Spiral: From The Book Of Saw (Review)

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Darren Lynn Bousman
Starring: Chris Rock, Max Minghella, Marisol Nichols, Samuel L. Jackson 
Certificate: 18
Run Time: 93 mins

Spiral: From The Book Of Saw is the latest in the ongoing splatter horror franchise and the second of its recent attempts at a reinvigoration. The Saw series has been a mixed bag. James Wan’s original film is excellent and propelled him and budding screenwriter Leigh Whannell into the talents they are today. When Saw scored big at the box office and had been created on a shoestring budget, a franchise spawned. Sadly, none of the sequels were able to live up to the original. Saw II was dissatisfying in that it removed a lot of the mystery elements of the first film and its characters weren’t likeable. Saw III fared better but disgusted me in parts, although perhaps that means the film did its job? Saw IV, V and VI fared better although having a more episodic quality. Saw VI was perhaps the highpoint of the sequels in how it took aim at the health insurance industry and had a satirical edge to it, even if its execution was rather heavy-handed. The mainline series seemingly ended in 2010 with ‘The Final Chapter’, a laughable and unrealistic film that represented a series low point. However, no film in Hollywood can ever really be a final instalment, if there is the potential to extract more money.

In 2017, directors Michael and Peter Spierig relaunched the franchise with Jigsaw, which made an admirable attempt to shake the formula with a more refined production quality, feeling less episodic and omitting the hyper-speed editing of the torture sequences. The Spierig Brothers were an interesting choice, having directed Daybreakers and Predestination, both thoughtful and layered pieces of work. Whilst nowhere near the quality of the original, Jigsaw was an interesting instalment that somewhat reinvigorated the franchise. 

Spiral: From The Book Of Saw is another attempt at a reinvigoration and is easily the most interesting premise in that it is based on an idea from comedian Chris Rock, an unlikely talent you would associate with this franchise. Rock had been a devotee of the franchise and wanted to renovate his own career. This is not the first time a primarily comedic actor has tried their hand at rejuvenating a horror franchise. Halloween (2018) was pitched by David Gordon Green and comedian Danny McBride and the result made for an exciting and excellent addition to the then-tired franchise. 

Rock’s concept is an interesting one in that the film is more of a police procedural mystery thriller in the vein of David Fincher’s Se7en with torture traps thrown in for good measure. Rock plays Detective Ezekiel ‘Zeke’ Banks, an honest policeman who is at a career low point having grassed on a fellow corrupt cop and he is not well liked in the force. He is ridiculed by being partnered with a newbie, Detective William Schenk (Max Minghella), but the two form a strong budding relationship before long despite some initial animosity from Zeke. The police force start to get murdered in various Saw traps, many likening to a Jigsaw copycat. This copycat starts taunting Zeke by sending him tapes, messages and body parts neatly gift wrapped and the film follows his investigation in identifying and stopping the serial killer. 

Series veteran Darren Lynn Bousman is in the director’s chair. Bousman is a worrying choice, as his entries (II, III and VI) are not the series’ strongpoint and he failed to understand the components of what made James Wan’s original concept so refreshing. The prospect of Samuel L. Jackson, however, makes for a very exciting addition to the cast. Jackson plays Chris Rock’s father, Marcus Banks, the former Chief of Police.

Spiral: From The Book Of Saw has some fascinating ideas and the return of the franchise to its mystery thriller roots is a strong decision. The fact that it is a spin-off that disassociates itself from the mainline Saw series is also a plus, as the narrative is easier to follow and doesn’t rely on interweaving itself to other instalments. Although the shift in genre is a plus, it is a shame that Spiral gives into almost every cliche in the book. You have the hegemonic ingredients of a policeman who is divorced from his wife and children, the forced buddy cop dynamic, corrupt policeforce and a killer who is always a step ahead of his victims. Despite being cliche-ridden, that’s not to say the film isn’t entertaining and the film is never boring. 

Sticking with the positives, Chris Rock brings a great energy to the material and makes for a strong, world-weary lead, even if the script he is laden with is rather wooden. He is a far more commanding presence than other leads in the series and his wisecracks add another dimension to the film without cheapening the horror and gore. Max Minghella also makes for a likeable presence as Zeke’s partner and the two have a solid chemistry. Samuel L. Jackson essentially plays himself, which is no bad thing and injects more energy into the film, but it is a real shame that he is a limited presence in the film and that the film barely makes an effort to explore the strained relationship between father and son. 

The film is visually impressive and there is a much greater emphasis on art and set design compared to other instalments. Jordan Oram’s cinematography is skilful and the film has an interesting colour palette, particularly the opening sequence of a police chase with its neon hues.  

Unfortunately, in almost every other regard, Spiral disappointingly falls short. The film uneasily blends its crime thriller tone with its torture traps. The traps are for the most part unsatisfying in that they go against the series’ ethos. Jigsaw’s traps in the original films can be won by its contenders if they make a sacrifice but this is not really the case here. The traps seem inescapable. It is also disappointing to see the film revert back to the series staple of having hyper-speed edits within the traps, which provide them a music video like quality. That said, at least the traps have some sort of tie to the characters that are being tortured and their actions that they are being judged on.

The film would have benefitted from having a longer run time. Spiral runs for a little over 90 minutes. It would have greatly benefitted with more character building moments in the story that allow the film a chance to breathe and also more sequences of the investigation and pursuit of the killer. The film’s tone is ramped up throughout and it is crying out for some quieter moments.

The execution of the final twist of the film is poorly handled and makes for a sour taste. It is easy to guess who the killer is, due to same gaping plot holes in the narrative and what is and isn’t portrayed to viewers on-screen, which undoes the sense of intrigue the film is trying to conjure.

Spiral’s problems lie with director Darren Lynn Bousman. He is unable to set the correct tone and fails to understand the structure of this type of film. Why he was hired in the first place is baffling and the film really would have benefitted from a director that was hungry to put their stamp on the material, rather than someone who has already worked on the series. 

Spiral is a frustrating entry in the franchise but when you look past its cataclysmic flaws, I appreciated the effort Chris Rock has made and it is easy to see what this film could have been if it had been better directed. The combination of the change in tone and Chris Rock’s input to the franchise make this one of the best entries in the franchise (although the bar isn’t very high) and I would be very interested in seeing more of Rock’s character in a sequel as long as a more competent director is hired. If the film had succeeded in its objectives, Spiral could have been an ambitious and intelligent knock-out that would have injected new life into the series. A real shame that the result is middling.

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

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