The newest chapter in the Saw franchise, and the first one that’s acting as a spinoff from the main narrative, is an absolute trainwreck. Promising something original, inventive and unique, Spiral: From the Book of Saw takes the franchise in a new direction away from what people have expected from the last 8 entries. This is an approach I was intrigued by… but is one I now wish I never had to see.
Look, I’ll give credit where credit’s due. Theres no question that the film is a new take on the franchise. Some core elements remain, but for the most part it adopts a different tone, aesthetic and style of narrative. It’s clear that the budget of this movie is much higher than previous instalments – there’s multiple locations and a number of outdoor sets (which isn’t common for a Saw film). It also has a visual aesthetic that’s very reminiscent of something like David Fincher’s Se7en. These technical elements – the visuals, aesthetics and all of that are pretty well handled. I can say that, visually, it looks very nice. It’s one aspect that’s very different for the franchise, but still works… almost everything else does not.
The narrative this time around follows Zeke (Chris Rock) who is following a trail of clues to solve the mystery of who is targeting cops and placing them in Jigsaw-like traps. Almost everything about the plot, from the pacing to the characters, is agonising to watch. Let’s start with the pacing. This movie feels like it’s on fast forward the entire time, zooming through all the key moments to try and get it down to 90 minutes. It feels like so much time is skipped over that it’s hard to get invested in anything going on. Saw films, typically, take place almost entirely over the course of a single day. This tries to cram in multiple days worth of content and it’s an absolute mess. It all hinges around the mystery of “who’s the killer this time”, a mystery that can hardly be called a mystery because it holds up for maybe half the movie before it becomes pretty clear-cut.
When this movie started with a cold open containing a classic small-scale trap, as is expected from a Saw film, I was wholly on board. It seemed like, despite taking a different approach, it will still feel like a Saw film. However, it’s all downhill from there. In taking things in a different direction, it throws everything that made a Saw film special right out the window. As I said, some things remain, but the overall identity is so far from what’s familiar that it doesn’t even feel remotely like a Saw movie. Typically, the traps are the focus of the movie – they act as key points that you’re trying to get to, and when they finally happen, it’s a big memorable moment. Here, the traps feel like they’re in the background, as if the writers were like “eh, let’s throw in a trap for some padding”. They don’t make an impact. For example, there’s a moment where they intro a trap, then cut to the aftermath of the trap where you see the outcome, then proceed to show us the trap unfolding. At that point I don’t care about the trap because I know how it ends. It’s a poor approach across the board.
Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse, the climax of this movie is absolutely horrible. This moment, that is supposed to be the biggest and most shocking part of any Saw film, is a laughable disaster. It doesn’t even make sense, in fact, it makes the rest of the plot, which was already shit, even dumber with a shit explanation of why all this was happening. It’s quite possibly the worst scene in any Saw film. Why this is all so perplexing to me is because if I look at Saw VII, it’s clear to me that it’s a shit movie. There’s no questioning the fact that it’s a poorly written film. But I still love it because it encapsulates what I love about Saw and is tied in to the existing narrative… something that this film throws away.
Oh and speaking of throwing it all away, to really put the icing on the cake, there is a line in this movie that is so infuriating that I wanted to leave the theatre. At one point, Chris Rock’s Zeke says “John Kramer didn’t target cops”…. um…. what the fuck? From Eric Matthews and Allison Kerry to Daniel Rigg and even Mark Hoffman, he absolutely targeted cops. The main targets of both Saw II and Saw IV were cops. What makes this even more baffling is the fact that Darren Lynn Bousman directed those two movies and also directed this one. How this makes it into the film just shows how much of a disaster it really all is.
When it comes to the cast, a lot of people were quick to criticise the fact that Chris Rock was taking the lead in a horror film. Mainly on the basis that he was probably going to turn it into a comedy. I was on the optimistic side of things – believing that he could turn around and deliver a solid serious performance. Now that I’ve seen the film, Chris Rock just isn’t the right fit for a Saw film. He does inject a bit of comedy here and there, not to the point of being overpowering, but it just didn’t fit. His demeanour and the overall vibe he brings to the film just feels tonally out of place. He also just didn’t make for a compelling protagonist. Samuel L Jackson is good though. He has a very limited role, as expected, but he shows his acting class in each of his brief scenes. In contrast to Chris Rock’s worst line of the film, Jackson has the best line of the film which makes for a momentary second of enjoyment in an otherwise dull film.
There’s not much else I can get into without getting fully into spoiler territory, so I’ll leave it there. In the end, this movie is an absolute shitshow… and as a die-hard Saw fan, that hurts to say. I never thought I’d say that about a Saw film, considering I’ve enjoyed all 8 previous instalments, but here we are. I’d even hesitate to call it a Saw spinoff… I’d like to disown it entirely. The narrative is dumb, mystery is lacklustre, pacing is awful, acting is average at best and, outside of the opening scene, it’s almost never enjoyable. All of the changes – ditching the storylines of previous films, contradicting existing information, focusing less on the traps and more end up hurting the film greatly. It’s more of a CSI or NCIS-esque police drama than a Saw film, and that’s not the vibe anyone is going for when walking into a Saw film. I wish I could burn it out of my mind since there aren’t many redeemable qualities besides some technical aspects, but alas, we’re stuck with it.