Sixteen years ago, James Wan and Leigh Whannell released Saw into the world, with a reserved tale of a photographer named Adam (played by Whannell) and oncologist Dr. Lawrence Gordon (played by Cary Elwes) trying to make their way out of a filthy bathroom. In the years since, there have been eight films (not including Spiral), a total franchise box office of more than a billion dollars with a combined budget of $72 million, two video games, a comic book, and several theme park attractions.
A lot has changed in the horror film genre since the original Saw was released. When Jigsaw was released, films like The Conjuring, Insidious (which features Wan-Whannell reunion), The Purge, The Gift, The Visit, and many more changed the way audiences looked at horror films. Gone was the “shock and awe” factor that Saw relied so heavily upon. Now, audiences had the options of sub-genres like psychological horror, paranormal horror, and a new advent of comedy and monster horror. So, when provided that choice of old horror vs. new, audiences didn’t respond, and the Saw franchise went dormant. Well, it was dormant. Then, Chris Rock entered the picture with a pitch for a Saw film that introduced comedy and social commentary into the franchise.
So, seven years later, does Chris Rock inject new life into a franchise that already tried a revival seven years earlier? Surprisingly, yes. However, these changes cause huge compromises that franchise fans might not be able to overlook.
The most significant change is that I don’t believe I can call Spiral: From the Book of Saw an entry in the Saw franchise. To me, the trademarks of a Saw film are the following: the plot revolves around a Jigsaw game being played that has a hidden message for the players of the game, a team of police officers trying to find said players before the game is over, flashbacks to events that happened well before the game ever took place, the game progressively getting more gruesome, and a number of twists that would make M. Night Shyamalan blush.
None of these trademarks are within the film, save for the team of police officers and the flashbacks. The thought that keeps circling my mind almost a week after seeing it is that the film feels like “Law & Order: Saw Edition.” So much of Spiral’s identity is found in Detective Zeke’s (played by Chris Rock) investigation into the Jigsaw copycat to the point that it feels very much like a cop procedural rather than a horror film. What director Darren Lynn Bousman provides us with instead of traps is quite literally Zeke either driving to a crime scene or waiting around for a crime scene to pop up. Out of the less than six traps (if I recall right) within the film, I think that we only got to see the setup for the entirety of two or three traps, one of which is teased and shown later in the film. I understand the need for Spiral to stand apart from other Saw films, but I don’t think this was the right way to go about it, especially when the investigative scenes feel irrelevant to the larger narrative of the plot.
Thankfully, Chris Rock carries this movie enough to where I wasn’t upset. Chris Rock injects some much-needed humor into the franchise with diatribes like why there wasn’t a Forrest Gump sequel or why his new partner, Detective William Schenk (played by Max Minghella), should cherish the moments he has as a rookie. The only problem I have with Rock’s performance is that his attempt at portraying a grizzled detective while also cracking jokes doesn’t mesh well for a horror film. Sometimes, I was taken aback at how often the film relied on Rock to deliver a cool one-liner before moving onto the next scene.
Additionally, Jordan Oram’s cinematography evokes what I would call “classic Saw.” The film is color graded in harsh yellows, greens, blues, and the editing makes effective use of the speed ramping and odd angles to communicate characters at a disadvantage.
As for the writing, it’s about as bad as it gets. The entire plot hinges on a reveal and the rest of the plot clearly didn’t matter to screenwriters Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger. Character motives are unclear throughout the entirety of the film, the traps don’t make any narrative sense, and the misdirects laced throughout could only fool a newcomer to the franchise.
Spiral: From the Book of Saw is like the weird stepchild of the Saw franchise. It tries to get you to like it with its new ideas, but in the process never feels like more than a Law & Order spin-off in the Saw franchise. Even then, what it tries to do with that formula, it miserably fails at.
Spiral: From the Book of Saw is now playing in theaters nationwide.
Until next time!