REVIEW – ‘Spiral: From the Book of Saw’ tells the same old story we’ve essentially seen eight times before

It wasn’t all that long ago a brand-new Saw film appeared in cinemas every Halloween for seven consecutive years. In a move few saw coming, it quickly became one of the most strangely enduring horror franchises in history. And one of the most profitable. With a combined budget of just $77 million, the eight films of the Saw saga (you’ve probably forgotten 2017’s tepid soft reboot Jigsaw) have collectively earned a staggering $976 million at the worldwide box office. You can see why Lionsgate refuses to let this franchise die.

Despite all its unexpected success, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who ever expected to see the day when Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson would be headlining the latest Saw movie. Alas, here we are with Spiral: From the Book of Saw, the ninth instalment in the franchise that’s not quite a sequel or a reboot, yet still serves up more of the same trademarks elements that will surely delight fans who’ve stuck with this series for more than 15 years now.

Dripping with blood, swelling with gore, and loaded with all manner of disgustingly twisted methods of torturous death, Spiral (let’s just call it that going forward) is a muddled film that can’t quite decide if it wants to completely reinvent this franchise or just play to the same old formula. Director Darren Lynn Bousman seemingly attempts to do both at the same time and achieves very little in the process. Is it ridiculous enough to be called a guilty pleasure? Perhaps, but Bousman wants you to take this film so damn seriously, and therein lies the problem.

After Detective Marv Boswick (Dan Petronijevic) is lured to his death by way of an excruciatingly painful trap, it appears there’s a Jigsaw copycat killer on the loose with their sights firmly set on targeting corrupt members of the police force. Despite the protestations of Captain Angie Garza (Marisol Nichols), Detective Ezekiel “Zeke” Banks (Rock), the son of former police chief Marcus Banks (Jackson), takes on the case with his new partner and “detective in training” William Schenk (Max Minghella).

A lone wolf who has little interest in taking on a new recruit, Zeke is a shunned outcast at the precinct after testifying against his crooked former partner and being labelled a rat by his fellow detectives. As more cops fall into sinister traps that lead to certain doom, Zeke finds himself drawn into the killer’s maniacal game and the only way to solve the puzzle involves reaching out to his semi-estranged father.

Born from an initial idea from Rock and fleshed into a simplistic screenplay by Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger, Spiral follows the same tired pattern of its predecessors. A hapless victim is kidnapped by someone in a pig mask. They awaken strapped into an elaborate contraption that will cause mortal damage in mere moments. A tape recording or video message plays informing them of an unfathomable choice they must make to avoid certain death. They fail, of course. Blood and guts explode all over the screen. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

You can’t begrudge the Saw franchise for knowing precisely what its fans want and giddily serving it up to them. As the years have progressed, the deadly traps have evolved into more outrageous modes of death with each film that bordered on absolute absurdity. Thankfully, the traps of Spiral are somewhat more grounded in reality and feel like contraptions one could throw together without thousands of dollars and a masters degree in mechanical engineering. But if you loved the previous chapters that featured a good dozen deaths, you may be disappointed with the relatively low body count here.

Where Spiral attempts to deviate itself from the other Saw entries is in the casting of bigger name actors Rock and Jackson. Both inject plenty of their usual foul-mouthed levity into this film as bickering father and son and Rock certainly makes for the most charismatic lead since Carey Elwes in the original film. Rock enters the film with a pitch-perfect deconstruction of Forrest Gump (which I’m tempted to assume he wrote himself) and when he’s in comedy mode, his performance shines. But Bousman consistently throws dramatic beats at Rock that fall completely flat and the actor almost feels uncomfortable when he’s required to play it straight.

For a franchise known for its outlandish premises, Spiral tries so achingly hard to have something important to say by virtue of this particular killer exclusively targeting a precinct of corrupt police. It’s an admirable deviation away from the usual swarm of criminals and degenerates that fell into Jigsaw’s sadistic games, but Stolberg and Goldfinger’s screenplay really has no idea what message its bumblingly attempting to convey. The script reaches for vague narrative threads on the systemic plague of police corruption and how the system protects its own and shuns those who dare speak out, but without the finesse to tackle such a heady topic.

The killer is obviously chasing satisfaction in watching these bent cops receive their brutal comeuppance, but wouldn’t exposing their crimes for the world to see have been a smarter and more gratifying option? And something that could actually bring about necessary change in the system rather than just eliciting splashy headlines about a Jigsaw copycat killer? You may be thinking this film critic is thinking far too deeply about a gory Saw movie, but Spiral wants its audience to take this film as seriously as it takes itself and that’s where it all falls apart.

There are the occasional moments of brilliance in Spiral that make this ninth chapter entirely pleasurable. There’s a brighter, more vibrant colour palette than the previous instalments and the flashy cinematography of Jordan Oram injects a gritty undertone to the visual aesthetic. The death scenes are expectedly vicious and violent with impeccable make-up and special effects work. And, while the shock twists of the climax can be seen coming from a mile away, the finale is rather thrilling to behold.

But the battle between blazing its own trail while still following the formula of the past leaves Spiral feeling like a copycat itself rather than its own inspiring beast. If you simplified the storyline to something without the need for Jigsaw references to the past that ultimately serve very little purpose, Spiral could have been an ingenious crime thriller that stood on its own two feet. Instead, it relies too heavily on franchise connections to tell the same old story we’ve essentially seen eight times before.

Distributor: Lionsgate/StudioCanal
Cast: Chris Rock, Max Minghella, Marisol Nichols, Zoie Palmer, Genelle Williams, Dan Petronijevic, Samuel L. Jackson
Director: Darren Lynn Bousman
Producers: Oren Koules, Mark Burg
Screenplay: Josh Stolberg, Peter Goldfinger
Cinematography: Jordan Oram
Production Design: Anthony Cowley
Costume Design: Laura Montgomery
Editor: Dev Singh
Music: Charlie Clouser

Running Time: 93 minutes
Release Date: 13th May 2021 (Australia), 14th May (U.S.)