Let me explain a bit about my experiences with the Saw franchise.
My wife and I saw the first film in theaters shortly after we were married in 2004. It frayed our nerves so much, she couldn’t speak to me as we walked out after the film’s closing credits. On the way to the car, I lit up a cigarette as I walked off the movie’s hold on me. Then she did something she hadn’t done in our relationship to that point and has not done since: she reached for my pack of cigarettes, took one out, grabbed my lighter, and lit it. She inhaled two drags, then wheeled on me and shouted, “fffffffffffFUCKED UP, MAN!” I could not agree with her more. James Wan’s breakout film was a genuine horror highlight, one that didn’t so much rely on gore as much as it did on unrelenting tension and a twisted plot that made your heart skip with every unraveling.
Flash forward to 2017’s Jigsaw, the eighth film in the franchise. John Kramer – the original killer – was long dead, his legacy carried on by various disciples and perverted to their own desired ends, as opposed to his nobler (if you can call it that) efforts. The suffocating atmosphere of dread which made the first Saw film so special was buried under mountains of gore and a cruel desire to one-up every preceding film by making the kill scenes all the more outlandish and convoluted (read: they tried to make each kill more “inventive”). I didn’t even bother with seeing any of them in theaters after the third installment because I felt the entire point was getting missed. With every subsequent film, more and more attention was paid to the gruesome special effects than the story or the break-the-armrest-because-you’re-gripping-it-too-hard tension the first film seemed to nourish and relish from its first frame.
Soon after Jigsaw, it was announced that veteran actor/writer/comedian Chris Rock wanted to make his first foray into horror by providing his own take on this popular series. This has culminated in Rock starring in and executive producing Spiral: From the Book of Saw, its release delayed a year by the COVID-19 pandemic. Where do I stand on it? I appreciate its “less gore, more brain” ethic which more than enough evokes that of the original film, but its relative flatline presence fails to generate any excitement. Think of it as a lesser cousin of Robert Resnikoff’s The First Power and David Fincher’s Se7en, where a police detective with an unexpected partner tries to get to the bottom of a rash of murders in their jurisdiction, only to find deeper connections as the film progresses.
Ordinarily, this throughline is the kind of stuff I dig. But taking a purported Saw film out of the claustrophobic spaces upon which this series feeds is exactly what went wrong with the Die Hard films. It loses its touch, its hook, its raison d’être. Here, we have Detective Ezekiel “Zeke” Banks (Rock) following too many various leads which lead him to a multitude of improbable arenas in which he either finds dead bodies or victims just shy of death. And no matter how worn and smart the script wishes him to be, he’s always one step behind, constantly playing a losing hand. There’s no glimmer of suspense in this film; all we can do is watch Zeke pick up the pieces of whatever unfortunate body our killer has laid out for him.
It’s this lack of suspense that ultimately dooms Spiral. Neither director Darren Lynn Bousman – veteran Saw series director of installments 2 through 4 – or screenwriters Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger lend this film the apprehensive spirit of the preceding films. Spiral is nothing more than a straightforward police procedural that inserts the Jigsaw-type murders to make it work. Say what you will about the Saw series; there was at least something that gave the traps and the deaths the force of a hydraulic press. To be fair, Zeke is linked to each murder, almost threatening to out him as the killer, but the film doesn’t go that far with its logic, nor does it want to. Instead, it follows a path like Rowdy Herrington’s Striking Distance, where a cop is taunted with each dead body until the startling denouement where the perpetrator and their motivations are revealed.
But none of it is urgent. None of it makes a lick of difference as to who lives or who dies. We know the body count’s coming; it’s just a case of severity. Accordingly, Rock’s central character Zeke takes a muted approach to each crime scene he and new partner William Schenk (Max Minghella) investigate. Zeke’s established as a do-what-it-takes kind of cop, candid and forthright with little time for niceties; he’s only on the job because he thought he could measure up to and do better than his father, celebrated captain Marcus Banks (Samuel L. Jackson). But his world-weariness and distrustful nature serve only to distance the audience from him. Rock plays Zeke with a constant squint, as if to suss out the everyday bullshit handed to him by his fellow policemen on a minute-by-minute basis. This is the extent of his emoting; there’s no in between or other side to him, and this lack of shading is what ultimately sidelines him as the audience proxy, the window through which we witness this film’s events.
It’s as if Bousman forgot what made Saw II and III some of the most memorable episodes in this film’s 17-year history. He doesn’t get clean or heartfelt performances from his actors, and the arid and oft-illogical script doesn’t help matters much. Spiral wants to bring the series back to its tense origins, where the audience feels the tenterhooks they’ve been thrust upon; however, its sprawling landscape and damningly predictable plot ultimately alienates any hope for tension, suspense, and frights. With a happier ending, this might’ve been done well as an episode of something like “NCIS” or the recent reboot of “Magnum P.I.” But as a chapter in the Saw franchise, it falls flat without good characterization and the atmosphere which made the Saw series famous.