Spiral: From the Book of Saw (2021)
Discover a new chapter.
It’s a sweltering summer in a nameless American city and a serial killer has begun preying on cops. The killer is offing them by using gruesome and inventive death traps themed around the victims’ sins — one policeman, notorious for lying on the witness stand, dies tongueless, while another, with an unjustified killing under his belt, has all his fingers pulled off, including his itchy trigger finger. It’s all very reminiscent of the Jigsaw Killer, John Kramer (Tobin Bell), but he’s been dead for years, hasn’t he? It’s up to dogged cop Ezekiel “Zeke” Banks (Chris Rock) to find out before more blue lives shatter.
This is the ninth film in the Saw franchise, which kicked off back in 2004 with the original sleeper hit from Australian filmmakers Leigh Whannell and James Wan. It’s also the second attempt to give the series a soft reboot; another Australian film duo, the Spierig Brothers, gave it a red hot go in 2017 with Jigsaw, a film I know I’ve seen and retain absolutely no memory of. This latest offering exists thanks to star and producer Chris Rock, apparently a fan of the series, whose pitch got over the line after Jigsaw failed to reinvigorate the property. So, will Spiral succeed where Jigsaw failed? Hell, maybe.
I’m not an avowed fan of the Saw series myself, but then again, I don’t mind it either. The series boasts an insanely convoluted mythology and internal narrative logic that fans eat up but has always sailed right past me without ruffling my hair. So, the first film aside — which, when released, was of course not part of a franchise and so works as a discrete whole — the movies exist for me as a series of Grand Guignol vignettes, largely divorced from any narrative meaning. I couldn’t tell you what the hell the actual point is to any of this, but I’m not too proud to admit I get a kick out of well-staged, inventive gore gags.
And on that level, Spiral works. There’s something so … delectable about Saw’s main gimmick, which is the array of Rube Goldberg-like torture traps that victims are dispatched by. Wan and Whannell didn’t invent death-by-gimmick, but they — along with regular series director Darren Lynn Bousman, who returns for directorial duties here — arguably perfected it. A good Saw trap is a little cinematic piece of poetry: thematically linked to the victim’s personal failings or transgressions, aesthetically brutal and unnerving, almost invariably gory, and inevitable — you know that once the mechanism is activated and the clock is ticking, the only outcome is death or mutilation. There’s an old theory that horror fiction is a way for us as consumers to rehearse for our own inevitable demise (pretty sure Stephen King said something along those lines in the intro to Night Shift), and the Saw flicks enable that in a simply sublime way, the relentless rusty cogs and ratchets of the fatal paraphernalia clunking and crunching away until the unavoidably painful and bloody end. The fact that these traps are automated, that we don’t see the human agency involved in setting them up, makes them seem impassive and implacable. For all the pain and mess, there’s a weird lack of malice to the cruelty — it’s just the way things are, and the victims’ horror and agony are meaningless to the machinery.
So, if we take that to be the Saw movies’ core appeal, Spiral ticks that box, and we get the added enjoyment (well, I do — your mileage may vary) of this round of victims being corrupt and violent cops and watching those guys get fed through the grinder is always a good time as far as I’m concerned. Rock’s Zeke is seemingly the only honest cop in the film’s nameless city, although his tough, old school ex-cop dad, Marcus (Samuel L. Jackson), seems to have a handle on things, and his fresh-from-the-academy new partner, William Schenk (Max Minghella), is surely too wet behind the ears to be a bad apple so early in his career. That does leave us with a large ensemble of badge-wearers to pick off in a variety of violent ways before Zeke figures out what’s what.
So, is Spiral a Black Lives Matter horror movie — maybe the first? It’s certainly part of a resurgence in horror from Black creators, and while it’s not up there with Jordan Peel’s work, it’s pretty hard to ignore the political implications of a movie explicitly about torturing and killing bad cops, a choice which, if nothing else, makes Spiral a specifically targeted work as opposed to the more general racial anxieties explored in Get Out (2017) and Us (2019) — or even Antebellum (2020), which I mention for completeness’ sake and not because of its quality. It’s not subtle, but subtlety is not one of the design goals here.
Rock does reasonably well in a rare dramatic outing, although several moments where his comic persona comes through are jarring — a better choice might have been to nix the comedy altogether so that we’re not reminded that we’re used to this guy making us laugh. Jackson does Jackson, and that’s generally a good time, and I do wonder why more A-listers don’t sign up for horror movies just for the fun of being put through the wringer.
The rest of the cast (which includes Marisol Nichols, Dan Petronijevic, Richard Zeppieri, Patrick McManus, etc.) acquit themselves well. Performances are generally heightened, but we’re not really aiming for realism here: the Saw films have always been a bit OTT, and Spiral is no exception. With its yellow halogen hues and thick black shadows, it’s set in a noirish otherworld that might superficially resemble our own but runs on melodrama and blood. This requires a bit of buy-in from the viewer, but all horror movies do — if you find yourself ruminating on the plausibility of events during the quiet parts, either the filmmaker has failed, or you’re not meeting the film on its own terms.
On its own terms, Spiral: From the Book of Saw works. There’s a big ol’ dangling sequel hook that may or may not pay off — it’s all about the box office — but should be enough to hang any number of follow-ups from. “Serviceable” feels like faint praise, but that’s really what the film is — a robust, occasionally creative but generally not-too-inspired entry into the series that does exactly what it sets out to do but never strays outside of formula.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Travis Johnson