Working in the shadow of his father, Detective Ezekiel “Zeke” Banks (Chris Rock) and his rookie partner William Schenk (Max Minghella) take charge of an investigation into grisly murders that are eerily reminiscent of the city’s gruesome past. Unwittingly entrapped in a deepening mystery, Zeke finds himself at the center of the killer’s morbid game.
I kind of have a complicated and interesting relationship with the Saw franchise. It’s one that I remember being scared of ever since I was about six or seven years old. Back when the franchise was churning out sequels like there was no tomorrow, I remember sitting down one-night watching television shows with my parents and enjoying the night.
But all of a sudden, a commercial came on for the latest Saw film and I remember being absolutely terrified of it. “Who is that creepy puppet?”, “Why does he have such a deep voice?” and “Why are all these people screaming for help?” were just a few questions that were racing through my mind the first time I saw that ad during the late hours of that day.
I was about six or seven years old at the time of watching the commercial and so, understandably, I didn’t actually check out any of the films in the franchise until much, much later. My early teenage years to be exact. But when I first watched the original James Wan-directed Saw, I fell in love instantly. It was an absolutely brilliant, thrilling, and downright creepy film with an ending so shocking that I’m convinced nobody will be able to predict if you haven’t seen the film yet. Seriously, if you haven’t seen Saw yet when you eventually watch it for the first time, I can almost guarantee that you won’t be able to predict the ending no matter how much you may try.
For whatever reason though, as much as I adored the original film when I first watched it, I didn’t end up watching the subsequent sequels until years later. And when I did, I found that they were… okay. To this day I still don’t know why the fanbase seems to love Saw II, a film that in my opinion, feels like a hollow echo of the first film and a sequel that gets way too messy its storytelling.
As much as it does build on the original film, I just can’t get over its glaring flaws. And don’t even get me started on that ending with the Amanda Young character. Talk about a plot twist that was included simply to attempt to replicate the shocking ending of the original. The difference between Saw‘s ending and Saw II‘s is that Saw‘s ending made sense and was brilliant. Saw II‘s ending felt shoe-horned in.
A couple of the sequels are actually fairly good such as Saw III and Saw IV, two films that are genuinely engaging and interesting even if they do focus on the gory traps way too much. The Saw films were never meant to be turned into torture-porn films. Series creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell have been quite frank in the past when it comes to their opinion on what the series has turned into. Saw was never created in the hopes of birthing a series filled with bloody deaths. It was meant to just be a single, tense thriller.
But as grotesque and frustrating as all the sequels got (especially The Final Chapter which is a horrifically terrible ending to the original series of films with an ending that I personally hated), it seems like, after a while, audiences shared the same sentiment. Fans all around the world were wanting a shake-up for the series.
So in 2017, The Spierig Brothers delivered Jigsaw, a film that attempted to satisfy fans of the gory side of the franchise, as well as the more psychological thriller aspects that the first installment boasted. And while it was an enjoyable enough movie, it didn’t really do anything to stand out from the crowd of the previous entries. It just felt like the same old Saw but with a better color palette and a more cinematic aspect ratio.
After the release of Jigsaw, it seemed like the Saw franchise was just about to be dead and buried. But fast forward to 2021 and now we have Spiral: From the Book of Saw, a genuinely rejuvenating new entry in the series that feels like a breath of fresh air thanks to Darren Lynn Bousman and Chris Rock. Just when Saw was in extreme danger of being a forgotten series, Spiral comes along to remind us just how great it can be with the right creative team.
For the first time since 2004, Spiral is a Saw film that presents genuinely interesting mysteries that both lead character Zeke and the audience will want to solve. Even some of the sequels that I enjoy are sadly devoid of any real intrigue. Saw IV is fun and all, but really what was so interesting about it? Not a whole lot. In the John Kramer series of Saw films, he placed his victims in gruesome traps because he wanted to teach them a valuable lesson that he had to learn years ago – life is precious. One of the most iconic quotes from the entire franchise is “Some people are so ungrateful to be alive”, and Kramer literally stops at nothing to prove this to his victims.
After a while though, this premise got old. We get it. Kramer thinks that life is amazing and he wishes more people understood this too, but he recognizes that most people just take it for granted. So what better way to make them come to this realization than to place them in gruesome traps? Upon first glance, all of John Kramer/Jigsaw’s traps look literally impossible to escape. But the thing is, is that they’re all possible to escape. It’s just that you may lose some limbs in the process.
As crazy and twisted as Kramer is, he genuinely wants his victims to escape. There are some instances in the franchise where somebody will die in the trap and will fail to escape, and we will often see his reaction. Instead of brandishing a devilish grin, he actually looks a little sad and disappointed. Because ultimately, he wants these people to walk away with a newfound appreciation for life.
Sounds pretty insane and entertaining to watch, right? It was… for a while. After a few films, the premise got old, and sadly, every single Saw film utilized this. But Spiral does something entirely different. Now that Kramer is long dead, the citizens of the world don’t have to worry anymore, right? Wrong. There is a new copycat Jigsaw killer on the loose that seems to be targeting only police officers. Throughout the film, you’ll genuinely be guessing what this person’s motives are and who the killer is. Finally, we have a Saw film that presents mysteries that are actually interesting.
As you probably expected, a lot of the trademark Saw ingredients make a return in Spiral, even if the film feels totally like its own thing and also like a traditional Saw film at the same time. The gruesome traps that fans have grown accustomed to and back and they’re more brutal than ever before. This time around, I actually found myself wincing quite a bit while watching the traps here.
And what’s great is that, for the first time in Saw since the original, I genuinely cared about the people that were being placed in these traps. I didn’t want them to die and I was rooting for them to break free and live to see another die. But of course, this is Saw, so there will be a few casualties along the way and when they do happen, they are quite disgusting to watch but in an impressive way.
One of the most annoying Saw staples that sadly makes a return here is the use of the flashback montage. Every single entry in the series them and unfortunately, Spiral is no different. They happen way too often here and they often look a bit cheesy and goofy in the long run.
The film also does feel a bit rushed too. For some reason, it seems like every Saw film has some sort of ninety-minute running time mandate and it baffles me. Why are the studios so afraid to make a two-hour movie in the series? Are they afraid that audiences aren’t going to turn up to watch it? I personally would love to see a long movie in the Saw franchise. While Spiral mostly runs fairly smooth, if it were about twenty minutes longer, it would have flowed even more naturally and it would have the absolutely insane ending ten times more insane.
But really it’s hard to complain too much when it comes to Spiral. Finally, we have a Saw film that is genuinely thrilling, engaging, and rejuvenating. Rest assured, Spiral is not going to be the “game over” for this horror franchise.
Overall Grade: A-
MPAA Rating: R for sequences of grisly bloody violence and torture, pervasive language, some sexual references, and brief drug use
Directed by: Darren Lynn Bousman
Distributed by: Lionsgate
Release Date: May 14, 2021
Running Time: 93 minutes