If you’ve seen one or (God forbid) all the Saw movies (like me), you might be wondering what Spiral: From the Book of Saw might offer, especially when it brings back so many elements from previous movies, including 2017’s Jigsaw. For most people, the change might come down to two words: Chris Rock.
Reportedly, Rock was hugely influential in terms of getting this Saw reboot happening with the initial idea, which takes the series to a new place by creating a stand-alone installment that still pays nods to the past, maybe not as much in terms of story but definitely by those behind the camera. For instance, director Darren Lynn Bousman, who helmed three previous Saw movies, returns after fourteen years (and nine non-Saw features), working from a script by Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger (the duo who wrote the previous Saw reboot, Jigsaw). These two things alone might make some wonder how different Spiral might be from the trio’s previous work on the franchise.
In the film, Rock plays Detective Zeke Banks, a metropolitan homicide detective who was caught up in a controversy a dozen years earlier when he snitched on a corrupt fellow cop. When he’s called to the grisly murder scene of another police officer along with his new rookie partner, William Schenk (Max Minghella), Zeke is pulled into a series of cop-killings that mirrors the murderous games played by the serial killer, Jigsaw. Banks is still dealing with the repercussions of his previous actions while trying to rebuild the relationship with his father, the former Police Captain (played by Samuel L. Jackson), as well as his fellow officers.
Chances are that if you’re going to see Spiral, you’ll be there at least partially for the gory killings and “murder machines” that are constructed to give the victims a choice that will likely leave them mutilated but alive. There’s a reason why the previous movies were dubbed “torture porn,” since horror fans, in general, would thrill at how above and beyond these things went in terms of blood and gore.
Granted, previous Saw films fully relied on these gory and graphic killings to win over the fans, but at least Spiral tries to offer something more — like an actual story not tied to the infinitely confusing mythology of Jigsaw — and generally better-developed characters,
When you’re dealing with a tried-and-true genre like the police procedural, there’s bound to be clichés and predictability, but it’s still interesting to see what might happen if something like the Jigsaw murders would take place in a setting that feels more grounded in reality. Spiral is still very much genre, but it’s genre in the sense of one of the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, rather than the superhero movies of Zack Snyder, if that makes any sense.
Spiral also gives Rock a chance to flex dramatic muscles we rarely see from him. The stakes in the movie come from the victims being colleagues and even friends with Banks, so the tension increases, because so much time has been spent developing the relationships the victims have with Banks.. Credit also has to be given to Minghella, who helps keep the film grounded as a pair of “new eyes” on the beat, seeing these horrendous murders for the first time. Of course, Jackson is always fun, especially when he’s given the free reign of an R-rating to use as many “Mother-F-words” as he can fit into the script.
What may be the most impressive thing about Spiral is that despite so many returning creatives below the line, the movie still looks different enough to feel quite fresh. Much of this can be attributed to Cinematographer Jordan Oram and Editor Dev Singh, two of the new “pieces” in the puzzle. Oram successfully adds a visual noir element to the storytelling that diverges from the grimier look of previous movies while Singh cuts together the footage in a far more organic way than the typical choppy aesthetic of previous Saw films.
Much of the heaviest lifting goes to Production Designer Anthony Cowley (another Jigsaw vet) and his art department, if nothing else, for devising the killer’s intricate murder gizmos, making them feel physically functional and putting the viewer into the ultimate cringy discomfort via what the victims must be experiencing*. Another reason why Spiral looks so different can also be attributed to Cowley’s choice of larger spaces and presumably more locations than the stage settings of many earlier Saw films. Again, it’s about putting the central idea into the real world that looks familiar to us vs. the stylish creations of past movies.
Less surprising is seeing the name Patrick Baxter as part of the special make-up effects, as he’s been a frequent but somewhat sporadic contributor to the franchise going back to Bousman’s first movie, Saw II. Spiral goes the extra mile to create some of the most realistic and sloppy sequences of entrails and viscera that makes your stomach turn even and especially when the victim’s body is discovered*.
Other than possibly actor Tobin Bell, no other name can be associated with the Saw franchise than that of Composer Charlie Clouser, who has scored every single movie back to the original from James Wann and Leigh Whannell. I honestly had to check out who composed the music, because it also felt quite different and fresh, showing that the former Trent Reznor collaborator has similar new tricks up his sleeve.
While the film’s third act does pick things up in terms of intensity, the movie’s big “twist” actually seemed quite predictable. Some may be bothered by that, but others might see Spiral as a fresh, new way into a premise that seemingly had run its course but might benefit from new blood.
Ultimately, Spiral offers fans of the franchise what they thrive for while throwing in more than a few ideas that makes it far better as an actual movie than any previous chapter.
Spiral is opening nationwide on Friday, May 14.
All photos courtesy Lionsgate. Photographer: Brooke Palmer.
(*It also should be mentioned that Spiral was the first Saw movie I saw on the largest multiplex screen possible compared to my television and screening room viewings of past installments, and that definitely made the gruesome killings a lot tougher to sit through. Because of this, I’m not sure I can recommend seeing Spiral in IMAX.)