There is surely no horror franchise that typifies the 2000s so much as Saw. The series ran on an uninterrupted annual schedule from 2004 to 2010. A one-off revival, Jigsaw, failed to relaunch the films in 2017. Now actor/producer Chris Rock headlines the grandiosely-titled Spiral: From the Book of Saw, a 2021 attempt to kick-start the property all over again.
The original Saw, which was directed by James Wan, prefigured what David Edelstein odiously referred to as ‘torture porn’. This broad movement of American horror film rapidly expanded in 2005 through the release of Eli Roth’s Hostel, along with Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects, Greg McLean’s Wolf Creek and, of course, Darren Lynn Bousman’s Saw II. More elegantly referred to as ‘survival horror’, these films were united via a bleak and relentless tone, a surfeit of graphic on-screen violence and gore, and narrative conventions in which defeating an antagonist became impossible and sheer survival was as good as victory became.
Saw initially followed the so-called ‘Jigsaw killer’ (Tobin Bell): a terminally ill vigilante who would kidnap people perceived to have committed some kind of moral failure and put them into elaborate traps. Escaping the traps inevitably meant deliberately disfiguring or dismembering oneself. Failure to commit self-harm led to a far bloodier and unpleasant death. While the graphic nature of the traps earned Saw its place within the survival horror movement, its real strength was the unexpected manner in which the storylines unfolded. Climactic twists became the hallmark of the series: films about traps, cleverly plotted as narrative traps themselves. The intricate nature of the stories, the elaborate set pieces, the theatrical quality of the action, and the often-nauseating violence, lent the Saw films a strong sense of grand guignol – something beyond basic confrontational horror, and ultimately seeming almost operatic. I am, you may have guessed, a big fan.
Spiral, whose production has been driven by star and fellow Saw fan Chris Rock, has been heralded as a revival for the brand. It offers greater star power via Rock and co-star Samuel L. Jackson. It presents a different aesthetic; the grimy greens and browns of the original films have been replaced by a sweaty, sun-bleached aesthetic heavily reminiscent of David Fincher’s Seven (1995, and a key influence on Wan’s original Saw). What a shame, then, that after all of the hype and marketing effort that Spiral is essentially Saw 9 – no more, no less.
Rock plays Zeke Banks, a homicide detective isolated from the rest of his squad after reporting a corrupt officer and getting them prosecuted and imprisoned. When a fellow officer is kidnapped and murdered by what appears to be a copycat of the long-dead Jigsaw killer Zeke, his partner William Schenk (Max Minghella), and his retired police chief father (Samuel L. Jackson) are drawn into the hunt for the city’s new serial killer – who exclusively targets the police.
A lot of Spiral works. Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson really do lift the material through well-written and balanced characters – there is more humour here than is typical for the franchise. For Rock in particular it is an opportunity to showcase his dramatic range; much of his career has been dominated by comedy, so it is a welcome shift in tone. The new aesthetic works well, with director Darren Lynn Bousman making a solid return after directing Saw II, III, and IV back in the day. Bousman was always the franchise’s most skilled director beyond James Wan, and while this new film lacks his innovative in-camera effects it remains a broadly effective piece of work. And yet…
The more realistic grounding of this instalment chafes against the over-the-top, elaborate nature of Saw‘s signature traps. The previous films succeeded because they existed within a heightened reality; without this exaggerated edge the horror scenes come across as almost farcical – and it damages the film. The standard twists and turns struggle this time around as well: they are easy to predict, and once they occur they are difficult for the screenplay (by Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger, who wrote Jigsaw) to reasonably explain. ‘The Jigsaw killer never targeted cops,’ explains Zeke at one early juncture, which is true only as long as one ignores the officers trapped and killed in Saw, Saw II, Saw IV, and Saw V.
Ultimately Spiral feels very much like a mid-to-late sequel from Saw‘s original run, akin to the likes of V or VI but certainly not hitting the low bar of 2010’s The Final Chapter. Pre-existing fans of the series will probably enjoy themselves sufficiently; anyone hoping for an advance on its standard shocks and thrills will come away sorely disappointed. I cannot imagine this will be the creative revival that Lionsgate had planned; box office may easily lead to a Spiral II, but they’re unlikely to summon much enthusiasm with it.