By Elias Savada.
Strings a handful of grisly murder traps together in its fairly mundane whodunit frame.”
As the Saw horror series goes, its new spinoff, being fully titled Spiral: From the Book of Saw, isn’t much to write home about. Despite the presence of comedian Chris Rock, in a deadly earnest, squint-till-it-hurts role, and Samuel L. Jackson (too briefly) chewing up the scenery, this thankfully short (93-minute) episode in the series of now nine films dating back to 2004 just strings a handful of grisly murder traps together in its fairly mundane whodunit frame. This latest feature in the twisted film franchise offers up the standard scare-quenching, over-mechanized torture scenes, but little in the way of creative writing, with screenwriters Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger back from the 8th chapter, 2017’s Jigsaw.
Director Darren Lynn Bousman, who made his feature debut with 2005’s Saw II, and also helmed the III and IV editions – I guess the producers want to pretend they have a serious offering with all the Roman numerals they used for the first five sequels, released annually each October through 2009 – hasn’t had much traction outside of this tool set. Among his cheap thrills are Mother’s Day (2010), The Barrens (2012), Abattoir (2016), and Death of Me! (2020), which cumulatively grossed less than $2 million worldwide. Why pay for a higher grade of director when your base audience probably doesn’t care?
On the social front, the film may provide some cold comfort to folks who don’t like crooked cops, and the “I want to play a game” vigilante certainly has a lengthy checklist against the South Metro detective squad in the not-mentioned city of Philadelphia (but mostly shot in Toronto). The police are downed by a pig-masked (but not socially distanced) purveyor of the grisly get-back — that happens when they all head into various snares without a partner. Don’t they have a buddy system? As for motives, they’re scattered about as uneven flashbacks to fill in the weak storyline.
Rock is the outcast in the squad room, having turned in a bad partner a dozen years earlier. He plays impetuous and LOUD Detective Zeke Banks, a pariah without a sidekick until his boss, Captain Angie Garza (Marisol Nichols) assigns him a rookie, Detective William Schenk (Max Minghella), a family man quite eager to earn Zeke’s trust. Jackson plays Marcus Banks, Zeke’s father and the former captain in the same precinct. His relationship to his son is strained, even if he’s the younger Banks’s landlord. While I didn’t clock his total screen time, I suspect he shot for a few days at most. His first appearance is at the 26-minute mark for a short tête-à-tête with Zeke, then again forty+ minutes later. He’s there at the climax, at least. Or is it at most?
As an R-rated film, Spiral falls right in line with its like-rated predecessors. Every one of them has some variant of “grisly violence and language,” sometimes with bloody and torture tossed in as other warning descriptors. Those of you buying tickets for this film already know the horrific drill – a criminal mastermind is afoot and you try to find the clues that will help you identify the perp before the ending’s big reveal. The filmmakers point your eyes toward more than a few, and you have to dissect some of the wordplay (and not just from the ambiguous riddles from the killer) if you want to play his or her guessing game, although the murderer remains fairly well hidden until the last ten minutes.
The city’s grungy underbelly is well designed by Anthony Cowley, and the photography (by Jordan Oram) keeps you properly in the dark. The throbbing soundtrack is a headbanger (bring aspirin), and the editing frantic. Whether the m.o. for murder is death by speeding subway train, shallow pool of soon-to-be-electrified water, hot wax, or a blood letting, you’ll get your fill of gore. I still can’t believe that the numerous customized contraptions were all contrived and built by single person, but maybe that’s part of the storyline for Spiral II.
Rock, cited as a “massive fan” of horror films according to the production notes, is also one of the film’s executive producers. Another e.p., Jason Constantine, who is producer/distributor Lionsgate’s president of acquisitions and co-productions, gets a shout out on one of the crime scenes used by the killer. Cute.
Oh, the rest of you? Stay home. Take a pass. Wait for A Quiet Place Part II at month’s end. FYI, this is the first film I saw in a theater since March 2020. I should have waited for a brighter day and a better film.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).