The oppressive ugliness of the Saw franchise was, for an ever-diminishing core fanbase, its USP – the dank nastiness of both its hard-to-stomach gore and bleak descent-into-hell worldview giving the series a distinctive odour. For those less invested, there was still something compellingly loopy, and often genuinely surprising, about its serpentine plotting, each film admirably committed to a complicated, if convoluted, mythology rather than a lazy rehash of formula.
But it was hard for most to justify sticking with the films until the bitter 3D end, like listening to a story that goes on for far too long told by someone you end up slowly backing away from, and while 2017’s soft reboot promised something new, it was predictably more of the same, another reminder that the Saws had seen better days. The torture porn subgenre it inspired, while a fascinating, and revealing, trend of the time, had grown equally musty, and so the concept of another chapter, so soon after, was unintentionally horrifying. The fact that Lionsgate has decided to trap us back in Jigsaw’s universe once again isn’t a surprise in itself given the death-defying nature of the genre at large (the next year will see more from the Halloween, Candyman and Scream franchises) but the twist here is that it’s actor-comedian Chris Rock pulling the strings, a self-admitted Saw super fan taking on the role of main star, producer and uncredited script-polisher.
His involvement, along with Samuel L Jackson co-starring, and an unusually stylish marketing campaign would have one believe that perhaps the pompously titled Spiral: From the Book of Saw might be more necessary than anticipated, an elevated attempt to drag the franchise into a new decade. But within minutes of the pandemic-delayed reboot, the window dressing falls away to reveal no flesh, all gristle, a catastrophically misbegotten waste of time, energy and fake blood that should hopefully return the franchise back to its grave where it deserves to rot.
The original film, an effectively insidious shocker, was of course influenced by and indebted to David Fincher’s Seven, a jumpstart to the serial killer subgenre that edged it closer to horror, a baton that Saw’s creators took and ran with while never directly trying to emulate. Never has that film’s shadow loomed larger than over Spiral, a bullishly arrogant attempt to upgrade the blood-and-guts series to a sleek detective thriller, as if a burger-flipper was suddenly tasked with preparing a wagyu steak. Rock plays the lead, a grizzled cliche who doesn’t follow the rules (check), has a tortured past (check), a wisecrack for every situation (check), a failed marriage (check) and a desire to only ever work alone (check). But after a fellow cop is found brutally murdered (a nasty yet clumsy cold open involving a tongue and a train), he’s paired with a rookie (Max Minghella) to investigate a killer who is targeting those around him, modeling himself after the long-dead Jigsaw.
Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, who was behind three of the prior Saws (including the rather entertaining second and third installments), the film’s emo aesthetic is as dated as the many tropes it lazily drags out and any hope that a “fresh” new vision for the franchise is upon us is dashed almost immediately. It’s as cheaply made, badly acted and embarrassingly written as the very worst of the series and its failings are that much more glaring because those behind it seem to think they’re creating something more refined than just another Saw movie. The sub-network procedural policing is written without a shred of specificity or even a vague knowledge of how detectives work other than what can be learned from TV (“Just focus on the case and solve this!”, “Stick to the hard evidence!”) and the laughable incompetence of the force just means that we very quickly get stuck in a rote cycle of disgusting death scene, taunting clue and brooding rather than any actual investigation.
The game-traps are as gnarly as fans might hope but the structure often robs them of any real suspense (we find out someone has died before seeing them die) and the victims are so repellent that it’s hard to muster up much interest in how gross it gets. The script, from Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger, is interestingly dour in how it views corruption, negligence and incidents of brutality within the police force but it’s handled with such haphazardness that any vague attempt to make some kind of statement is squandered (the cops are so cartoonishly, stupidly amoral that it robs the situation of any real grit). While it might have been a passion project for Rock, it’s unclear exactly what he’s getting from any of this, his performance so embarrassingly misjudged that it would be a miracle if he took on a dramatic role ever again. It’s all so bad that I wondered if it was some sort of lark, a joke for him that’s maybe on us for watching. At least as his father, Jackson is mercifully underused.
It’s in the final act that Saw films often excel, with rug-pull after rug-pull after rug-pull, but the final twist in Spiral is made so utterly obvious that the biggest surprise is that there’s nothing else up their sleeves. It’s all so rushed and half-assed, like it was cobbled together on the fly rather than intricately plotted out, stupidly written and worst of all increasingly dull, a fitting end to a rotten pile of guts that’s less book of Saw and more novelisation. Game over.
Spiral is released in US cinemas on 14 May and digitally in the UK