I hadn’t stepped foot in a movie theater in 425 days. It is perhaps the longest consecutive stretch of time I’ve gone without seeing a movie in a theater since I’ve been able to walk. And, all things considered, I made good use of those 425 days. I researched, drafted, and completed a master’s thesis (on horror movies that are nothing like Spiral: From The Book of Saw, but the Saw franchise certainly has an important place in the history I was looking at). I am on the verge of earning my master’s degree; and the time commitment probably would have kept my theater-going to a minimum even if the world was not facing a crisis.
None of this is particularly relevant to my review of Spiral: From The Book of Saw, save for the fact that this was the film that broke my 425-day streak. And I thought it fitting to return to theaters with the type of movie that really keeps me invested in film art: pure horror genre schlock.
Spiral: From the Book of Saw may be the oddest horror sequel title ever thought up (who wrote the book of Saw? Is it available at my local library? Is it like an Anarchist Cookbook type deal, where it teaches you how to concoct sadistic death traps just like John Kramer used to? So many questions that have no answer). It is entirely possible that the literary subtitle was tacked on so this could be effectively marketed as an entry in the Saw franchise.
But, despite all the returning faces (Darren Lynn Bousman is directing, James Wan and Leigh Whannell are on as producers, Charlie Clouser wrote the score), the film is making an honest attempt to distance itself from the series that produced it. This is soft reboot territory—it exists (somewhere) within the convoluted timeline of the franchise without the baggage of all that convoluted nonsense (a term I mean to use affectionately). So perhaps the best title for it is simply Spiral.
Soft reboot or not, the film retains the core gimmick of the franchise—grisly, merciless traps resulting in an obscene level of bloodshed. Spiral throws us into this Grand Guignol spectacle almost immediately, as Saw sequels are wont to do. A police officer chasing a mugger through the subway tunnels of a metropolitan U.S. city (I don’t know if they ever mention which one, but it definitely looks like Canada) suddenly finds himself strung up in an elaborate barbed-wire-and-tongue-in-vice trap. And we all know how this old chestnut ends.
Cut to the following day: Zeke Banks (Chris Rock), a veteran officer of the law who has a target on his back at the precinct for ratting on a crooked cop, is assigned a rookie partner (Max Minghella) and the case of the dead officer in the subway. Quickly, it becomes apparent that they are looking at a Jigsaw copycat.
For those not up to speed, the “Jigsaw killer” of this narrative universe was a name assigned to John Kramer (Tobin Bell) and his many proteges, who put their victims through heinous acts of self-sacrifice in order to teach them moral lessons. These lessons were also morally dubious (e.g., you are a smoker, so we are going to crush your lungs like water balloons). In any case, the basic concept is (a) person does bad thing, then (b) they are kidnapped and forced into an elaborate game of death centered around that bad thing.
This copycat murderer is targeting cops, seemingly as a means of purging the corruption from the city’s police department. If this reads as an ACAB political commentary, just remember that this is a “torture porn” film being made well over a decade after the fad went cold. This has a nuanced political message in the same way that Saw VI had something urgent and topical to say about the U.S. healthcare system. The violence of these films may cut (literally) to the bone, but the politics are only skin deep.
This makes the film’s conclusion something of a head-scratcher. The climax comes off ugly and feels unnecessarily bleak. It is far removed from the cartoonish finales such as Saw V‘s teamwork-makes-the-dream-work pint of blood gag or the full-on Rube Goldberg ice block bit at the end of Saw IV. With the potential for a trenchant social message at play, this ending does not come across very well. Yet, from a narrative perspective, it all comes together in a pat and mildly satisfying way.
The Saw films got caught in the trap (see what I did there?) of needing twist endings as elaborate as their gnarly set pieces. It made the narrative swings of successive sequels increasingly ludicrous, and it made the attempted return to the franchise in 2017, Jigsaw, come across as a lame-brained cash-in. The twist here is not so ludicrous, but it is telegraphed far too early and is revealed so abruptly that it almost feels as though the screenwriters (the same duo who wrote Jigsaw) knew you would figure it out long before the third act. If you know how these movies operate, it will become very obvious to you where this whole plot is going halfway through the second act.
That said, the story here is more compelling and coherent than most Saw sequels can say for themselves. It reads more like Se7en than Saw VII, slotting in comfortably into police procedural tropes which, if you can buy into the cliche atmosphere of it all, are pretty entertaining. More entertaining than the death-traps, anyway. And Rock and Minghella eat up this cliche-derived dialogue like a steak dinner. It is all very cheesy, and I fell for it.
The Saw franchise always swam around police procedural waters, but it was always far more indebted to the bloody bottom line. Here, things develop more slowly. The traps are featured more sparingly. This may be the only Saw movie to actually take the time to mourn the deaths of its victims, with multiple scenes of characters breaking down as they live through this trauma. Perhaps if you are coming into this looking for a reverse beartrap or a scalpel in the eye, this will read as a major disappointment. But I see it as a step up for the franchise. The gore gets boring when you keep throwing it in our faces for nine movies. The allure of a meaty crime narrative at least dresses Spiral up as something with more to offer. And sure, there are buckets of blood, too.
Spiral: From the Book of Saw: B-
As always, thanks for reading!