Review | Spiral: From the Book of Saw
It’s hard to remember a cinematic landscape without Saw. Exploding onto cinema screens back in 2004, James Wan’s feature directorial debut, with just a $1.3 million budget, grossed over £100 million at the box office, and not only kicked off a horror franchise but created its own sub-genre, the uncomfortably named “torture porn”.
However, then thirteen years, eight movies and plenty of copycats later, the series has become stale. Audiences, used to the films’ trademark twists and desensitised by the once-shocking gore and nasty traps envisioned by serial killer Jigsaw, have adapted to higher-quality, smarter stuff - icky contraptions and little character development no longer cuts it.
This is something Chris Rock knows. A lifelong fan of the series, a chance encounter with the chairman of Lionsgate provided him with the perfect opportunity to express his desire to become involved in horror and extend the franchise into a sort-of cinematic universe (yes, really). With Rock starring, producing and polishing a script by Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger, and the tantalising addition of Samuel L. Jackson, Spiral became a Saw movie that promised to re-invent the franchise.
Until it didn’t. Unfortunately, Spiral: From the Book of Saw fails to deliver on almost every aspect, becoming one of the most generic, predictable and occasionally unintentionally funny movies of recent years. Less a re-vamp for the series than an odd interlude between the very gory, very fucked-up soap opera of the last decade-and-a-half, it’s a shame the promise of something new wasn’t delivered.
Det. Ezekial “Zeke” Banks (Rock) is a hardened, grizzly cop, who struggles to connect with his father, Marcus (Jackson) and suffers daily abuse at the hands of his colleagues for turning in a dirty cop over a decade earlier. Whilst arguing with his no-nonsense, takes no shit Captain, Angie Garza (Marisol Nichols), he is paired with innocent, wide-eyed rookie Det. William Schenk (Max Minghella) to investigate the recent murders of cops over the city, tumbling into a game of cat and mouse with a murderer who may or may not be Jigsaw.
To say the script is formulaic and predictable is somewhat of an understatement. A film consisting solely of cops and ex-cops, each character is as thin as described above, thin cardboard cut-outs that fall on either side of the Good or Bad spectrum, leaving no room to explore the grey area or subverse the expectations of a cine-literate audience (if you can’t spot the antagonist behind all the games in the first few minutes, then you’ve never seen a movie before).
Directed by Saw veteran Darren Lynn Bousman - a confusing choice given the desire to inject new life or veer off the beaten track - the film plays like “Se7en Lite”; whilst the franchise has attempted to portray a Fincher-esque quality to its movies in prior instalments, Spiral becomes its most notable endeavour, less homage than rip-off, focusing more on the cops' investigation than the gore which has encapsulated the series as a whole. If it weren’t for the fact that the cops were two-dimensional, this might have worked, but the movie relies too heavily on sudden interludes of gross-out moments and irritatingly ineffectual jump scares.
Bousman has promised that this film will focus less on the overly-complicated traps themselves, and, to an extent, he delivers. Whilst there are far less of them, they are still present, but it’s to the detriment of the film; at one point, the aftermath of a trap is witnessed by the investigating officers, a refreshing moment that is immediately upended by then showing exactly what happened to the poor SOB who endured it.
There is a good film somewhere in the execution of Spiral that Bousman, Stolberg, Goldfinger and Rock failed to find in its early beginnings; the hope that the franchise could venture into territory not intended solely for teenage boys and those who get their kicks from seeing bodies being severed is broken. This, an attempt to make the Saw franchise classier for a new audience, fails to do just that, neither satisfying in the characters it clearly wants to delve into, nor in the horror it feels it has to.