The good news about Spiral: From the Book of Saw—the ninth entry in the infamous horror series and the second reboot—is that you really don’t have to be invested in the convoluted, borderline nonsensical mythology of the previous eight films to know what’s going on. There are no recurring characters, and even series super-villain Jigsaw himself (who returned again and again from seeming death in the form of Tobin Bell) only appears as a photo.
The not-so-good news is that Spiral almost goes too far in the other direction: It’s not particularly scary, it’s extremely simplistic to the point of repetition, and due to its repetitive structure, the viewer is able to figure out pretty quickly who is behind the string of murders that are being done in the style of Jigsaw. Well almost like Jigsaw, since the victims this time are exclusively plainclothes detectives.
For fans of the series, there are the required “torture trap” killings in which each victim is given the means to choose whether they live or die—although they all end up dying anyway, of course. The traps are suitably macabre and grisly, and the gore plentiful, although we found ourselves wondering, and not for the first time while watching a Saw movie, how the killer finds the time and resources to build these elaborate and deadly puzzles. Director Darren Lynn Bousman, returning to the series for the first time after directing Saw II, III, and IV, also maintains the visual consistency.
The film opens with a detective named Boswick (Dan Petronijevic), who is dispatched in a nasty subway trap. Down in the tunnels, Bos is required to rip out his own tongue as a train barrels down. His friend, Det. Zeke Banks (Chris Rock), takes the lead on the case and it soon becomes apparent that the killer is utilizing the methods of Jigsaw to target dirty cops. Banks has his own baggage too. Not only is he the son of an esteemed, now retired, police chief (Samuel L. Jackson), but Zeke turned in a bad cop 12 years ago and has been ostracized by his colleagues ever since.
Saddled with a new, fresh-out-of-the-academy partner (Max Minghella) and pressured by the current chief (Marisol Nichols), and warned by his father of grave consequences should the murderer indeed be a Jigsaw copycat, Zeke begins receiving recorded messages and grisly mementos in the mail from the killer—further cementing the fact that a new acolyte of Jigsaw is on the loose and that this psychopath is passing moral judgment on the entire police force.
It’s worth recalling that the original Saw, which was directed by James Wan in 2004, was more of a mystery than an outright horror film, with two men waking up chained inside a room with a corpse between them. The pair try to figure out how they all got there and what to do next. It was only with Saw II that the emphasis shifted to the villain himself, Jigsaw, and his increasingly complex and gruesome traps, making the series one of the leading lights of the so-called (and thankfully short-lived) “torture porn” subgenre.
Spiral not only brings the series back to its mystery roots in some ways—even if it’s relatively easy to solve—but molds its story in the shape of a police procedural. But since the movie shows its hand relatively early, there’s no real forward motion to the narrative. And while the fact that the killer is targeting corrupt cops is an attempt at up-to-the-minute relevance, it’s handled in such a heavy-handed manner that the film risks being overbearing in that regard.
Still, there’s a certain morbid fascination in watching the story unfold and seeing just how inventive the script (penned by returning Jigsaw writers Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger) can get with the traps. But there’s also a workmanlike feel to the entire production and much of the acting (the latter a longtime sore spot with this franchise), which adds to an exhausted vibe that is hardly surprising nine films into a franchise.
As for Chris Rock, he remains a charismatic presence onscreen, but he’s ill-equipped to handle the more somber, haunted aspects of his character. He seems unsure of just how seriously to take his performance, and often falls back on a ready supply of quips—some of which do give the film momentary respites of humor while others just dangle awkwardly in the scene. Samuel L. Jackson is only in the film for a handful of scenes, adding his special sauce whenever he shows up but also clearly just there to collect a quick paycheck.
Of course Spiral leaves the door open for more mayhem to come, depending on whether the box office receipts justify it. On a creative level, however, Spiral doesn’t really offer any new pieces to the jigsaw puzzle.
Spiral plays only in theaters beginning on Friday, May 14.