It was 2004 that the first Saw film was released. It was an instant horror classic and as each subsequent sequel arrived into multiplexes, they became the event film of everyone’s Halloween. Then along came Paranormal Activity, which stole the Halloween crown, and after a last ditch attempt to capture audiences by making a three-dimensional version with film seven. The series then came back in 2017 with the slightly altered name of Jigsaw. Sadly this film went up against both Happy Death Day and Thor: Ragnarok, and wasn’t the massive success that the studio had hoped. What it did achieve however, was proof that there was still an audience interested in the series, and so a new film went into production. That film became Spiral: From the Book of Saw, and it has none other than Chris Rock in the producing chair. Rock apparently approached one of the higher-ups of Lionsgate at the wedding of a mutual friend, and pitched his involvement in the project. Whatever he said worked, and not only did the film get the greenlight, franchise director Darren Lynn Bousman agreed to return.
Bousman previously worked behind the camera on Saw II, III, and IV, before handing the chair over to others. This time around, the film moves away from John Kramer’s Jigsaw, his disciples, and Billy the Puppet, in favour of telling a fresh new story with an entirely different antagonist. This new killer has clearly been inspired by the work of Kramer and co, but that’s where the similarities end. Chris Rock leads as Detective Zeke Banks, a by-the-book and honest police officer surrounded by a corrupted force. Our new Jigsaw has taken issue with the members of Zeke’s station and begins targeting them one-by-one. Teamed up with rookie William Schenk (Max Minghella), Zeke must navigate the minefield of dodgy cops, as well as the traps and tricks of the new menace.
Those expecting a rehash of what we have seen for the last eight films will either be delighted or disgusted to discover that Spiral is its own very unique feature. Much like the latest Wrong Turn film, Spiral deviates from the formula that made the Saw franchise so successful. It doesn’t pivot as drastically as Wrong Turn, which erased the mutated cannibals upon which the series had been built, but Bousman has crafted a film that is a police drama first, and Saw movie second. The onus is much more on Banks and Schenk as they try to track down their menace. In this way, it feels much more of a film like Seven (which the original Saw was also closely compared to) mixed with a buddy-cop flick like Lethal Weapon. Yes – this Saw movie is funny – the inclusion of natural funny man Chris Rock infuses the piece with a lightness that has not been experienced in this setting before. The dynamic between his grizzled and downtrodden pro juxtaposes with Minghella’s wide-eyed innocence. Early on in their relationship there are even fleeting glimpses of Point Break’s Johnny Utah and Angelo Pappas. It’s an intriguing direction to move the franchise into, and one that helps to separate it from the very bloated pack.
As solid as Spiral is as a police procedural serial killer thriller, it is in the more traditional Saw elements that the film struggles to take off. For fans of the series as a whole, there may simply be too many new things to contend with. As the title suggests, this Jigsaw is working off of a different book altogether and so favourite components get lost by the wayside. Billy the puppet, who was of course a gift from John to wife Jill, is disappointingly absent. That will be a shock to many, especially as so much of the marketing for the entire series has revolved around it. In his place is an equally disturbing, though not quite so impactful, pig marionette. It’s a clear nod to Amanda’s pig mask, as well as a diss on the police targets, but fails to elicit the same energy as Billy. Then there’s the updated Jigsaw voice; gone is the usual chilling husk, replaced with a more androgynous reverberating voice that lacks the same impact. The same could be said of the ‘reveal’ of the identity of our new Jigsaw. It is by no means as intricate or clever as one would hope it to be. The savvy will realise who it is very early on as big clues are dropped, meaning the usual big pay-off at the film’s finale is lost.
What Spiral does retain, are the traps. Bousman may opt to push them into the background for most of the runtime, but when he does let them out to play, he does so with his usual gleeful garishness. Though not quite on the same level of viciousness as Saw III, Spiral sees plenty of flesh, blood, and bone, splattered, squished, and sliced on the screen. This time around, victims get railroaded, electrocuted, melted, and shattered into pieces, leaving plenty of opportunity for gallons of gore. The traps are as elaborate as ever, but also follow through the new vein of humour by having an almost ‘fun’ slant to them.
During the course of the movie our new Jigsaw 2.0 remarks that a spiral signifies change, evolution, and progress, and the same sentiment can certainly be reflected back upon the film itself. It offers a shake-up to what we have become familiar with, pushing into a new direction and progressing the discourse into a more timely arena. It’s not quite what we’re historically accustomed to from the cinematic world of Saw, but Spiral introduces a new take that just might sustain the franchise for a few more films.
Whilst not exactly the same as the Saw films of yesteryear, Spiral still manages to maintain enough of the essence of the franchise’s spirit to delight those that worship at the altar of Jigsaw, whilst also presenting a more accessible prospect for the uninitiated.
Spiral: From the Book of Saw is available to own on home entertainment and digital platforms now.
This review first appeared on THN.