NOTE: “Spiral” is available to view in theatres here in North America, and elsewhere in the world wherever theatres are permitted to be open. It’s also now available to watch at home via VOD purchase or premium rental. When possible, we recommend watching movies at home for the duration of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, for the safety of yourself and others. In the event that you do attend a movie theatre over the course of the ongoing pandemic however, please consult and follow public health guidelines in your region, and do not attend movie theatres if you feel unwell, or have been potentially exposed to COVID-19 through a known positive case.
FOR REFERENCE: This review of, “Spiral” is based on an at-home viewing via VOD purchase
Spiral (or ‘Spiral: From the Book of Saw’, as it’s frequently marketed) is a horror-thriller caught between two very different sensibilities. As the latest attempt by Lionsgate to resurrect and redefine its long-running, but noticeably tired Saw franchise, Spiral once again alters the series’ playbook to accommodate a new perspective. In this case, that perspective is a surprisingly timely theme about police corruption and lack of police accountability, re-framing a Saw storyline as a more intellectual (at least for Saw standards) revenge thriller that actually tries to say something legitimately powerful about American society. This rather bold idea happens to come from lead star and executive producer, Chris Rock, a celebrated comedian whom I never imagined would be actively involved in the conception of a horror movie, let alone a Saw movie, but these are nonetheless strange times.
Spiral is said to be a years-long passion project for Rock, which is strange, because, as a Saw movie, it’s not very good. Let’s get that unfortunate fact out of the way. As a police thriller however, Spiral is built on a really promising idea, one that has some sparkles of brilliance in its examination of police politics, and even some of its sardonic humour. The problem however is that these sensibilities don’t mesh well with the, let’s face it, vapid and exploitative torture porn sensibilities that have thoroughly run Saw into the ground since its heyday during the 2000’s. Oh yes, there was a time when Saw and its first couple of sequels were brilliant, squeamish horror gems that pushed our tastes (and stomachs!) to exciting new territory. By 2021 especially though, those days are long gone, and Saw has long degraded into cheap, messy thrills for gorehounds that are coming for the gleefully misanthropic violence and little else.
This is why I say that Spiral is a bad Saw movie; It’s not imaginative enough with its gore and death traps to truly excite avid Saw fans, who are used to much more over-the-top, darkly creative methods of murder. So what about those who are coming in with the understanding that Spiral’s storytelling tries harder to emulate something like Se7en, rather than the horror franchise it’s supposedly functioning as a spin-off for? Well, they’ll enjoy the storyline a lot more, but many of them will also be put off by Spiral’s need to cater to Saw fans with its obligatory, ultra-gory death traps. At worst, said gory flourishes can even take away from the weightiness of a commendably ambitious new direction for the Saw movies, leaving Spiral to be unfortunately caught between an exceptionally fresh new premise, and the same tired, gory gimmick.
Spiral, to its credit, dares to think bigger than contriving yet another excuse for a bunch of random assholes to suffer inconceivable amounts of pain and mutilation. I mean, yes, it’s still about assholes being made to suffer inconceivable amounts of pain and mutilation. The difference this time however is that said assholes are long-corrupt cops who make a particular hobby of griefing Chris Rock’s lead character, Detective Zeke Banks. Banks ratted out a former partner many years ago, and because of this, his entire department harasses him, to the point where he’s even been denied backup during dangerous apprehension efforts. Making matters worse is the fact that Banks is the son of celebrated former police chief, Marcus Banks, played by Samuel L. Jackson, something that he gets a chance to stretch beyond for a time upon meeting an idealistic new partner, Detective William Schenk, played by Max Minghella.
Predictably though, Schenk picked an awkward time to transfer, because he and Banks quickly end up investigating the murder of a colleague that fell victim to a death trap resembling that of infamous, long-dead Saw franchise serial killer, Jigsaw. This gruesome murder is just the beginning of an entire killing spree to boot, as the copycat killer taunts Banks with a series of video messages that offer vague clues as to their next move, one that sees more so-called ‘good cops’ end up dead in the worst ways possible. Even worse is the fact that the killer’s victims all appear to have a connection to Banks as well, who finds himself living a twisted revenge campaign that he never wanted, one that’s likely not quite what it seems on the surface.
As a skewing and deconstruction of the Saw franchise’s tropes viewed through the lens of timely police commentary, Spiral is a wonderfully invigorating and exciting new direction for the Saw franchise. Rock is unsurprisingly the best part of this spin-off as well, presenting a likable, funny lead detective that definitely doesn’t deserve the hate he gets. It’s not a wholly unfamiliar schtick for Rock, especially considering that he literally spearheaded a TV series called Everybody Hates Chris during the 2000’s, but the premise behind Spiral still proves to be an exceptional marriage between Rock’s usual biting commentary and the recognizably brutal hallmarks that define Saw. That is, short of Jigsaw actor, Tobin Bell anyway, who is completely absent from Spiral, thus marking the first Saw movie to not feature Bell’s involvement in any way.
Despite its exciting premise and noticeable good ideas however, Spiral’s stubborn adherence to tired Saw tropes too often leaves it falling short of its potential. This is especially noticeable with many of the supporting characters, who are once again shallow and ill-defined, only managing a surface-level examination of the movie’s timely themes surrounding corruption and police politics. Rock himself feels like a promising potential leading man for Saw’s immediate future, but even Banks can only be explored so much across Spiral’s surprisingly scant 93-minute runtime. Likewise, Jackson’s father character, and his succeeding police chief, Angie Garza, played by Marisol Nichols, also stand as bright spots that deliver engaging performances, but their characters similarly don’t go deeper than the most basic examination of Spiral’s promising themes.
Spiral trying to be a Saw movie with a brain is certainly bold, but it’s not unprecedented. The original Saw in particular was a legitimately clever horror-thriller that was put together on a shoestring budget. Spiral’s cast could have similarly served as a way for the series’ narrative to go back to basics, while also moving the Saw franchise in an entirely new direction, one that it desperately needs. In the end though, Spiral just can’t break away from its B-horror inspiration, taking a promising, if viscerally gory cop thriller, and wasting its potentially morally complex personalities by making most of them just the latest hapless targets of another unhinged murderer. Spiral thus ends up becoming a Saw movie that simply doesn’t cut deep enough, if you’ll excuse the pun.
Spiral takes place in the same universe as the previous Saw movies, and loosely acknowledges the events of those movies, but, for better or worse, it’s almost entirely disconnected from its’ predecessors’ shared narrative. This may irk some Saw fans, especially those who love getting lost in this series’ surprisingly complex lore, and its often convoluted twists and turns. For those looking for a fresh jumping-on, or re-jumping-on point to Saw however, Spiral is ideal, simply because it ignores the increasingly labyrinthine legacy of Jigsaw. Yes, there’s still a misanthropic villain who designs astonishingly grotesque death traps, and is referred to in passing as a ‘Jigsaw Copycat’, but outside of the similar M.O., Spiral’s all-important killer has no connection to Tobin Bell’s iconic master slaughterer. Not even the equally iconic Billy puppet makes an appearance in Spiral in fact, instead being substituted with a pig-like mascot that sounds a lot like one of the Muppets, if I’m being honest.
Again, the fundamental idea behind Spiral is fantastic. It launches a new serial killer that specifically targets corrupt cops, all seemingly connected to Chris Rock’s main protagonist, Detective Banks. Rather than recycle Jigsaw’s twisted rhetoric of aggressive betterment for those who don’t appreciate their lives however, Spiral’s killer is purely out for revenge, and they’ll settle for a horrific maiming as much as they will a brutal demise. In fact, another frustrating misstep that Spiral’s plot sometimes makes on this note is that it tends to favour one outcome over the other, specifically preferring to take out its victims with extreme prejudice. This eliminates much of the suspense behind Spiral, unfortunately, and too often has it devolving into a dopey slasher flick with few legitimately effective twists, when it otherwise has the potential to be an unpredictable revenge thriller that would have maintained even more impact, had its victims not been forced into suffering the same no-win outcomes.
This is another significant issue with Spiral trying to take a more grounded direction; It’s incredibly unrealistic, to the point of bordering on sheer farce in terms of how its killer is able to move and set up traps without detection, complication or simple common sense! Instead, gruesome, but also disappointingly straightforward kill machines (for the most part) are somehow conjured out of nowhere, sometimes even on the cops’ own turf (this is somewhat explained in the end, but not very well), and almost always in places that should be riddled with surveillance and public scrutiny. This is perfectly fine in the former Saw movies, because they’re meant to be exaggerated revenge fantasies that clearly don’t unfold in recognizable reality. Spiral however suddenly wants to be relatable and believable, exploring timely themes that reflect the real world. That’s great, but it flies in the face of what fans want from a conventional Saw movie, and unfortunately, Spiral too often wimps out of challenging Saw fans’ expectations.
One thing that particularly sticks out about the thoroughly mismatched concept behind Spiral is the fact that Chris Rock clearly wanted to make a very different, timely Saw movie that had little connection with its predecessors, but director, Darren Lynn Bousman clearly seemed to want to make just another Saw movie. Bousman’s work directing the first few Saw sequels seemed to function very well, but that was back during Saw’s early days as a proudly exaggerated, surprisingly convoluted horror opus. With Rock’s more modern take on Saw however, Bousman’s love of quick cuts, brash dialogue and other over-the-top Saw tropes doesn’t mesh, instead undermining any efforts to be credible or thought-provoking by plunging Spiral straight back into tropey horror gimmicks.
Perhaps one of the biggest missteps that Lionsgate made with Spiral’s production is reassigning the bulk of Saw’s creative veterans to this offshoot. The writers of the Saw franchise’s lacklustre previous movie, Jigsaw inexplicably return for Spiral most notably, despite the fact that Spiral is trying to take the franchise in a whole new direction. Several of Spiral’s producers have also worked on at least some of the former Saw movies, and it’s not hard to get the impression that many of Rock’s creative decisions were probably vetoed by the series’ veterans. The premise and story treatment behind Spiral was completely put together by Rock however, and that much was left intact, so it’s no surprise that the foundation behind Spiral feels like the freshest, most intriguing element of the movie.
Then again, Bousman’s direction still frequently lets down Spiral’s inspired foundation, simply because it’s a poor fit for it. It’s apparent that Bousman is relishing an overdue return to the Saw franchise, especially when he’s clearly having fun showcasing the death traps, and encouraging the actors to let loose with the frustratingly flimsy script. Still, Bousman’s enthusiasm can’t change the fact that he and Rock feel fundamentally at odds about where to take this Saw spin-off, which Bousman, Rock and Lionsgate have all separately emphasized is definitely a spin-off, not a ninth mainline Saw movie. Why then do I feel like Spiral is just a poorly disguised Saw IX?
The biggest frustration behind Spiral is the fact that the entire movie feels like a half-measure. I don’t blame Rock for this, since his ideas appear to be what gives Spiral its best sparks of life and inspiration. If anything, Rock’s foundation being the strongest part of Spiral is proof positive that the Saw franchise is in dire need of new blood. Instead, Lionsgate once again hands Rock’s pitch off to the same old guard, who inevitably turn Spiral into just another Saw movie, albeit one that does admittedly manage to be a small improvement over the last few. Again, a lot of that is due to Spiral’s inspired premise, which Rock brings to the table, only to see it failing to launch due to the series falling back on the same old habits.
It’s not going to be a popular suggestion among many Saw fans, but honestly, Spiral’s failings seem to definitively prove that Lionsgate may be best served by completely tossing out the series’ long-running canon, and just fully rebooting it. Indeed, if Spiral had been a full Saw reboot that was completely untethered to the previous eight movies, and took place in a whole new universe and continuity, with a whole new creative team working to realize Rock’s over-arching vision, it likely would have turned out better. It’s in trying to chase the played-out gory excesses of the former Saw movies that Spiral falls apart, when it’s otherwise bringing the kind of bold story ideas to the table that Saw would do well to fully commit to.
Instead, like I said, Spiral is a half-measure, one that ultimately leaves the Saw franchise continuing to feel irrelevant in the current era. Still, I wouldn’t suggest that Lionsgate throw the baby out with the bathwater, now that they’ve already shied away from just fully rebooting the series’ canon with Spiral. Perhaps if Rock’s story foundation continued to be tinkered with, especially considering Spiral’s blunt sequel-baiting conclusion, it could still be a necessary ingredient in revitalizing Saw for a new audience. In fact, strangely enough, I find myself inclined to recommend a similar strategy as I did during my previous review of this year’s decent, but noticeably flawed Mortal Kombat movie reboot; Perhaps Spiral’s ideas could be better explored in a premium TV show, likely made for Starz in this case, rather than a feature film.
I mean, Everybody Hates Chris was great, and that title description is most of what Spiral’s backstory entails anyway. Your move, Lionsgate.
Spiral presents some really promising ideas when it comes to reinventing the Saw franchise, but it ultimately fails to break away from the series' tired torture porn formula.
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THE GOOD STUFF
Superb cop-themed premise that feels fresh and exciting
Rock's lead detective is a likable protagonist
Some legitimately effective commentary amid the gory tropes
THE NOT-SO-GOOD STUFF
Ultimately recycles the same tired Saw tropes
Frustratingly little development behind characters and themes
Grounded premise fails to mesh with Saw's torture porn sensibilities