The Saw series from Lionsgate is a unique beast in the field of horror franchises, as complicated as it is gory and deeply connected in its instalments. Jigsaw, the 8th film, tried to spin off the series but did not do much to separate itself from series formula. The 9th instalment, Spiral: From the Book of Saw, goes further in the spin-off direction. The return of regular series director Darren Lynn Bousman, comedian Chris Rock’s story credit and lead role, as well as a May release instead of the traditional October one suggested a new direction. Spiral does deliver in this regard, despite some shortcomings.
In Philadelphia, several police officers become the target of a new serial killer creating Jigsaw Killer-like traps but naming themselves the Spiral Killer. Detective Ezekiel Banks (Chris Rock) and new partner Will Schenk (Max Minghella) investigate these killings and discover that the officers are part of a web of corruption that goes back years and involves Banks’s father Marcus (Samuel L Jackson).
Spiral’s greatest strengths and weaknesses story-wise are very similar. Unlike Jigsaw, this actually does avoid series formula for the most part and tells a different kind of story, one that is almost entirely disconnected from the events of the previous films and features almost no references aside from some name drops of John Kramer. This is a refreshing move, even if it does feel like a few simple rewrites could have removed any Saw similarities and made this its own thing.
The 90-minute runtime neither drags nor rushes, but the storytelling is rough around the edges. After a fairly fleshed out first and second act, the third act feels as if it begins too quickly and the ending, though effective in the moment, is incredibly abrupt. The dialogue starts off shaky, veering between cop movie cliches, heavy exposition and Rock-esque comedic trash talk, with a feeling like it has to get all of this out of the way before the story properly gets going, though once it does the dialogue does improve.
That being said, the Spiral killer’s motivations are interesting and overall, it is more of a socially conscious Saw film, with the overall commentary on police brutality and corruption not being subtle but providing a complex moral backbone to the story. These themes do also give the final moments of the film purpose despite the abruptness.
As for the characters, Zeke is a little on the selfish and obnoxious side but is still a sympathetic lead. Chris Rock is mixed; he is at his best when he mixes his trademark humour with a derisive and cynical attitude towards others. The killer’s identity is less obvious than I expected but still predictable, with the killer themself lacking menace when they show up. The characters do feel archetypal but actors like Jackson and Marisol Nichols as the chief of police bring enough energy to compensate.
Bousman shows a little more restraint than in prior Saw films, but he brings back the sped up editing his entries are known for during the trap sections, which is not a style I care for. Despite this, the violence is effective and the few jump scares are startling if predictable. But the cinematography is oversaturated in its colours and only on occasion is there a good shot, with the overall direction being competent but average.
Spiral: From the Book of Saw is both a low-grade detective thriller and a decent revitalization of the Saw series. Whilst not a particularly good film, it does leave me curious to see where the series will go from here.
2 out of 5 Stars