Working in the shadow of his father, Detective Ezekiel “Zeke” Banks (Chris Rock) and his rookie partner (Max Minghella) take charge of an investigation into grisly murders that are eerily reminiscent of the city’s gruesome past. It soon becomes frighteningly apparent that this serial killer has been inspired by the Jigsaw killer to wage gruesome war against the morally corrupt officers in their precinct. Unfortunately for Zeke, he’s the one at the centre of this killer’s deadly game.
I have a sweet bloody fondness for the Saw franchise. I saw the first film in cinemas during the first year of my university studies and became a fan forever when the film finished. The 2004 original film and, most importantly, the first feature introducing audiences to the talents of James Wan and Leigh Whannell presented viewers with a gruesome mystery of two strangers working out why they’re chained up in a bathroom. Over the course of 100 or so minutes, we were introduced to a new horror villain with “morals”, learned playing games is not always good for your health, and nothing is never as it seems especially as the original has one of horror’s best gotcha endings. It surprised me then and having rewatched it ahead of Spiral, it still works.
Importantly with Saw, and unlike a lot of horrors around at the time, it would become a franchise I would always invest in every time a new entry arrived regardless of quality. After 2004’s shock commercial success of Saw, audiences would be treated to sequels every year until 2010. I’m not ashamed to admit that these sequels did get progressively worse as time ticked by. Lionsgate, the studio that owned Saw, built the perfect money-making sequel factory. Each hastily assembled film would come up with more traps, more victims, more ways to connect the narrative to the original film. They’d then get a cast of mostly unknown actors involved, get it all filmed within a month and have it released on Halloween. Though the sequel churning factory, while efficient, would ultimately bloat the universe to nonsensical heights.
By the conclusion of Saw III, Wan and Whannell were off on new cinematic adventures with even bigger successes. The duo would team together again to start the Insidious horror series before venturing out into different projects. Wan, Saw’s original director, would help create The Conjuring horror series while also manning the director’s chair for Fast and Furious 7 and helping Warner Brothers bring Aquaman to the big screen. As for Whannell, he would eventually become a writer and director successfully making The Invisible Man truly terrifying in today’s modern age and also create the pulpy techno horror Upgrade as well.
Even as Wan and Whannell moved on, Lionsgate kept churning the Saw sequels out. When a sequel would roughly cost about $10 million dollars and goes on to ultimately end up earning 10 times that upon release, why would Lionsgate worry about critical praise if audiences were already handing over cash on opening day? Saw’s credibility in Hollywood was simply being a box office success. When the numbers eventually started to dwindle, Saw VII (aka the one in 3D) was the final entry in the main series. The franchise wouldn’t grace a cinema screen again until 2017 when Jigsaw attempted to reboot the franchise for new audiences. It didn’t make the numbers at the cinema and for a good while, Saw looked like it had played its final game with audiences.
This makes Spiral’s announcement take quite a few people by surprise, including me. The sudden 2019 announcement of a new entry in the franchise featuring an idea by and starring Chris Rock was utterly unexpected. For someone with that level of credible fame Rock built through his stand up and movie career, he would be the last person you’d expect to be in a Saw movie. Spiral was positioned by the studio, cast and crew (including Saw II-IV’s director Darren Lynn Bousman) as a new strange unique reboot. There are very loose connections to the original franchise but offering to take the franchise down a different direction.
Spiral feels like a genuine, non-money grabbing, attempt to try something new with the Saw franchise. Disconnected from the original run of movies, Spiral takes the ingredients of a basic serial killer police thriller and zests it up using the elements that made Saw famous. It’s easy to dismiss the main story as a generic cop mystery, especially when we’re dealing with crooked cops, the perils of being a good cop in a corrupt world. At least it is livened up by several dashings of painful traps for morally corrupt victims to face and ultimately meet gruesome demises from it.
You certainly expect it from a film inspired by Saw and there are some squirm-inducing traps to behold in the movie that are suitably tied to the sins of the victims. There aren’t many, but every time a new trap or test is revealed, the film is happy to give it some much-needed attention in pure Saw style. The traps are certainly true to form from the Saw franchise.
I think the biggest positive with this movie is that the film is happy to focus on a singular story without previous knowledge of the franchise. You don’t need to sit through all eight previous Saw films to understand this particular villain’s motives. Spiral happily gives the absolute basics and that’s about it. In a way, it could work as an introduction to the franchise to new viewers. Though personally, this reviewer does still heartily recommend viewers watch the original to understand Jigsaw’s mantras and why this police targeting culprit might be inspired by them.
Spiral feels like a genuine, non-money grabbing, attempt to try something new with the Saw franchise.
The addition of Chris Rock, Max Minghella and Samuel L. Jackson in the cast certainly helps the film’s credibility, even when we are going through some pretty generic motions with the core plot. Sadly, that means there’s nothing really spectacular to performances, they’re just reliable enough to try and make this entry seem more plausible. To be honest, Jackson in particular is more of a glorified cameo in the movie only popping up sporadically in the background or in flashbacks. Ultimately, the best way to look at the involvement of these actors is that it gets more eyes on the franchise. More eyes, more money, which likely means another sequel at least. If sequels were to follow after Spiral’s release, I would be happy if they kept focusing on self-contained stories. New environments, new settings, etc. It would undoubtedly make each new Saw film unique to some degree.
Though, they do need to address the flaws that Spiral does have. Those flaws mostly come from our masked antagonist.
It is, unfortunately, predictable who the new moral murderer is. Pivotal flashbacks and some noticeable changes in story beats make it painfully obvious who is targeting Rock’s precinct. Sure, it’s a nice smug moment to get the identity right the first time around but when the film doesn’t attempt to present viewers with legitimate potential suspects it just comes across as a hollow victory. The mystery is hardly a challenge. That’s not to say the ultimate motives of the Jigsaw disciple are implausible; they make perfect sense, and how they’re interpreting Jigsaw’s ideals into their scheme fits really well. It’s just that this decision wastes an ideal opportunity to give a fun nod to the twist after twist finale that made the original Saw so memorable.
If Spiral is attempting to be a stand-alone Saw story, it certainly also needs to have a satisfying resolution. Spiral doesn’t necessarily achieve this as it inadvertently uses its final moments to leave crucial moments in the air. Potentially trying to once again create a multi-layered universe of interconnecting characters like the original run of films might do more harm than good. It feels the franchise producers need to have complete faith in its stand-alone approach; going only three-quarters of the way feels like they’re hesitating.
Despite the missteps, there is plenty here for a die-hard Saw fan to enjoy and appreciate. You’ve got twisted traps, you’ve got gore, you’ve even got that iconic theme. The added bonus this entry has is, of course, is some substantial credibility thanks to Chris Rock’s presence. Plus after movie after movie of long, drawn-out violent soap opera shenanigans, an attempt at a new direction helps too. While it doesn’t always work but it still stands head and shoulders above a majority of the Saw sequels.
Spiral: From The Book of Saw (2021)
Added credibility, a promising new direction and a happy gruesome dash of deadly games easily make Spiral one of the better entries in the Saw franchise despite some notable flaws. Spiral will find love from die-hard fans. However, anyone curious should check out 2004’s original beforehand for the best viewing experience.
Reviewed by Iain Boulton
Spiral: From The Book of Saw is on general release now in UK and US cinemas.