The Saw franchise often gets maligned by those giving it a cursory glance as nothing more than torture porn horror. While much of their appeal comes from the gore and elaborate death traps featured in the films, the movies work because a running through-line gave them a bit more than just blood and guts. The films, to varying degrees, delivered ruminations on justice, revenge, and society and featured a surprisingly strong throughline of story that built over the franchise’s long run. Spiral: From the Book of Saw attempts to continue this legacy while also launching a new era for the franchise.
It mostly fails. Spiral feels like a film made by those people who give the franchise a cursory glance. A movie that is more interested in disgusting us than playing with expectations and delivering smart insights into why we even watch films like this. Spiral looks at the franchise’s twisting plots and death traps at a high level and thinks there is nothing more to do to make a successful film.
Spiral: From the Book of Saw
Director: Darren Lynn Bousman
Release Date: May 14, 2021 (Theatrical)
Spiral: From the Book of Saw is an attempt to relaunch the franchise after sputtering returns on the series’ last installment, Jigsaw. The movie is technically a sequel to the last film but in a very nebulous way. While the franchise’s main villain John Kramer is shown, the movie takes place after a nebulous time period after his death. We find Chris Rock, who developed the story for the film, playing Det. Zeke Banks, a cop ostracized by the department because 12 years prior he broke the blue wall of silence and turned in his corrupt partners. He is assigned a rookie partner, William Schneck (Max Minghella) after going “rouge” one too many times and at the same time, someone starts killing off police officers in Jigsaw-style murder games.
Spiral feels like an attempt to go back to the original film’s more detective procedural storyline, which balanced between death machines and the police investigating the crimes. Back then people harkened it to a more horror-focussed Seven and that influence plays out again here. However, the comparisons can stop there. Spiral does almost nothing correctly. From its supposed “mystery” to its social commentary the film is a hamfisted mess. The film runs a scant 90 minutes, and while I’m all for tightly made films that don’t waste time this one rushes everything. By the time the movie ends on a woefully annoying conclusion you feel like nothing has been properly executed in any aspect of the film.
And that “mystery.” It is nothing of the sort. I am struggling to think of a film that telegraphs its big twist more than this one. Anyone who has seen a movie (not even one with a twist, just any movie) will easily be able to pick up on who the new killer is at the drop of a hat. The film often appears to think it is being clever but is routinely obvious with nearly every aspect of setting up its twist. There is one moment that they try to play as a subtle thing that is so glaringly obvious it literally ruins the rest of the film. Even if the twist wasn’t blatantly obvious from the get go there is very little actual detective work done to get the conclusion, leaving a film entirely dependent on your desire to watch people get gruesomely killed in incredibly painful, and slow methods.
There is a time and place for that kind of thing and the Saw films have often found it but Spiral never does. It all feels a bit too much and a bit too real, with the cruelty overwhelming the gore making it uncomfortable instead of engrossingly disgusting. Rock doesn’t help the proceedings, mostly just yelling lines and seemingly working on new stand-up material for half the screenplay. By the end of the film, the combination of disquieting murders and boredom makes for a really bad taste.
Finally, there is the social commentary of the film. Horror and social themes have gone hand in hand since the birth of the genre but Sprial is a discordant bludgeon of messages. There is an attempt here to unpack the current reckoning with police violence and corruption but it misses the mark so badly that it is yet another level of discomfort for the movie. With corrupt cops the focus of this killer’s murdering spree there are plenty of chances for the film to say something about police violence but it all feels like a think veneer simply trying to excuse the excessive violence. There’s no actual punch to the messaging because it is so obvious and so muddled.
It’s confusing that Spiral: From the Book of Saw seems to misunderstand Saw and basic horror filmmaking so terribly. The film comes from James Wan, is directed by Saw alum Darren Lynn Bousman, and was written by the same people who did Jigsaw and yet it comes out feeling like the biggest mess the franchise has seen. Every aspect of the movie seems to be constantly spiralling out of control.