The marketing for Lionsgate’s most latest offering in the venerable Saw franchise was a doozy. Favoring portent, police procedural vibes, and potentially better lensing, the trailers indicated a more mature evolution of the series that once dominated Halloween year after year at the box office. Such is the problem with marketing departments circa 2021, they’re so good at their jobs they can make any movie look like a hundred-million bucks. Spiral: From the Book of Saw, is a fairly by-the-book spinoff of James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s original creation. If you’ve seen any of the previous films, notably any of the increasingly tiresome sequels, you’ll recognize the aesthetics. Jigsaw may be dead, and his disciples long forgotten, but the story is the same. New villain, same old tricks.
Starring Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson as hardened police officers, you’d assume the film would feel less like a Saw installment and more like “elevated horror,” or at the very least a very different horror-comedy hybrid. Neither of these come to pass, with Rock portraying a veteran cop looking over his shoulder, a character not dissimilar from any number of weary detectives we’ve seen in the previous films. As his father and former police chief, Jackson gets to wax profanity aplenty as an ill-tempered wild card who once ran the department like a dictator. In fact, in spite of the film’s overall familiarity, what sets Spiral apart is an attempt to root the franchise’s punisher themes in police brutality, corruption, and unaccountability. Director Darren Lynn Bousman is mostly successful at doing so, as I kept wondering when the other shoe would drop vis a vis how many cops here are guilty and what are they guilty of exactly. The killer wears a pig mask and employs pig imagery to taunt the force which he haunts, hunting them, kidnapping them, and eventually forcing them to choose life or death according to whatever mechanized scheme or contraption he’s left them to die in. Jigsaw punished regular folk who had sinned in the manner of taking life for granted, whereas this strangely nameless foe (c’mon guys, every iconic on-screen killer needs a nickname) specifically targets the cops who have literally gotten away with murder in this nameless metropolis.
For the gore-hounds among us, Spiral delivers what you came for, even if I found it quite displeasing compared to what my seventeen year-old self would think and feel. Age comes for us all, and somehow even my transgressive mind doesn’t have a taste for the Saw brand of tastelessness anymore. The traps are certainly intriguing from an engineering standpoint, but watching a man’s tongue or fingers slowly severed from their body under fluorescent lighting is simply too ugly for my blood at thirty-three years of age. Maybe it’s the aforementioned aesthetics, what with Bousman providing continuity of style and tone (he directed three of those increasingly tiresome sequels) by utilizing grimy interiors, dated speed ramping, and hackneyed flashbacks like the CSI house style of filmmaking hasn’t gone out of style at all. Adding insult to injury, cop clichés are afoot like the Lethal Weapon house style never left, with characters shouting “you’re too close to this” oh so sincerely, not to mention the rigid chief barking orders and reprimand following a botched undercover op.
This is a hammy, sweaty, yellowish “horror” movie with extra quotes for lacking one iota of fear. Spiral is neither a movie that scares nor horrifies, even if the gore is slightly stomach-churning or the overall film slightly more entertaining than most. Much of the latter is due to Rock’s surprisingly inviting performance. He’s essentially riffing on himself if he were a crotchety misogynist with a divorce-sized chip on his shoulder, but it works. He opens with a Forrest Gump stand-up routine and then shifts into funny, professional, pissed-off black motherfucker on the force looking for dirty cops to bring down. He’s stuck with a rookie (an endearing Max Minghella) who’s still a little dough-eyed about the dirty world they live in, and before you know it they sound a bit like boyish Hawke and surly Denzel on the streets of east L.A. in Training Day. As much as the police procedural and political posturing works, this is nevertheless a somewhat poorly directed relic of the past. The myth and marketing set us up for a wild hog departure, and instead we were handed another bland plate of Saw with some woke seasoning on top.