*. Subtitled From the Book of Saw. Please.
*. Well, if Saw isn’t a book at least it’s a franchise. According to Guinness the most successful horror franchise ever, which I’m guessing is based on box office. Spiral is officially the ninth instalment, and unlikely to be the last. Remember Saw: The Final Chapter? That was ten years ago. Then there’d been Jigsaw. And now we have this.
*. Is “this” even a Saw movie though? Some of the voices canvassed on the special features included with the DVD say no. Executive producer Oren Koules says “it’s a different movie but it’s under the same umbrella” while his fellow producer Mark Burg is more adamant: “Spiral is not a Saw movie.”
*. What they mean, I think, is that it’s set in the same universe, meaning the events of the previous movie have taken place, but it’s not a sequel or prequel or reboot. There’s no John Kramer, or for that matter Dr. Lawrence Gordon or Mark Hoffman or even Logan Nelson. There’s no Billy the Puppet, his place now taken by a doll called (by the filmmakers) Mr. Snuggles. There are no fancy transitions, and the colour scheme has been adjusted somewhat away from the usual blues and greens (though they’re still here) to something more sunburned.
*. That said, it is a Saw movie. It’s the same basic idea of a killer kidnapping people and sticking them in elaborate traps that they can only escape with their lives from by some act of self mutilation. There’s the “Hello Zepp” theme. There’s a pop montage at the end that throws a solution at us, though this time it isn’t nearly as convoluted a puzzle to solve as in the other movies, with their fragmented time schemes.
*. It’s always a tricky matter with a movie like this though because you have to give the audience what they expect and want, and something new and different at the same time. By this point I just don’t think there was any new direction for them to go with using the original template so they tried to add some new blood in other ways.
*. Perhaps the biggest change is the introduction of Chris Rock, whose interest in doing a Saw movie is what led to Spiral being made (director Darren Lynn Bousman was told “Chris Rock wants to do a Saw movie! Figure it out”). Apparently Rock envisioned something that was a cross between Se7en and 48 Hrs. I’m not sure that’s what he got. It’s only a discount Se7en at best and has none of the buddy-humour of 48 Hrs. In fact there are just a few snappy lines from Rock, and given that this is not a comedy they feel quite out of place.
*. Samuel L. “Do you wanna play games, motherfucker?” Jackson. Does he have the same agent as Bruce Willis now? Because I can’t understand why else his career has taken the recent direction it has. In any event, he’s here again playing the same stereotyped tough guy who drops f-bombs every other word and otherwise doesn’t seem to be that engaged in what’s going on.
*. The two main boxes to check for a Saw film are the quality of the kills/traps and the trickiness of the plot. Spiral fails at both. The kills are the usual chains and blades, with a couple of them qualifying as not so much disgusting (a given) as depressing. One victim has to save herself from having boiling wax waterboarded on her face (presumably suffocating her) by severing her spinal cord at the base of her neck. That just turned me right off. Mark Kermode considered this trap to be “obtuse,” which is a nice way of putting it. Then the final kill involves a slow exsanguination that I could have also lived without seeing. As the bodies piled up I just found myself wondering with each new abduction “Ah hell, what’s it going to be now?”
*. The twist isn’t interesting either. I thought it if not obvious than at least likely who the killer was right from the start. But according to Bousman (back after helming Saw II, III, and IV) the identity of the killer wasn’t the mystery so much as why he was doing it. I rolled my eyes at this. As if I could possibly care why he was doing any of this. And the fact that he’s a flat bore as a villain doesn’t help.
*. Maybe the question of why the killer was doing this was supposed to be making some kind of political point. That’s how Shirley Li, writing in The Atlantic, tried to read it. But I don’t make this out. The idea that the police are being punished for their transgressions struck me as just a convenient hook to hang things on. I don’t think there’s any message here.
*. In my notes on Jigsaw I mentioned in passing that I prefer the Final Destination movies to this franchise. Why did they stop making Final Destinations? On the whole they maintained a pretty high level of creativity, cleverness, and fun. It’s been a long time since I recognized any of those qualities in a Saw film.
*. Frankly, without the presence of Rock and Jackson, who are not great, I would have rated this one of the weakest and worst of the series. But even when those two are not at their best they still make Spiral watchable, at least barely. I think box office was good enough, given the pandemic having shut theatres down. And, for what it’s worth, audience ratings were much, much higher than the response from critics. Which means things may continue to spiral along, or circle the drain. Choose your own metaphor.