porn subgenre. But many forget that the original Saw is in fact a little low on the infamous traps and often only hints at them, while the sequels capitalized specifically on the spectacle of the traps and the grizzly deaths of those who were forced to fight their way out of them.
Spiral: From The Book Of Saw feels closer to James Wan’s original Saw film than any of its whopping seven sequels. Its’ subtitle, From The Book Of Saw serves as a reminder that this isn’t a full-blooded Saw film, which can be both a curse and a blessing. Spiral veers closer to a police procedural and a thriller than straight torture porn and its lack of traps and gore might come as a disappointment for those who yearn for teeth and limbs to be pulled out and guts to be spilled. This isn’t to say Spiral is bloodless. In the words of John Kramer aka Jigsaw himself; yes, there will be blood.
Spiral follows Detective Zeke Banks (Chris Rock), the son of former, highly respected police chief Marcus Banks (Samuel L. Jackson). Zeke has a bone to pick with corrupt cops; after turning in a dirty cop, he isn’t particularly popular in the precinct, but gets by. When cops start dying in the traps similar to those of the late Jigsaw, Zeke is pulled in to chase a twisted killer, but this case might hit closer to home than he thinks.
Spiral doesn’t reinvent any of the genres it mixes into its plot. It feels like a Saw film for those who don’t enjoy Saw films. At times it works incredibly well but at times, Spiral feels tired and like it’s holding back, like there’s much more to explore and showcase. There is, of course, a twist ending and when that iconic Charlie Clouser theme hits, it brings along a giddy sensation that accompanies every ending to a Saw film, when all the pieces fall into place and the final piece of the puzzle is revealed. The twist in Spiral might be obvious, but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. It’s deeply rooted in the film’s larger themes of corruption and feels reminiscent of Saw VI which tackled the US healthcare system and insurance companies.
Spiral is an engaging, entertaining watch. It has a lot to say about police corruption; it’s not subtle but who expects a film within the Saw universe to be subtle about anything? Most of the sequels were gritty, trashy and a little dirty, but Spiral feels like a rebranding of the franchise with sleek and much higher production values and the star power brought by Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson. Director Darren Lynn Bousman, who directed three of the seven Saw sequels, returns and this is one of his more confident films to date.
Rock is a compelling lead, but it takes a while for him to find his groove. His performance is loud and brash, flashy but uneven. Max Minghella is great, if underused, as the rookie cop partnered with Rock’s Zeke. Jackson predictably hasn’t been given much to do but it’s fun to see the actor let loose in a fun role like this. The franchise’s focal point has always been John Kramer, but all the films and the franchise as a whole has lacked a protagonist with whom you could form an emotional, meaningful connection with, but Spiral tries to offer us one with Zeke. After Kramer and his apprentice Amanda’s deaths in Saw III, the franchise struggled to find a sympathetic, interesting killer. This is another thing Spiral tries to fix, by providing us a killer with an emotional motive, one that we can get behind.
Spiral also interrogates the franchise’s relationship with cops. It’s a bold time to bring out a film centered almost completely on cops and where the protagonist is a cop. Spiral feels both critical of the police force as a system, recognizing the corruption as a systemic issue, but still sympathizes with Rock’s one good cop in the precinct. It’s perhaps a little idealistic and the metaphor of the killer wearing a pig mask, using pig dolls and even a pig carcass to mock the detectives on the case isn’t lost on anyone.
Ultimately, whether Spiral is successful comes down to what you wanted it to be. If you were expecting a gore fest, you will be disappointed. If you expected a Se7en -like thriller, you’ll probably still be disappointed but also thoroughly grossed out. Spiral never quite finds its own unique tone and style, but it’s a competent, capable entry to the tired and dated Saw-franchise. There certainly is room for a sequel and Spiral manages to make enough of an impression to warrant one.
Spiral is out in UK cinemas on May 17.