I had to have been about 12 years old when I walked the halls of the now-shuttered Cinemagic Hooksett Theater (R.I.P.), and came across a poster of “Saw IV,” which featured Tobin Bell’s disembodied head on a bucket scale. I’d never seen a poster in a bright display case that featured such a brutal image before. The blatant grotesqueness piqued my curiosity, naturally. A year or so later, I came into possession of the DVD for “Saw IV” — which I promptly hid out of fear of my folks finding it — and was oddly transfixed by the relentless presentation of flayed flesh and pulpy melodrama.
And from there, “Saw” became a formative stepping stone on my path to exploring more extreme horror; I had to see the rest. 13 years later, and here I am squirming in my seat, as a man (Dan Petronijevic) is faced with a harrowing decision to save his life at the expense of his tongue. “Spiral: From the Book of Saw” may not reinvent the wheel, but for the first time since Kevin Greutert’s aggressively awesome “Saw VI,” this franchise is back on the right track.
How do you revitalize an ultra gory soap opera that seemed to have exhausted its formula by “Saw 3D”? Even “Jigsaw,” despite leaning into the convoluted timeline gymnastics that “Saw” excels at, had left the series in kind of an awkward place. The 2004 bottle thriller that put James Wan (“The Conjuring”) and Leigh Whannell (“The Invisible Man”) on the map had become this yearly Halloween box-office phenomenon that needed a rest. I never could have imagined the latest “Saw” resuscitation would be initiated by Chris Rock.
Hand-in-hand with director Darren Lynn Bousman, Rock reestablishes this limb-ripping franchise as a brutal detective thriller that, for better or worse, wears its “Se7en” influences on its sleeve. The comparisons are unavoidable. Here Rock plays Zeke Banks, a to-the-point detective whose personal wariness of his own department stems from an incident that makes him an unpopular figure in the precinct. Banks finds himself roped into a disturbing game when he’s called to a grisly crime scene that resembles the motif of the infamous, deceased Jigsaw killer. Neatly wrapped packages are addressed directly to him as more officers go missing. A mysterious new game has begun, and Banks is stuck in the middle of it, further spiraling his own mistrust of the people around him.
Rock isn’t exactly new to wading in darker waters, but here he infuses “Spiral” with something the “Saw” movies aren’t intentionally known for: a sense of humor. His brand of observational comedy is prevalent throughout, namely his first impression, in which Banks goes on about how messed up “Forrest Gump” is. From there, the humor flows naturally as Rock settles into the role.
Getting cast as a supporting player in a “Saw” movie has to be exciting, given that these roles become as immortalized as the traps themselves. Costas Mandylor had one scene in “Saw III” and went on to become the series’s main antagonist for four films (“Saw IV” through “Saw 3D”). It’s incredible, honestly. In “Spiral,” we’re introduced to a solid new roster of talent.
Marisol Nichols (“Riverdale”) makes an impression as the headstrong Capt. Angie Garza. Max Minghella (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) as William Schenk, Banks’s rookie partner, is also a notable standout. His humble chemistry with Rock makes for a viable detective duo you want to follow along with in this investigation. I never would have thought that the great Samuel L. Jackson, playing Zeke’s father, would find himself in a “Saw” movie, but he looks like he’s having fun. Most people would be content with Jackson spouting at least one “motherfucker,” but it appears Bousman ordered the man’s buzzword in bulk, about which I have zero complaints.
Editor Dev Singh (“Backcountry”) also manages to capture the frenetic, fast-forward cutting that gave “Saw” its heart-pounding intensity. When I think of “Saw,” I imagine each film as something found in a wet, corrosive alley, and I mean that as a compliment. The “Saw” franchise is designed to make you feel gross, after all. To make things sweeter, cinematographer Jordan Oram (“Cinema of Sleep”) does great work here paying respect to the hyper-saturated color palette David A. Armstrong (“Saw I” through “Saw VI”) made famous, while also giving this entry a confident, crisper look. And that’s to say nothing of composer Charlie Clouser, the man who fundamentally provides the iconic sound of “Saw” through the high-tension composition known as “Hello Zepp.” If it seems like I know entirely too much about this series, it’s because I’m a proud weirdo.
When you join the “Saw” team, it’s like being inducted into a new family. David Hackl, production designer for “Saw II” through “Saw IV,” found himself promoted to the director’s seat with “Saw V.” Greutert, editor for “Saw I” through “Saw V” and “Jigsaw” took over directing duties for both “Saw VI” and “Saw 3D.” With “Spiral,” Bousman, director of “Saw II” through “Saw IV,” returns to the director’s chair to reignite his “Saw” legacy with outstanding results. When you put Bousman in the mix of familiar elements, “Spiral” ultimately brings “Saw” back to its grimy roots.
If you’re coming to “Spiral” for the latest batch of intricate Rube Goldberg-inspired contraptions, then you’re in for a ride. The traps rarely overtake the urgency of the story, and rank with some of the gnarliest of the series. For as much as I admire the lunacy of the laser confession in “Jigsaw,” it feels refreshing to go back to the mechanical devices that pack an extra brutal punch. I lost track of how many times “Spiral” made me squirm in my seat. Without giving away too much, one trap involving a boiling liquid made me clench something fierce.
As forthright as “Spiral” is with its critical eye toward casual police brutality, timely social commentary is nothing new to this series (the pointed knife aimed directly at the predatory insurance industry in “Saw VI” would like a word). I don’t think there’s one cop that John Kramer actually liked. I believe what makes “Spiral” feel like it’s taking the series in a new direction is timing.
Aggressive police violence isn’t a fresh concept by any means, but the fervor with which they’ve been more open and proud about their assaults and callous murders toward their dissenters over the past few years makes “Spiral” feel like a morality tale suited for the moment, even if it doesn’t push as hard as it ultimately could.
The absence of Tobin Bell’s psychopathic gamemaster is simultaneously an advantage and a detriment to “Spiral.” In starting from a relatively fresh point, this movie welcomes newcomers who have a vague understanding of the “Saw” mythos. Seeing the previous eight entries beforehand isn’t necessary to enjoy this one. However, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a Tobin Bell-shaped hole that can be difficult to fill. The new distorted tape voice takes some getting used to. If “Spiral” is any indication of the direction in which “Saw” could go next, however, I’m more than willing to play another game with this team.
Matt graduated from Keene State College in 2017 with a Bachelor’s in Critical Film Studies. A few of his favorite films include “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Army of Darkness,” “Before Sunrise” and “Certain Women.” Having already contributed to Bloody Disgusting, ELF Magazine and The Simple Cinephile, Matt aspires to expand and continue writing with various outlets. If there’s any chance to talk about horror films and/or Twin Peaks, he’ll very much jump at the opportunity.