The Saw franchise has always been close to my heart: it was the first horror movie that I became a fan of and started me along my genre journey. As someone who appreciated even the worst of the franchise, I was incredibly excited for Spiral with Darren Lynn Bousman, director of Saw II, III and IV, returning to the helm.
The film easily exceeded my expectations with an engaging, relevant storyline. While there are definitely elements of this movie some people won’t like, Spiral is strides ahead of the previous two “finales” to the franchise, Saw 3D (2010) and Jigsaw (2017), and arguably better than a few of the other sequels.
Spiral improves upon most of the elements that were problems in those previous two films: both expanding the character’s motivations and creating a compelling wrap up to the series.
While the story surpasses many of its franchise predecessors, one thing that will divide Saw fans is the decrease in the number of traps.
Spiral is the rare exception of a film that should have been longer instead of shorter. The third act feels like it should have just been the beginning instead of rushing to end. What could have been a crazy violent trap-filled blowout ending was instead a quickly revealed twist that was still pretty good.
In an interview with Bloody Disgusting’s Boo Crew Podcast, director Darren Lynn Bousman revealed he was forced to cut out an entire trap scene from the ending because it was too violent to get an R rating in theaters. Hopefully that means we’ll see a director’s cut with the added trap and more gore in the future.
Still, it was a great interpretation of the franchise and delivered all the fun and violence one could expect from a Saw film with a surprisingly good storyline.
Spiral stars Chris Rock as Detective Zeke Banks, a cop hated by the rest of his unit for turning in his corrupt partner years earlier. He is assigned a rookie partner, the loveable William Schenk, played by Max Minghella, when a suspected Jigsaw copy-cat killer starts putting law enforcement officers in death traps.
Rock, known mostly for his stand-up comedy, was a controversial and surprising choice for the starring role in a franchise known as a hyper-violent gore fest. As a huge fan of the franchise, he expressed interest early on in leading a film and the story was adapted from there with him as executive producer.
His performance was good at best, with some spotty emotional outbursts and comedic dialogue that just doesn’t cut it for me in the beginning. Also, through the whole movie he gives this smoldering look, which I actually loved.
Despite an “okay” performance, Rock’s character is still one of the more memorable and interesting characters that the Saw franchise has and is certainly the most compelling cop character in a Saw film.
The real star of this film was the naive partner, played by Minghella. Schenk’s foil to the cynical Detective Banks led to some great dialogue and some funny sequences. Acting as the moral compass of the film, he adds some intriguing subtext.
The other characters ranged from mildly entertaining (Samuel L. Jackson’s former chief and father to Detective Banks’ character and Marisol Nichols’ Captain Angie Garza) to cartoonishly unlikeable (Richard Zeppieri’s Detective Fitch).
The reinvention of the franchise mostly comes from its fusion of Saw lore with ‘90s grimy cop procedural films such as Se7en, The Silence of the Lambs, and even recent revivals of this genre such as Zodiac and The Dark Knight. Fans of those movies will be sure to love Spiral.
In addition to this, the Saw formula was also reinterpreted into a pronounced social commentary where cops are forced to face accountability for their actions, through their blood. This isn’t new to the franchise, but this is the first time it’s been highlighted so strongly, and at a time where it feels appropriate. Sometimes the messaging is murky, but overall it’s a potent premise for a Saw movie.
Now, onto the important part: the traps. The morally-aligned torture devices that define the franchise were mostly what I wanted from a Saw movie, very industrial, simplistic in design and offered a chance to win, all elements that were absent from the previous film.
The one serious problem I have with this film is the traps weren’t as gory as a Saw fan would want. They definitely were uncomfortable to watch and eviscerated bodies, but cut away before showing what could have been some really disgusting special effects work. They also showed most of the trap scenes in flashbacks, taking away a lot of the tension of the game. Check out the opening scene below to get a feel for this Saw’s traps.
The killer and the redesigned puppet similarly lack the bite of the previous films. Tobin Bell’s absence is felt in Spiral. The new killer is a mystery, and therefore the viewer can’t connect with his messages and videos, and they often feel hollow and devoid of substance. The pig puppet is fun considering the emphasis on corrupt cops but doesn’t impress beyond that.
One of the best improvements in this Saw entry was the cinematography and general production value. While Saw works best as a low-budget grimy affair, the colorful look and clear and stylistic camera moves were a welcomed change.
The score was done by Charlie Clouser, who has been the composer for Saw since the very first film. Our friends at the Eye On Horror podcast recently interviewed the composer. You can check out below. For this film, however, the original beats were infused with rap beats, which is very different from the industrial rock-based music of previous films.
In fact, 21 Savage produced the soundtrack for Saw, and the credits roll on his song Spiral, which uses the Saw theme music “Hello Zepp”.
All in all, it was worthy of reviving the franchise. While a longer film would have made it a perfect Saw sequel, this film stood out as a character-based, ‘90s noir with some wicked gore scenes.