Lionsgate, I want to play a game; the rules are simple. Inside any given movie theater is Spiral: From the Book of Saw, the ninth installment in the franchise and the second attempt at a Saw spin-off (Jigsaw, 2017). Trick audiences into thinking it will be good, and continue your puppet-bicycle horror franchise. Fail and lose nothing, because these films require a minimal budget to create in the first place. The choice is yours.
The “Saw-verse” (everything is a universe nowadays) is a strange beast that defies the modern horror franchise formula. Our main antagonist dies in the third installment and pretty much every appearance you see of John Kramer (Tobin Bell) is a flashback. The movies are meant to be watched in order. They build off each other and are not nearly as compelling as solo outings. The main characters get ripped apart and replaced; there is no emotional attachment, only physical detachment… over and over again. So why do people show up to see these films?
The oddity is the appeal. I can’t name another nine films with a strict continuity outside of Star Wars (not sure “strict continuity” even applies here) or modern day Marvel. Where the Saw films lack in “main characters” they thrive in philosophy. Jigsaw’s teachings are the real killer. His gruesome methods garner a following and that collective is the hivemind that propels every outing forward. Although the Jigsaw Killer is physically dead he can never really die as long as he keeps inspiring others. That sounds cool, which would make you think that Spiral, a movie bolstered to be about a Jigsaw copycat, would theoretically be cool. We’ve kind of seen this “new Jigsaw” premise play out a few times now. So this couldn’t be a total misstep right?
Spiral: From the Book of Saw follows Zeke Banks (Chris Rock), a wise-cracking detective who works in the shadow of his father Marcus Banks (Samuel L. Jackson), a retired police officer who left an impressive legacy in their precinct. With the help of his new and not suspicious rookie partner Detective William Schenk (Max Minghella), Zeke finds himself trapped in a deadly game seemingly controlled by a new ‘Jigsaw’ targeting cops.
The beloved Billy puppet from previous Saw films is replaced with a Punch and Judy piglet marionette. The iconic Jigsaw voice is swapped out for a tired, secretarial Siri-sounding audio that is only a few small steps away from a muffled Pat from Disney Channel’s Smart House. Nothing about this film is better, different, or more compelling than a prior Saw movie. If anything, it’s worse. The script tries to be modern and has humorous parts but it’s not as funny as it was intended to be. It’s mostly ironically funny, which I’m positive was not the goal.
The traps feel very craft glue and popsicle stick, like they all came from a serial killer starter kit that is currently marked down in stores and on clearance. The sinister games lacked the creativity and over-the-top-ness we’d anticipate from a film this far into the franchise. The weirdest part of all, the creative team behind Spiral introduced us to every victim as a mutilated body after the trap had killed them. Then, we’d see a montage flashback of their demise, struggling to win the game which they clearly failed.
This stylistic choice made me care less, lowering the emotional stakes of each victim’s survival. It kind of felt like a cooking show where they show you the finished dish and then you see a quick walk-through about how they made chicken chili con carne. You have to hope these people can beat the game. When you rob audiences of that hope, it hurts the scare factor and the story dies in favor of gore.
The big dramatic reveal of Zeke simply rounding a corner to see his partner William Schenk standing there being like “yep, I’m the killer,” didn’t hit as it should have. Earlier in the film, you see a skinned body hanging upside down which we’re supposed to believe is William. But unlike every other victim, we do not see William struggle through this trap. Each game participant had a tape left with their body entailing the rules of their game, which the detectives usually play back for the viewers at home. The film casually skips over William’s only. That was the dead giveaway he was our murderer. His motive was that his dad was a witness who died of corrupt cops? Seems like a lot of effort, William – have you tried Talkspace instead? Use code: PIGGYPUPPET for 10% off your first three sessions.
The final showdown had Zeke’s dad, Marcus, strung up in a trap and honestly, I’m still scratching my head over this one. William is pleading with Zeke to join him in taking down corrupt cops and Samuel L. Jackson is begging Zeke to shoot William. Law enforcement arrives on-site and time is running out. Zeke tries to save his father but the gate to enter the room was rigged with a wire, so as the SWAT team enters Marcus dies anyways? How does William expect to get away with this? Does he even want to? And since Willaim rigged the game, he defies Jigsaw’s rules and he’s now essentially a dead man walking? Is that the takeaway?
In a post-George Floyd world, I don’t feel that Spiral leans all the way in to explain the systemic issues ingrained within law enforcement but it certainly takes a stance. In the final moments of the story the SWAT team kills an innocent Black man in front of his son; an unacceptable recurring act of violence in America. To me, this was the scariest portion of the film as it resembled the worst parts of real life. If this movie been written after the tragic passing of Floyd I think it’s safe to assume that audiences would have witnessed an even bolder script.
The Franchise is the Game
Claiming that the spiral was John Kramer’s “symbol of change” does not really successfully bridge this film to the others. Spiral could have been set in any universe; its Saw connection was only prominent enough for it to put on promotional material. Sell those tickets, Lionsgate.
After the intelligence that went into the first eight films, it feels unsavory to assume that this was a cash grab, but it felt that way. At the end of the day, revenue outweighs the story which is why a Spiral TV series is already in the works. As well as Saw X which will be headed to theaters within two or three years. I always thought the creatives in charge would tell a “Son of Saw” story about John Kramer’s son Gideon who actually survived after all. Although it would partially undo the emotional core from the prior films, it would at least give us a direct continuation of the Kramer bloodline. Unlike this film, which gave us a song by 21 Savage and not much else.
It’s understandable that Spiral was an attempt at something different and something different it was. Spiral will be remembered as a unique gear in the larger cinematic death trap that are the Saw movies. It hurts to admit, even though I didn’t love this movie – I’d go see a sequel because the Saw property as a whole means that much to me. And that, my friends, is the real death trap. No metal, broken glass, or torture devices. Just the die-hard consumerism that so many cling to. Place a proverbial hand saw in front of me and tell me to cut off my attachment. I won’t until the franchise is completely done. Just like so many other movie-goes, I’ll never learn. Game over.
Do you think there should be a sequel to Spiral? Let us know in a comment below.
Spiral: From the Book of Saw is in theaters now