Principal Cast : Chris Rock, Max Minghella, Marisol Nichols, Samuel L Jackson, Dan Petronijevic, Richard Zeppieri, Patrick McManus, Edie Inksetter, Thomas Mitchell, Nazneen Contractor, KC Collins, Zoi Palmer, Genelle Williams.
Synopsis: A criminal mastermind unleashes a twisted form of justice in Spiral, the terrifying new chapter from the book of Saw.
Unlike, say the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe or the insanity of the Fast & Furious franchise, the long-running Saw series, of which Spiral marks itself as the ninth instalment, has long been a film saga running on the sputtering adoration of its relatively small fanbase and propensity for cheap, easy gore-horror that continues to make enough bank to justify continued trips to the well. Few horror franchises have had nine films in their run, even fewer have had those films tell consecutive stories without being rebooted or reset; hell, even the iconic Halloween, Nightmare On Elm Street or Friday The 13th never quite made it to that point without a “re-envisioning” for modern audiences. The law of diminishing returns, however, has well and truly taken hold of Saw’s grip on pop-culture relevance, the gimmicky serial-killer trope established in James Wan’s indelible original long since having sliced, diced, eviscerated and defenestrated itself innumerable times in the intervening years – it should be noted that Saw’s staying power hung primarily on its annual sequel Halloween release schedule, being the only ongoing horror series able to provide nearly a decade’s worth of cinema scheduling before audiences finally tired of it all.
Spiral occurs sometime after the events of 2017’s Jigsaw, a new copycat killer is targeting crooked cops at a metro precinct, slaughtering them in brutal ways reflecting their perceived corruptions. Working the case is embittered Detective Zeke Banks (Chris Rock), along with rookie partner William Schenk (Max Minghella), the former having a reputation as a snitch for ratting out his former partner in a previous job. Zeke’s father, the retired former precinct Captain Marcus Banks (Samuel L Jackson) has an antagonistic relationship with his son, whilst the various detectives at the precinct – Fitch (Richard Zeppieri), Kraus (Edie Inksetter) and O’Brien (Thomas Mitchell) – all detest him. Precinct Captain Angie Garcia (Marisol Nichols), a young and determined officer herself, is keen to find the new killer as well before the body-count of dead cops starts to mount.
Directed by franchise stalwart Darren Lynn Bouseman, who helmed the second, third and fourth instalments of Saw, this Chris Rock-led horror film suffers from several indignities, most notably and prominently in that it’s flat-out boring. The viewer’s propensity for gloriously over-the-top death traps will wax and wane over the length of Spiral, with the bloody gore and excruciatingly painful sequences of torture eliciting a few winces here and there, but even at its most salacious things never seems to get out of first gear. Part of me thinks it comes down to the script, penned by Jigsaw scripters Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger, or the indifferent performance from comedian Chris Rock, whose screen persona isn’t really suited to this kind of blood-soaked subgenre. If you’re going to market Spiral as an offshoot or soft-reboot of Saw, why bring back the writers of one of the more critically panned entries into the property? Or, for that matter, one of the directors who’s been there, done that three previous times? Why not really go for something new and different and have a whole new team take a crack. Spiral feels like a tired, jobber retread, good for nothing but mild shocks and a sense of franchise kinship that becomes all too tiresome without purpose. The plot is easily pulled apart, and even a simpleton will likely pick the figurative face behind the mask (I did about half-way through, so what does that say about me?) so Spiral isn’t going to win any awards for ingenuity or creativity. Again, it all feels like a generic, formulaic entry into this franchise when what we all wanted was for Saw to get the kick in the pants it needed.
The addition of Rock should be applauded for the producers hoping to keep the franchise going well beyond its use-by date, and marks an interesting casting choice for sure, but Rock isn’t capable of delivering the presence necessary to carry a film like this, nor is he adept enough to really sell the shock-and-awe his character undergoes throughout. He’s a comedian with a funny voice, a high-pitched crackle in the top registers that draws more smirks than a sense of terror. He tries his best, and is hardly the worst aspect of the film, but as a lead in a low-budget horror film well into its retirement home days, he’s badly miscast. So too is Samuel L Jackson, whom I suspect was cast as a stunt to reflect on the various Pulp Fiction nods sprinkled within the movie. Samuel L Jackson’s character, who played the character Jules in Quentin Tarantino’s cult classic crime film from 1994, was famous for spouting a bible verse before killing people – the verse was from the Book Of Ezekiel, which happens to the name of the main character Chris Rock plays. Also, sharp-eyed viewers will notice the names of both Pulp Fiction characters Jules and Vincent on the door of the Police Precinct’s archive basement – for some reason requiring bank vault mechanism to open at one point, for reasons… Jackson plays the role like he’s walked off the set of an altogether different movie, an action movie, and Spiral isn’t it. The solid supporting roster of players are all wasted on ridiculous dialogue, awful pacing and horrifying direction, although having a few of them work through the agonising torture traps with jittery, fingernail-shredding editing and sonorous groaning and screaming is momentarily diverting for a while.
When the film isn’t trying to be too clever for its own good, which is often, Spiral lurches from one preposterous policing debacle to another, with the hooded figure purveying all these crimes appearing from the shadows to strike exactly when a character has his or her back turned at just the right moment. Horror films often require a certain level of suspension of disbelief but quite honestly this film borders on the offensive for just how stupid it thinks its characters – and we, the viewer – are. That’s not to say the Saw franchise doesn’t have form in this regard, but since I stopped watching after about the third or fourth film I kinda hoped a modern take on things would see an improvement on either realism or believability. The film has none of those things, instead trying to bring the gritty gore aesthetic from the main series and overlaying it with a sepia-toned police procedural that plays like a mix of Se7en and CSI: Los Angeles. Sadly, this combination, while visually intriguing, doesn’t work.
At the end of the day, whether it be scripting, casting or production values, Spiral lives and dies at the hands of its director. Despite saturating a good portion of the film in blood, death and body parts, Darren Lynn Bouseman’s direction here is woeful, as inert a horror film entry as its possible to have considering all the things working in his favour. A well-known property, a solid cast, decent production values; Spiral should have been a home run despite the trappings (ha) of its own making. Sadly, Spiral is a page from the book of Saw best left unread. Boring, lifeless and irredeemably stupid (despite some aggravatingly combative sound design trying to manufacture something), Spiral’s degenerative plotting and silly character mechanics, not to mention flaccid direction and a jump-scare afflicted, editorially regressive aesthetic enshrine the film as one of the very worst both the franchise and the subgenre have to offer.