The Saw series isn’t exactly the most precious of horror franchises. As the various follow-ups to James Wan and Leigh Whannell’s bizarre and tense 2004 original got gorier and sillier, they also eventually lost sight of the idea that made the Jigsaw Killer’s project so grotesquely compelling in the first place. His idea was meant to be a kind of self-help sadism, with those sick torture games and murderous contraptions all supposedly serving the noble goal of teaching flawed people the errors of their ways and helping them grow, albeit ironically. The first several Saw films mostly stuck to the plan but eventually it all got too ridiculous and convoluted, losing any sense of sophistication it might have had. Yet for all its reveling in sadistic Rube Goldberg devices, Saw does have a moral compass — one of a teenager doodling their teachers being impaled on spikes in their chemistry textbook, but a moral compass nonetheless. It’s a new rebooted entry in the franchise, Spiral: From the Book of Saw, who displays such a compass, tackling crooked police work while still mildly delivering on the torture-porn front, with its tone and focus being decidedly different. It resolves to fix this series’ clichés with a different set of clichés.
This new entry does have some star power, though, which is refreshing. One thing that really dragged down some of the later Saw movies was that the legacy of the original Jigsaw (played by the great Tobin Bell) had been taken over by some of the most milquetoast actors in the world. This time around Chris Rock stars as Detective Zeke Banks, an officer who became persona non grata at the Metropolitan Police Department after reporting a fellow officer for murdering a civilian. Despite being the son of former police chief Marcus Banks (Samuel L. Jackson), Zeke is now an outsider, and it’s made him bitter, mistrustful, and short-tempered. His boss, Captain Angie Garza (Marisol Nichols), still believes in him, however, and puts Zeke and his rookie partner, William Schenk (Max Minghella), in charge of the case when the man who had his tongue ripped out before being hit by a train in the film’s opening turns out to be one of the few friends Zeke had on the force.
Throw in a couple of diabolical appliances and a bloody USB drive hand-delivered to Zeke’s desk, and it becomes very clear that there’s a serial killer out there punishing police officers for their abuses of power. The methods are, of course, strikingly similar to that of deceased criminal mastermind John Kramer, a.k.a. Jigsaw, as one of the characters notes after everyone gathers around to watch the killer’s first video message to the department. But that’s about as far as Spiral‘s connection to the previous films goes. While it does have thematic ties to those films, Spiral is a standalone story with new characters; even the murder puppet is different this time around. Unlike Saw 2, though, Spiral was conceived as a Saw movie from the get-go — with Rock having pitched the idea to Lionsgate.
Rock may have been a fan of the franchise, but director Darren Lynn Bousman (a veteran to the series) seems especially tickled to be working with Jackson, slipping in several nods to his star-making turn in Pulp Fiction. Which seems fitting for the film’s bland attempts at Tarantino-esque monologues throughout. But such comedic levity doesn’t last long, as attempts at serious grit come as the vicious mousetraps are set. And it’s such torture scenes that lay as the real reason the Saw franchise still exists. The ones here seem to be applying a “back to the basics” approach along the lines of the 2018 Halloween, downsizing from the elaborate “game” played in 2017’s Jigsaw into more streamlined pain delivery systems. What is not toned down is the visceral horror of watching blood gush from ragged wounds and humans skinned like sides of beef, using glistening, gory prosthetics shot in jarring closeups. It’s these brief moments that Bousman feels more in his element, coming across more credibly than any of the Spiral‘s emotional thumbscrews.
The acting abilities of Spiral‘s lead cast might also play a factor, as Rock struggles to find his footing whenever he’s asked to capture moments of panic, fear or outrage over a fellow dead cop. Jackson’s brief performance, on the other hand, remains glib throughout. But both actors are burdened by some truly unfortunate fake facial hair in the film’s risible flashback scenes, one inelegant exposition detail among many. These little inconsistencies and indignities pile up, each one chipping away at the shock value of the quite obvious reveal of the killer’s identity and master plan. It’s not a waste of a concept, exactly. But it’s not the reinvention that franchise needs, either. If the game was to see if a fresh take on a long-running franchise could survive being sliced and diced by the sequel machine, consider it game over. Spiral: From the Book of Saw may at first tease to be a new spin on the franchise, yet by the end it still remains to be a cobbled together retread of rote material.
Spiral: From the Book of Saw is playing in Theaters, as of May 14