Film Review: The ‘Saw’ Series Return To Mystery-Focused Roots With Latest Entry ‘Spiral’6 min readReading Time: 5 minutes
A criminal mastermind unleashes a twisted form of justice in ‘Spiral’, the terrifying new chapter from the book of Saw.
Director: Darren Lynn Bousman
Cast: Chris Rock, Samuel L. Jackson, Morgan David Jones
Runtime: 93 minutes
Armed with a micro-budget and a sinister plot, the first Saw film, released in 2004, was a game-changing cultural phenomenon. The series would go on to be an undeniable spectre of the horror genre during the early 2000s, spawning the sub-genre of “torture porn” while inspiring a legion of low-budget horror hits. One could even argue that Saw paved the way for Blumhouse and A24 horror.
Six sequels, one final chapter and one reboot later, the franchise is proving to be as tenacious as its psychopathic poster boy with Spiral. With series creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell back on board (following their absence post Saw 3), the latest entry feels like a return to its roots — both for better and for worse.
While as macabre as ever, there is a renewed emphasis on mystery and psychological horror. However, true to its title’s visual imagery, Spiral warps around but ultimately remains tethered to outdated trends, beats and visual styles the series popularised 17 years ago. The film is a fun welcome back for longtime fans but might feel like an outdated relic of horror cinema to those who were never interested in playing the series’ morbid games.
Spiral is neither a prequel nor a sequel to 2017’s Jigsaw, but is suggested to take place within the series’ timeline. The spin-off follows Detective “Zeke” (Chris Rock) and rookie partner Detective William (Max Minghella) as they investigate a gruesome murder with traces reminiscent of the Jigsaw killer. The odds are stacked against Zeke, having to work within a corrupt police force and against a killer with a mysterious obsession with him.
Spiral makes no qualms about welcoming audiences back into its grisly world, opening with a now-patented torture sequence complete with severed limbs and ear-rattling shrieks. These remain the spotlighted stars of the show, bound to force audiences to miss a few seconds of the film while they’re too busy wincing or looking away.
A common criticism of the series’ later entries has been of how the torture devices are just about the only interesting elements, even when they are overexposed and at their most senseless. Spiral looks to buck the trend with attempts at more control and depth.
The film continues the tradition of picking victims from amongst society’s wrongdoers, this time with its crosshair set on police brutality. Spiral features some of the gnarliest (and most ridiculous) torture devices conceived yet. Unfortunately, they do not add much to the film’s already toothless — albeit entertaining — story centring on corrupt cops.
The attempts are there. The sequences — spaced out with only a handful in total — are certainly not mindless or directionless, seeking to rouse emotions and dilemmas atypical of a supposed ”‘torture porn” series. But they are too grisly to feel vindictive and too over-the-top to add any dramatic tension.
In between the madness is an entertaining crime procedural unfolding in two gears. Spiral features a near beat-for-beat, often-parodied scene of a maverick cop losing his cool and having to be buddied up with a rookie by their police chief. Surprisingly enough, this and a dozen other familiar treks down the buddy cop genre comes off as more endearing than lazy, mostly due to Chris Rock’s charisma.
The film’s first half feels like a misplaced Netflix comedy special with Rock cranking out stand-up material. His comedic chops amidst the grisly horror make for an unlikely yet entertaining duo. His intense quips are only matched by Samuel L. Jackson, making sporadic appearances as Zeke’s father.
The plot’s second gear, when it looks to crank up the intensity and dive into psychological madness, is where the film tumbles. Spiral’s central mystery is less cerebral and more akin to an elaborate haunted house where the magic and fun is gone if too much thought is put into dissecting the experience. The cherry on top is a twist that probably won’t rattle long-time fans, but will certainly catch newer audiences off-guard.
The film was already doing fine with Rock’s lighthearted energy. Moving into psychological horror exposed Rock’s lack of range for drama. Rather than through performances, audiences are mainly told that the killer is in Zeke’s head through frequent sped-up crash zooms towards Zeke’s head, complete with layers of horror VFX and jumpcuts of reaction shots.
Rock also has a tendency to keep his energy to an eleven, downplaying any threats that his character comes face to face with. These do no favours in establishing any stakes when Zeke is the only likeable character in the film; the one cop that audiences do not want torn apart.
Speaking of crash zooms, Spiral’s visual style remains rooted in the early 2000s by virtue of it echoing the same forms that have come to define the series. There is still excellence found in the cold, remorseless industrial set design and the superb practical effects. But the continued reliance on jump scares and jump cuts feels cheap and largely unearned.
In a rapidly evolving genre like horror, the film can’t help but feel dated. Spiral even has a rap theme song! When’s the last time that happened?
It may be terrifying to realise that the Saw series — the epitome of horror and adult edge for many of us during our teenhood — is nearly two decades old. Nostalgia was never meant to be associated with the franchise. Yet, that may exactly be the prime emotion surfaced by Spiral. Consequently, the film struggles with the question of if the series still has a place today. Having Chris Rock in the lead and substituting the Billy doll for a pig doll hardly feels enough.
In a bizarre twist of irony for Saw, Spiral is the rare entry where the torture sequences are less entertaining than the plot — so much so that it exposes the unnecessary glee of its graphic demonstrations.
It seems like the deadliest trap devised by the Saw series is for itself: its inability to shed off the reliance on its once-money printing tropes. And just like all of the series’ traps, Saw will have to either sever itself from them or face expiration. But for now, Spiral is a warm, bloodied welcome back for fans that will please with its efforts to break free from the series’ longstanding shortcomings.
Spiral is now in theatres islandwide.