A true horror legacy is the one that stubbornly refuses to roll over onto it’s back and expire no matter how how many years go by and as the Saw franchise is technically about forcing people into having a new outlook on life via better living though self mutilation, I guess it’s totally fitting that the movies themselves renovate themselves accordingly.
This brings us to Spiral, the latest attempt to give John Kramer’s work a new facelift in order to keep it relevant since 2017’s Jigsaw, but this time there’s a switch because the driving force behind this comeback is none other than Chris Rock.
That’s right, Mr. “Yeah, I said it!” himself has become a driving force behind a long running scare saga much like Danny McBride was for the recent Halloween resurgence, but is this apparent ground up rethink just a usual, deceptive, Jigsaw style fient, or has the saga managed to break some actual new ground?
Detective Zeke Banks doesn’t lead a particularly charmed life as a lawman in his lawless precinct; after all, putting away a fellow cop on a murder charge isn’t going to win you many friends for life, but on top of that he also is living in the monolith-sized shadow of his now retired father who used to be the captain of this beleaguered district.
Still, after catching a bullet as a beat cop because nobody wanted to be your back up is as bad as it gets, right? Well… not so fast.
After a colleague is found in a subway tunnel in a highly disassembled form, it soon comes to light that his death was highly accelerated by the fact that he was put in a scenario where he either gets turned into cop-yogurt by a speeding train or he rips his own tongue out to save himself – sound familiar?
It sure does to Zeke, who with rookie partner William Schenk realises that he’s dealing with a Jigsaw copycat who this time is targeting crooked cops by putting them in unfeasibly brutal conditions in order to extract both a metaphorical and literal pound of flesh for their mysterious agenda.
As every shifty brother in blue around him start to wind up in a body bag, Zeke strains to crack the case even as this highly motivated Jigsaw wannabe seems to be playing him like a harp from hell and eventually the road he’s being led down ends up at the feet of his father. But is his dad a prospective victim, the killer himself or even a red herring; and if he’s the third option, why is this madman so obsessed with Zeke and his checkered history with his hateful work mates?
Whatever the case, matters will no doubt be resolved with a strong working knowledge of industrial torture devices, enough blood to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool and a twist that’ll fry the brain of the poor sap who’s on the receiving end.
So does this new angle for an established series manage to mine new ground and manage to rebirth the franchise like a phoenix made of tetanus and razor wire? Well, sort of…
Firstly, the shift into cop drama is actually a pretty smart move for this particular series and the film actually turns out to be painfully topical considering the cast features a black lead and is essentially all about someone’s outrage at police corruption going unchecked. It’s rare that a Saw movie is actually about something and this shift into more social matters actually manages to give this world of torn limbs and convoluted plot lines a sense of dimension that the sequels mostly failed to generate. It’s also oddly warms the old soul to be back here again, even after the tepid 2017 attempt to jump start the franchise and the traps for the most part carry the same wince inducing weight that the most notable entries of this titan of torture porn is famous for. An opening sadistic session that concerns a poor bastard having his tongue excruciatingly locked in a clamp is a fucking doozy and a later trap that’s a knuckle ripping play on Chinese finger cuffs also doubles down on making you squirm, but while Spiral manages to give you the kind of carnage we’ve come to know and love, some of the other aspects of the film regurgitates the worst of the movies too.
Returning to Saw after directing parts 2 to 4 is Darren Lynn Bousman, and while he gives the thing a slightly more refined look to go with the altered perspective, there’s a few things that cuts this new look off at the knees. The first thing is I’d not only figured out who the killer was a third of the way in, but I’d pretty much worked out how and why they’d done it too; something that isn’t exactly advisable for a movie that’s supposed to be a mysterious puzzle box. Another is Spiral has inherited Saw’s need for flashbacks but chooses to utilise some chucklesome wigs and distractingly fake facial hair to denote the passing of time. Sticking a “younger” Rock in a fuzzy goatee and a backward cap is bad enough but slapping a big-ass moustache on Samuel L. Jackson just makes him looks exactly like he did in Coach Carter.
What’s that? That’s right, Samuel L. Jackson is in a Saw movie and he fares pretty well, in fact he does far better than Chris Rock who gives an odd, shouty performance that’s alternatively scattered with smell the fart acting mixed with genuinely funny one liners. It’s strange considering how good he is in Fargo’s 4th season but he isn’t helped by the script that saddles him with some painfully on the nose cop dialogue which leads to Zeke’s precinct possibly being one of the most toxic cinematic workplaces I’ve seen in years. Either their H.R. department is one of the most overworked places in the northern United States or they simply just don’t have one. Everyone sprays venomous F-bombs in more directions than the traps spray blood and for the most part it feels cartoonishly forced and awkwardly fake and it drags the movie down from it’s suprisingly lofty intentions.
So, is this a rebirth or not? I’m gonna go with a tentative yes as it’s clumsy script and predictable twist is defused by a plot that tackles taking violent lawman to task the only way an unsubtle horror flick can and when the familiar sounds of Charlie Clauser’s theme kicks in in the blood soaked denouement you can’t help but feel some of the old magic trickle through as the killer’s final plan plays right into the shoot first ask questions later mentality we’ve seen on the news this past year.
Alternately flawed and fun, it’s hardly the confident comeback we were hoping for, but the infusion of social politics means that it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if the series continues down this path – but some brutal nip and tucks will have to be made to avoid this particular facelift once again spiraling into ignominy.