Where do you go with the ninth entry in a franchise? Change directions? Stay the course? Perhaps a little of both? It’s a question that’s plagued the Saw franchise before, when the series took a hiatus after the dismal reception of Saw: The Final Chapter (2010) and again after the lukewarm Jigsaw (2017). The series has never been shy about evolving its storyline and taking the narrative down new paths, but Spiral: From the Book of Saw may be the biggest departure yet, while also borrowing the most from the original 2004 film that started it all.
Twelve years after turning in a crooked cop, detective Zeke Banks (Chris Rock) is a pariah at his precinct. Hounded for being a rat, a snitch, and a traitor, Zeke has hardened into a lone-ranger-type trying to get out from under the shadow of his hero dad, Marcus (Samuel L. Jackson), the former police chief. When he’s paired up with eager rookie William Schenk (Max Minghella), Zeke expects to wear him down with the drudgeries of being a homicide detective. But then the mutilated body of a Jigsaw copycat victim is discovered–a fellow detective–and it becomes a race against time to stop a psychopath using John Kramer’s legacy to target cops and wipe out corruption in law enforcement.
Directed by franchise veteran Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw II, III, & IV) and written by Josh Stolberg & Peter Goldfinger (Jigsaw), Spiral starts strong then gets tangled up in its own web during the third act. As per tradition, the film opens with a gruesome, bloody kill in one of the most squirm-in-your-seat traps of the franchise. It’s a great setpiece, but it’s not quite classic Jigsaw. Then again, it’s made clear from this prologue that we’re not dealing with Jigsaw as we know him anymore. Despite executing games from beyond the grave for four or five films, John Kramer is well and truly gone in this film and what we’re dealing with now is a certified copycat. Unfortunately, this means that the gravelly, chill-inducing voice of Tobin Bell is gone as well, replaced with a warped, high-pitched warble that’s anything but intimidating. Also nowhere to be found? Billy, the iconic rosy-cheeked puppet. In his place is a pig puppet that, while creepy, isn’t nearly as unique as little Bill on his trike.
These changes take some getting used to, but they’re not detrimental to the film as a whole. The pig puppet becomes a symbol of the film’s primary theme: corrupt cops. Law enforcement has always been central to the through-line of the Saw series, but Spiral truly puts “the force” under the microscope, and the blade, for the first time. Dirty cops get their comeuppance in this film, a wish fulfillment for so many in our society fed up with the abuse of police power and subsequent lack of consequences. It’s not a subtle critique by any means, but nuance isn’t exactly what we sign up for with these movies anyway, right?
Narratively, Spiral eschews the standard formula of a main game A plot alongside an investigative B plot and instead has the traps play out in “real time” as cops disappear and are tested one by one, the killer taunting Zeke all the while. It’s an odd choice, giving the film the feel of a standard police procedural as opposed to the gritty, grimy cat-and-mouse chase of the original film, which it’s clear the filmmakers were trying to emulate here. Zeke and William also don’t do a lot of actual investigating. It’s mostly waiting around for the next detective to disappear and creepy package to show up at the station leading to the next murder site. When the traps do appear, they deliver on gore, as a good Saw trap should, but not as much on tension. They don’t quite feel like “games” even if they are some of the more memorable torture scenes in the franchise (one in particular will have you curling your fingers in phantom pain).
Happily, Rock is a standout and carries the film through its foibles. He expertly flips between biting, comedic monologues and weary, rage-fueled outbursts. His best scenes are with Jackson, who is severely underused, unfortunately, and there’s a great dynamic there between the respected hero chief and his estrange son, forever an outsider for doing the right thing. Both men believe in justice, both men know the system is failing, but tension arises over their perspectives on how to fix that failing and wipe away the grime, symbolized by the film’s nauseous yellow and green hues, a return to the color schemes and dirty, sweaty looks of the original films.
Spiral certainly gets points for attempting to resurrect the mystery components of Saw and for cracking open an entirely new storyline, but it plays it safe just as it should go big, and any Saw fan worth their salt can spot the twist from a mile away. Taking into account the missing iconography and uneven pacing, the film fails to make an impression. Were it not “from the Book of Saw” it may have been a better film, but as is stands it’s just missing too much to be a solid Saw film. There’s some hard and fast rules to this franchise, and if Jigsaw’s taught us anything, it’s that the rules should never be broken.
Spiral: From the Book of Saw
5 – Totally Terrifying
4 – Crazy Creepy
3 – Fairly Frightening
2 – Slightly Scary
1 – Hardly Horror