Spiral: From the Book of Saw (2021)
Starring Chris Rock; Max Minghella; Samuel L. Jackson
Written by Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger
Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman
93 minutes/ Rated R
Reviewed By Duane Ullery
After being delayed for over a year due to cinemas being shut down as a result of the pandemic, Spiral: From the Book of Saw – the next chapter in the enduring Saw franchise – has arrived.
As the title suggests, this is less a direct continuation of the Jigsaw/John Kramer storyline and more of an attempt to recharge the series by opening up new directions. As the pre-release press indicated, the idea came about when star Chris Rock – an avowed Saw fan – pitched an idea to the producers that everyone loved. They brought back the writers of the attempted 2017 resurrection Jigsaw, hired Saw franchise veteran Daren Lynn Bousman (Saw II -IV, Repo : The Genetic Opera) to direct and made it happen.
Set ten years after the Jigsaw crimes, Spiral opens with the brutal demise of a corrupt police officer in a horrifically appropriate subway trap. This particular test has been designed to punish him for lying repeatedly on the witness stand in court. If anyone has any doubts whether or not the traditional heavy violence is still present in these movies, this scene should immediately dispel them.
Quickly deducing someone has resurrected the modus operandi of the very dead John Kramer, the police launch an investigation, headed by Detective Ezekiel Banks (Rock) who, we discover, is at odds with most of the other officers on the force due to his having turned in his own corrupt partner years earlier. Doing so not only lost him their respect, but strained his relationship with his father, retired Chief of Police Marcus Banks (Samuel L. Jackson), a venerated hero cop who had directly warned his son turning his partner in would be seen as an act of betrayal.
Assigned a fresh new rookie partner in the form of William Schenck (Max Minghella), Banks tries to catch the killer as more officers are targeted as a means to punish a diseased justice system. As the body count rises, so do the personal stakes and soon the detective realizes the new game has a more personal connection to him than he realized.
There’s been quite a bit of discussion as to whether or not this is actually a Saw sequel, with even the director opining that Spiral isn’t really Saw 9. Based on what I saw on screen, I’d have to disagree. It’s clearly established this takes place in the same canon, set a decade after the original games ended. It’s also made clear in no uncertain terms the killer is directly inspired by the Jigsaw murders. There’s even a moment where Banks utters the line “It’s another Jigsaw copycat”, which I would say can reasonably be taken as a reference to the games Logan set up in Jigsaw. Based on that criteria, I would definitely qualify this as the ninth Saw film.
It’s also the best outside of Saw VI. For people who are not Saw fans, Spiral likely will not convert them, but I’d be surprised if the fan base didn’t embrace this movie. It’s extremely creepy, definitely intense, boasts a better than average cast, it’s unexpectedly clever and the core premise is intriguing.
Much has been made about whether or not the plot of this film represents ‘woke” storytelling, but I don’t think so. It’s topical, but being topical is territory Saw has touched on prior to this. My personal favorite of the series – Saw VI– savagely skewered our broken health care system without being preachy.
The same can be said for the way Spiral handles the idea of corruption in law enforcement. The film makes its case without being too overtly political and I felt it handled the balancing act well. It’s okay to make your audience think, but no one is coming to this movie to be lectured.
As to the performances, Rock is generally solid in a mostly dramatic role (though he does land an opening monologue about Forrest Gump that is absolutely hysterical) and Samuel Jackson turns in pretty much exactly the performance you’d expect him to give. He’s always fun to watch, but neither does he reinvent the wheel with his work here. It’s a surprisingly solid fit for the film, though.
If I had any grievance at all with their performances, it’s that some of the flashbacks featuring Rock and/or Jackson play host to some seriously over the top acting. This really isn’t a persistent thing throughout, but in those scenes someone should have looked at the playback and definitely had them dial it back.
On the other hand, Max Minghella as the rookie partner delivered my favorite performance in the film. He has a quietly engaging presence throughout Spiral I felt really served his character well as his arc unfolded. He’s a welcome addition to the franchise.
As to the game itself, I loved it. I’m not a fan of the new Jigsaw voice we hear on the tapes (if the already announced next film does get made, I would hope the producers would realize most people didn’t respond well to the voice and maybe tweak it a bit so it’s less “text to speech program” and more “sinister maniac playing deadly games” ) but the game itself is so entertaining and intense I honestly stopped caring after the initial tape played. There are fewer traps this time around, but each is decidedly twisted, including a skin-crawling test involving hot wax audiences are not likely to soon forget.
Which segues nicely into another point: The twist. As in every Saw film, the end of the movie features a climactic sequence where all of the pieces come together and, as the iconic track “Hello Zepp” plays on the soundtrack (which it does here- Charlie Clouser returns to deliver one of his moodiest, most effective scores to date)- the secrets are revealed.
Here, the identity of the killer likely won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has been following this series from the beginning. The thing is, I’m not entirely convinced it was meant to be a surprise.
To wit: There’s a moment about midway through the film involving the character eventually revealed to be the villain that served to clue me into their identity. Because of what happens in that scene and how it’s structured, I was left with the distinct impression the writers were specifically signalling to long-time fans. They should absolutely be questioning the validity of what they’re seeing. It wouldn’t be the first time Saw has dropped clues or skillfully employed misdirection.
What I think will surprise fans is the back story of the villain. I confess that, when it was revealed why the character adopted Jigsaw’s identity, I was caught off guard. There’s also what I like to refer to as the double twist- the final scene evolving out of the big reveal, usually a final test that ends badly for everyone involved in the final moments of the film.
Spiral handles this closing sequence so well, I think it rivals the final moments of the original film. Let me put it this way: The sight of someone making the “shhhhh” gesture is now one of the most effective, electrifying moments I’ve seen in a horror sequel in years.
What I really appreciated, though, was the determination to not just retread the same pattern here. Yes, it has the grimy visual sheen of the original films, yes Charlie Clouser’s score is there adding eerie ambience, yes there are gruesome traps and lessons to be learned. But Spiral focuses more on the story and characters. It populates the game with flesh and blood people and supplies them with real stakes.
One of the best moments in the film occurs after the opening trap, when we learn Banks was close friends with the victim. There’s an unexpectedly humane scene where he visits the slain officer’s widow and we’re allowed to perceive the murdered character – flaws and all — as a human being, understanding his absence has created loss for people who didn’t deserve it. That underscores the horror of what the new Jigsaw is doing with a sense of how truly malignant these games are. As righteous as the killer’s motivations may seem, they’re not a hero. What they’re doing is evil. That type of layering is something we see far too little of in genre sequels and it was refreshing.
Despite some missteps, I found myself more invested in and entertained by Spiral than I have with any other film in the franchise, save for the aforementioned sixth chapter. I hope the next film picks up where this one left off. It’s a direction I’d like to see explored in more depth and it opens the door to even stronger storytelling moving forward.
Saw fans have cause to rejoice. This is the boost the franchise needed.
**** out of ***** stars. Spiral: The Book of Saw offers fans a game they’ll want to play.
D. S. Ullery is a cartoonist and an author of short Horror fiction. He’s published two single-author collections and his ongoing comic panel Goulash can be found on Webtoons Canvas. An Affiliate Member of the Horror Writers Association, D.S. resides in South Florida, where he shares an apartment with a reasonably unstable feline named Jason, a black cat born on Friday the 13th.
You can read Duane’s ongoing comedy/horror comic series Goulash HERE
You can buy Highway 181, Duane’s most recent horror collection HERE