After the hugely disappointing Jigsaw in 2017, it’s safe to say I once again felt apprehensive about another instalment in the long-running Saw franchise which has spanned several films and even video games.
Throughout the years this visceral, often far fetched series has been met with mixed responses from critics and fans alike, with many debating their overall rankings (mine’s here, if you care about that sort of thing). But with Spiral, we were offered something entirely new and instead of a direct sequel, we were given a spin-off which doesn’t feature any of the original characters from the franchise.
In fact, Spiral went against the grain so much that it was even released in the Spring, instead of the Autumn (remember the tagline “If it’s Halloween, it must be Saw”?). Even in its promotional materials it did a fair amount to distance itself from its predecessors, with marketing that felt more like a crime thriller than a gory horror film. With this in mind, it was probably wise to go into this not immediately trying to compare it to the other films.
Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, Spiral follows Detective Zeke Banks (Chris Rock) as he discovers there’s been murders that look eerily similar to the modus operandi of The Jigsaw Killer, the now deceased John Kramer whose death we saw at the hands of Jeff Denlon in Saw III. After discovering the remains of a police officer in the subway, and receiving mysterious packages from the killer, it becomes clear this individual has a vendetta. This forces Banks and his rookie partner Detective William Schenk (Max Minghella) to investigate a string of grisly murders across the city.
There’s also the introduction of Samuel L Jackson to the franchise, an actor I never thought I’d see in a Saw film, but stranger things have happened! He’s not on-screen much, which may disappoint some, but the father-son dynamic between him and Chris Rock is definitely interesting to observe.
While not as gruesome as some of its predecessors, Spiral does have some interesting traps which fit the ironic punishments that fans of the franchise have grown to love. There’s some diversion from the norm, particularly the absence of that iconic Jigsaw voice (Tobin Bell, we love you) and Billy the Puppet. Normally this omission would have annoyed me, but the shoddiness of the new voice and pig puppet seems to fit the bill, as we’re not dealing with Jigsaw. We’re dealing with someone who’s copying him instead. The amateur nature of these tape recordings seems to work on this occasion.
There are minor gripes when it comes Spiral, one of which is the way they cut away from traps once the game has begun. I much prefer it when we stay with the characters whilst they’re going through this horrific torture, because it keeps me on the edge of my seat while I’m waiting to see if they can make it alive. Prolonged scenes away from the game seems to lessen the tension. In addition to this, there was an iconic trap that wasn’t properly utilised which felt like a bit of a let down (when you see it – you’ll know what I mean!).
Some of the humour didn’t quite work either, though there were some moments where I did find myself laughing out loud. The integration of jokes seems to be Chris Rock forcing a part of himself into the franchise that really didn’t need to be there, as it hasn’t been necessary before. But criticism of his humour aside, I did enjoy how obnoxious his character was as sometimes it’s necessary to have an unlikeable protagonist, especially in a series like Saw.
The film is full of unlikeable characters, something fans are oh-so familiar with at this point. As an audience we’re often convinced these people belong in horrific traps, as Jigsaw would give his reasons in the dreaded tape recording. As much as I liked the traps themselves, I did enjoy the twisted reasoning behind them too, which creates a moral dilemma for the audience.
Much like Saw VI (the best sequel – don’t @ me), Spiral also offers up some social commentary. While the sixth instalment of the original franchise tackled the American healthcare system, this one takes aim at corrupt police officers. To say any more than that would be a huge spoiler, but I think it did the job well. It also feels particularly relevant given recent events, and hopefully it can open up conversations even for those who didn’t like the rest of the film.
There’s absolutely no way Spiral could ever compete with the original Saw film, which burst onto the scene with its strange marketing and left audiences reeling with that twist ending. But if you’re able to treat the newest film as a standalone piece, something that pays tribute to the franchise rather than attempting to carry it on, then you might have a good time with it like I did. If nothing else, it was a good film to mark my triumphant return to the cinema after over a year of watching films at home. God I’ve missed this.