The latest installment of the horror franchise wipes the slate clean, starting things anew in a smart way while still feeling familiar
The Saw franchise is most definitely a love-it-or-hate-it piece of cinema. The films have ranged from being shocking and disgusting, other times innovative, poignant, just plain fun, or just plain exhausting. But whatever side of the fence you’re on, the impact that the series has left on horror and the movie landscape as a whole is undeniable.
With an iconic performance by Tobin Bell, who stars as serial killer mastermind Jigsaw, and the franchise’s endless twists and graphic depictions of mutilation (usually self-inflicted), Saw dominated the box office every Halloween from 2004 to 2010, ending the saga with Saw 3D, or Saw: The Final Chapter depending on who you ask. An eight installment, 2017’s Jigsaw, added even more to the mythos, but didn’t do much in the way of revitalizing the franchise or attempting a new approach.
The good news is you don’t need to have seen the previous films to know what’s going on in Spiral, the latest chapter of the series. It’s a fresh story with all new characters, set in a world where Jigsaw has been dead for quite awhile now. The film stars Chris Rock as Detective Ezekiel “Zeke” Banks and Max Minghella as Detective William, his rookie partner. The two of them are tasked with leading an investigation into who’s behind a series of grisly killings – killings that resemble the horrifying work of the infamous Jigsaw. A bonafide copycat is on the loose, and they’re specifically targeting cops.
For some, the Saw movies gradually started to indulge themselves a bit too much in their gruesomeness, with too much focus on the deadly and elaborate traps instead of an actual story. Spiral draws from the original film’s roots by being more a thriller than a torture horror film. Time is wisely spent with the characters in the police department, making their ordeals in the killer’s various traps a little more impactful. It’s also much like Saw VI in the way the killer has more of a focused target. The sixth film had Jigsaw going after a predatory health insurance company; Spiral has the copycat killer hunting down corrupt police officers, ones that have lied in court, threatened and assaulted witnesses and reporters, frequently abused their power, and even committed murder.
It’s a bold direction to take the franchise, but one that feels like a gradual progression of the original concept. Jigsaw’s twisted logic was that his tests were all about reformation, a way for the survivors to learn how to cherish their life and restore their soul. This new killer is thinking bigger, applying that same idea to a institution rather than just individuals. They want to be the one to hold the department accountable, and the many issues with policing remains a constant part of the story. Zeke is hated by everyone in his department because he turned in a corrupt officer, a move that got him demoted and unable to trust a single one of his fellow officers.
The cast is one of the many things that set Spiral apart from its predecessors – Chris Rock brings a refreshing bit of levity to a franchise that’s always been overly serious. Zeke’s bitter wisecracks feel more natural and character-driven than distracting, and when paired with Minghella’s more naive and bright-eyed William, the two make for a classic buddy cop duo. Samuel L. Jackson also stars as Zeke’s father, only adding further legitimacy and powerhouse talent to the proceedings. Spiral is still appropriately harrowing when it needs to be, but the fact that it’s also pretty funny is a very welcome change of pace.
There’s still plenty of familiar elements that longtime fans will love as well, like some terrifying and inspired new traps, and a solid twist or two to keep audiences on their toes. Spiral widens the scope of the franchise, making it feel bigger than ever before, and it breathes new life into a series that felt like it was overdue for it. There’s obviously plenty that Saw still wants to do, and Spiral is an excellent kick off point.
Spiral: From the Book of Saw premieres in theaters May 14th.