Review: “Spiral”

Since the unofficial conclusion of the “Saw” franchise in 2010 Lionsgate Entertainment has been working on a way to continue the relevance of the series that was a defining part of horror in the 2000s. The 2017 soft reboot of the series, “Jigsaw”, was less than enjoyable and as a fan of the franchise I dislike it more and more as years go on, but when Chris Rock met with Lionsgate chairman Michael Burns the comedian saw a new avenue for his career and thus a continuation of the “Saw” franchise, ‘Spiral: From the Book of Saw”, was born. The new film sees a mix of old a new members of the behind the scenes “Saw” family with “Jigsaw” writers Josh Stolberg & Peter Goldfinger penning the screenplay, James Wan and Leigh Whannell who directed and wrote the first movie respectively serving as executive producers, Mark Burg and Oren Koules continuing to produce the film as they had all previous entries and Darren Lynn Bousman, who led entries two through four in the franchise, returning to direct. Together they bring a new story about a Jigsaw copycat hunting down the members of a precinct where Chris Rick’s Det. Zeke Banks is put on the case to catch the new killer. While I will say ‘Spiral” is an entertaining ride on its own, it fails to breath much new life into the franchise proper bringing its own flair to the formula but ultimately falling short of the bar set by many of the previous movies.

Screenshot Courtesy of Lionsgate

“Spiral” is an interesting entry in the “Saw” canon that truly does make an effort to stand on its own and tell a self-contained story exploring one of many copycat killers inspired by John Kramer’s initial run as Jigsaw. While I would have liked to see where the killer’s actual apostles took his legacy, the idea of having someone inspired by him rather than having been taught by him be able to continue his mission is an intriguing idea. In a lot of ways it actually works here, but only if you keep your common sense in check. First off, without actually spoiling the reveal, one of the biggest flaws of “Spiral” is that its inevitable twist reveal is terribly easy to figure out. By the end of the first act there were two people I had easily pinned down as the new Jigsaw and if you’ve seen ANY “Saw” movie before you’ll probably figure out the culprit very quickly and once you do it becomes hard to believe that they would have the knowhow to resources to set up the traps. With that said, the games themselves are pretty fun. There are five games played in the movie and most of them were pretty inventive, if strangely designed, with fitting theming to match the “sins” of the victim and plenty of gratuitous gore and bloodshed that I’ll admit had be turning away from the screen a few times to cringe. If that’s what you’re going in to see and you can ignore the obvious flaws in logic it’s an easy waste of time to enjoy.

Screenshot Courtesy of Lionsgate

I do have to give credit to Chris Rock. Although he’s not astounding in this film and dramatic, serious roles are certainly not his forte (not the mention the fact that the script does him no favors) he does inject some of his trademark humor into the screenplay and it’s with his help as well as a few well-timed F-bombs by his co-star, the great Samuel L. Jackson, that “Spiral” establishes its own, more amusing personality using moments of levity, both subtle and in-your-face, to help offset some of the brutality. Sadly, even with fun traps and passable-at-best performances by Rock and Jackson “Spiral” just doesn’t do enough to fully stand out. What could have been a unique spinoff with it’s own ideas and focus instead feels like a glorified reboot too dependent on the same old song and dance as it’s predecessors. A lot of people have also compared the film to “Seven” which is a fair assessment, but “Spiral” fails to reach the same tension or thrills of either the early “Saw” movies or “Seven”. It takes a handful of things that worked in those movies and puts a fine spin on them, but just like its name suggests it just keeps spiraling around with same old clichés and must-haves seemingly afraid to try anything too daring or new to truly make itself stand out.

Screenshot Courtesy of Lionsgate

“Spiral” DOES try to put a bit of social subtext in the mix to justify the actions of the new Jigsaw. This time around the targets are all cops but, despite what Det. Banks says in the movie, this isn’t the first time a Jigsaw Killer has gone after police. Film’s two through five all involved detectives and officers as main victims in their plot which director Darren Lynn Bousman should have know but instead he let the line stay. Anyways, that’s a major inconsistency I couldn’t let slide and even if it’s meant to speak to Det. Banks’ ignorance that’s not how it came off. I digress. “Spiral” focuses on a new Jigsaw who is killingly cops from Banks’ precinct who were all corrupt in one way or another. The idea here is that these cops are being held accountable for their actions through symbolic traps which is an interesting twist on Kramer’s original goal of punishing those who took their lives for granted or whose sins he felt deserved retribution.

Screenshot Courtesy of Lionsgate

However, the message here, especially in modern society where the etiquette of police is constantly being discussed in the media, falls short and does little to dive into the nuances below the surface. It never feels like the film is owning what it has to say about police corruption. Instead, the whole idea seems to have been just a cool way to connect all the victims together without humanizing them, bringing me to another major flaw this and other later “Saw” movies can’t seem to escape. There was at least one victim that I felt bad for but the others aren’t given much of any development to make us wish they would walk away and when you WANT to see the people tortured, when there’s a lack of redeeming factors to help the audience feel that complex mix of guilt and adrenaline, THAT is when a movie like this makes the hard left turn into that much-maligned label of torture porn. We have to actually find something redeemable or relatable to connect us with these people in order to get the full effect of the traps. The original “Saw” movies featured numerous victims who all made tragic mistakes or decisions; people we could see ourselves in to some degree and feel the fear of someone make US pay for our misdeeds and poor decisions while also making us wonder if we were in the player’s shoes challenged with rescuing these people could or would we do it? There’s almost nobody in this movie I felt I could relate to on that level and considering that part of the allure of any horror movie, even a “Saw” movie, is to see ourselves in the characters and fear the situation as if we were in it, “Spiral” fails at one of the most essential things required to elevate it from just entertainment to an actual genuinely frightening concept.

Screenshot Courtesy of Lionsgate

Taken on its own “Spiral” is entertaining enough and, in my opinion, more rewatchable than almost half of the eight previous entries in the series. But it’s littered with many of the same problems that led the franchise off the rails in its later years especially forgetting that in order to completely enjoy a movie about literal death traps we have to have a reason to care if these people survive and in most cases we don’t. “Spiral” does try to insert subtext to act as the motive for the new Jigsaw and as a thriller it’s good mindless entertainment. However, some good traps and a more lighthearted edge might make this one of the more watchable “Saw” movies but in the end “Spiral” can’t escape the shadow of several far superior entries in the franchise and doesn’t do near enough to properly revive a series now over ten years removed from the last memorable entry. But, if all you’re looking for is blood and a few good thrills “Spiral” gets the job done just good enough for me to recommend it but as a fan of the “Saw” series I feel this is a middle-of-the-pack attempt at best that doesn’t do near enough to prove why we still need more “Saw” movies.

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