Spiral review: The games aren’t over for Saw fans
Chris Rock provides a shot of adrenaline for the franchise in Spiral: From the Book of Saw.
One of the first films to venture bravely into reopened cinemas, Spiral: From the Book of Saw sees Chris Rock entering the twisted games of this long-running horror franchise (albeit with more of a thriller-like tone this time around).
The comedian and actor is a long-time fan of the Saw series, and the script for Spiral is based on a story that Rock created himself. This is something of a passion project then, and you can feel that love for the material slicing through every scene. Although there is a new mystery to unravel (a new killer, a new MO, and even a new puppet), there are plenty of knowing nods to entertain the Saw faithful.
And it's not just Rock who adds a piece of A-list credibility to Spiral, with Samuel L Jackson - literally the planet's biggest movie star, when you add the box office stats of all his movies together - joining the cast as Rock's character's dad. And so, onlookers might be wondering, is Spiral the film that will catapult the Saw franchise to an even greater level of success and mainstream appeal? It certainly seems like a possibility, but that's not to say that this is a perfect film.
On the positive side of things, Spiral strikes a tone that draws to mind such iconic serial killer films as Se7en and Zodiac. With a pacy script from Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger (the same scribes that penned 2017's last franchise soft reboot Jigsaw) and tight direction from Darren Lynn Bousman (returning helmsman of Saw 2, Saw 3 and Saw 4), the film does a good job of setting up a new sinister threat and making the danger seem tangible and real. Despite the franchise's Jigsaw killer being long-dead, bodies are piling up again, and this really does feel like it could be the start of a new chapter.
The cast is strong, too. Rock shines as Detective Zeke Banks, one of the few honest cops in a city of dirty lawmen (fans of Line of Duty may well enjoy trying to spot the bent coppers here.) Although Rock starts out on a familiar footing (he's practically doing a standup routine in one early scene), he shows impressive range later on as he rages against the machine and struggles to crack the case.
Jackson's role is a smaller one than you might expect but he also does well, bringing that easy charisma to the fore as well as showing some other sides to his character. And the supporting cast provides a handful of other likeable characters, with Marisol Nichols' police captain and Max Minghella's newbie on the force rounding out the police station dynamics nicely. Saw films are rarely remembered for their characters, but admirable attempts are made here to make the people on screen interesting and believable.
On the less loveable side of things, there are a few ways in which Spiral might disappoint you, depending on your preexisting relationship with this series. Spiral takes a page from the eponymous 'Book of Saw', but it doesn't follow the franchise formula to the letter. And what's interesting is that this could split opinion down the middle - returning fans might not be fully satisfied, but newcomers may feel differently.
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For example: although the film is packed with Saw-like traps, there aren't any particularly standout horror sequences in Spiral. Scary things happen, but grossing out the viewer with closeups on horrific violence no longer appears to be the central going concern. Long-term fans may not find their bloodlust satisfied, and they may also find the trap designs a little lacking compared to some of the classics. But on the flip side of that, broader audiences may find Spiral more palatable than its 'torture porn' forebears.
And on a similar note, newcomers to this franchise may enjoy the ways in which the story plays out in its final third, but seasoned Saw-bingers will likely see the inevitable twist coming from a mile off. The ending could come across as a little anticlimactic to some, but the journey of getting there is quite fun.
However, since this is the second film to try and set up a new threat in the Saw universe (the other being the aforementioned Jigsaw movie from 2017), returning fans may feel like they're retreading some very familiar ground. If there do turn out to be Spiral sequels, at least they won't have to go down the well-trodden path of setting up a new killer again.
This feels like a jumping-on point for new fans, in some ways, as opposed to a satisfying sequel for franchise veterans who've been watching Saw films since the original in 2004. But that isn't necessarily a bad thing. After all, the core fans have already had plenty of films that catered solely to them.
It's worth mentioning too that Rock is like a shot of adrenaline in the arm of this franchise - he can dish out humour and terror in equal measure, and his central script idea is one that positions this franchise in a very timely way. It's not a spoiler to say that police corruption is a recurring theme in the movie, which feels like quite a mature topic for a Saw flick to cover. And even though you might see the twist coming, the culmination of this theme - how it pays off - is one of the bravest decisions in the Saw franchise to date.
Although the presence of Tobin Bell is missed - the actor behind The Jigsaw Killer does not appear in Spiral, although his legacy is front and centre - Spiral does a solid job of giving you new things to care about. The villain in Spiral doesn't really get enough time on screen to make that big of an impact, but it's good to see the franchise trying new things.
With a new villain established and a grownup theme explored, by the time the credits roll on Spiral - with a very unique track playing over the closing credits - you may well feel like you'd want to return to this world for more. Hopefully, if a sequel is forthcoming, it can up the horror ante somewhat whilst continuing to cover fresh topics. Spiral is a strong start and the games, hopefully, are not over.
Spiral: From the Book of Saw is in UK cinemas from Monday 17th May. If you've already watched the film, you can read our Spiral ending explainer.
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