After more than a year, we finally got the opportunity to see Lionsgate’s Spiral, the official ninth installment in the Saw horror franchise. This Chris Rock-penned flick is a new take on a popular horror franchise that desperately needed something new to revitalize. Whether this was enough, you can read in our review of Spiral.
Spiral was originally scheduled to appear in cinemas on May 15, 2020, but the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic delayed it so that it finally premiered on May 14, 2021. Before its premiere, we did not know much about the movie, but we knew that it would be something new. Chris Rock, an actor best known for his comedic roles, pitched an idea to Lionsgate, and to almost everybody’s surprise, Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger began working on a script. Now, one might expect Christ Rock to have a more ironic approach to the franchise with a lot of (in)appropriate humor, but it turned out that the idea of a gritty, somewhat dark spin-off/sequel was the exact thing that the franchise needed.
Chris Rock gave himself the main role of Ezekiel “Zeke” Banks, a gritty idealist who is scorned by his colleagues because he refused to protect a corrupt ex-colleague who shot and killed a witness. After one of Banks’ colleagues is found dead in the subway, Rock’s character is given a new partner, young detective William Schenk (Max Minghella), and after some insistence, the case. As it turns out, the subway case was just a first in the series of brutal murders that mimic the crime spree of the late John Kramer, a.k.a. the Jigsaw Killer, and his followers. Banks has to deal with the grotesque case, as well as his personal demons to discover the truth behind the mystery and discover whether they’re dealing with another one of Jigsaw’s followers or just a morbid copycat killer.
Spiral has several things going for itself and I can honestly say that I was surprised with how the movie was executed. Rock’s idea wasn’t all that original, as it strongly reminds us of Fincher’s Se7en, but Rock used Fincher’s well-known style and the general concept so well that it actually fits right into Lionsgate’s popular horror franchise. The Saw franchise has been, if you exclude the first movie and – to a degree – the second and third ones, more of a slasher series where the perversity of the traps was far more important than the general idea of the movie.
As we saw in the first movie, the Jigsaw Killer had a very precise motive for his killings, and his crimes, if survived, had a rather cathartic experience for his victims. The first three movies, more or less, adhere to Jigsaw’s principles, but as Kramer himself was dying, so was the basic idea that had been driving the franchise forward and when Kramer died, so did the idea. Starting with Saw IV, and with a somewhat surprising and incomplete return to the franchise’s roots in 2017’s Jigsaw, the movies completely forgot why Kramer committed his crimes and made his followers act like perverted sadists without any higher purpose; where John Kramer wanted to teach (albeit in a completely morbid way), Mark Hoffman and the others just wanted to slaughter. And with that, the franchise was slaughtered as well.
Now, Rock’s idea for Spiral, when you finally reach the final explanation of the crime spree, is a direct return to the roots of the franchise, but with a great twist that both adds flavor to the whole concept and distinguishes Jigsaw’s pig-based copycat from Kramer himself. This is more of a V for Vendetta meets Saw idea, but it worked quite well.
This is certainly the strongest point of the whole spin-off, but it isn’t the only positive aspect I have to compliment. Chris Rock’s and Samuel L. Jackson’s performances were, as expected, on a very high level, and despite the somewhat stereotypical role, Max Minghella also did a great job in the movie. The other characters are mostly unimportant marionettes, serving a higher narrative purpose and where the original Saw movies put a lot into character development (or at least tried to), Spiral completely abandons the idea. We would’ve certainly wanted to find out a bit more about the secondary characters, but I can commend the writers for not even feigning some interest in them. They decided to make them irrelevant and they never even tried to tell us anything else.
The whole script wasn’t as good as the idea; that is the impression I got. Chris Rock’s idea seems to be much better than its ultimate execution, which had several flaws, ranging from silly beginner’s mistakes to somewhat bigger issues like the predictability of the final scene and the final twist. Maybe it’s just me, as I have seen all the movies so I know, in a way, how the franchise works, but I knew halfway how things would play out in the end. What did help, though, was the authentic atmosphere, the lack of visual pornography when the traps were concerned (okay, they’re still quite brutal, but when compared to the crappy torture porn we saw in some earlier installments, it was truly refreshing), a generally moderate tone when compared to some earlier films and Charlie Clouser’s brilliant music.
What this movie lacked, ultimately, is originality. Okay, I have to admit that it was pretty new and refreshing when compared to most movies in the franchise, but when put on a more global scale, it was just another gritty horror-thriller that didn’t even try that much to be something great, which – in itself – was good enough for it to be good. The movie has its flaws, the story is weaker than expected and it never really comes close to the original Saw movie but Spiral managed to do what practically five movies before it didn’t – it revived our interest in the Saw franchise, a franchise that, we thought, died years ago.
And that is Spiral’s strongest asset. It won’t blow your minds and if you’re fans, you’ll probably know how the movie is going to end long before it actually ends, but Chris Rock managed to give new life to a mutilated corpse (pun intended) and I can only hope that all further productions can capitalize on this.