Defying the critical odds in 2004 and spanning an unlikely 8-film-strong series in the process, the original Saw became much more of a phenomenon than expected, and, arguably, than originally intended. Often synonymous with the horror sub-genre of “torture porn”, James Wan‘s grimy, low budget affair delighted in its gory aesthetics, but tried its best to offset such with a relatively intriguing detective story.
Initial sequels followed suit – Darren Lynn Bousman‘s Saw II is often cited as the series’ strongest – but the more the narrative progressed, so too the horrific manner in which the films’ interchangeable characters were disposed; the appeal of the Saw films has always been the violent mentality it has adopted towards the elaborate traps the overarching villain – Tobin Bell‘s Jigsaw – created in order to teach his subjects the valuable lesson of appreciating their life.
After 2010’s Saw: the Final Chapter ended on more of a whimper than a wow – despite impressive monetary returns, it’s the lowest rated entry from a critical standpoint – and 2017’s Jigsaw failed to truly reignite interest in the manner intended, it’s understandable that the announcement of this ninth offering – Spiral: From the Book of Saw – was met with more puzzlement than praise; as much as it was hailed as another sequel though, the minds behind the film have very much framed it as a sidequel and not officially in the Saw timeline.
Those minds would be returning helmer Bousman and the unlikely cheerleader of Chris Rock. The predominantly comedically-minded actor is a fan of all things Saw, and it was his respect and enthusiasm for the films that gave the distributors the faith to back his story treatment, one that (rather topically) touches on the idea of dirty cops and the punishments that fit their in-house transgressions. The narrative of police officers facing the rightful consequences of their illegal actions is one that is perhaps too political for such a horror-leaning picture as Spiral, but screenwriters Josh Stolberg (Jigsaw, Piranha 3D) and Pete Goldfinger (Sorority Row) keep things straightforward and, wisely, incredibly grisly.
Among such cringe-inducing sequences as tongues being ripped from open mouths, fingers being painstakingly torn from the hands that house them, and an incredibly unnerving set-piece involving hot wax and a severed spinal cord, Spiral places Rock’s hardened detective Zeke Banks in the thick of a growing case surrounding a serial killer whose crime scenes are all eerily similar to the set-ups Jigsaw came to be known for; the film makes a few passing mentions of the series’ central murderer but very much operates as its own entity.
Just why Banks is the detective the elusive killer is toying with is part of the fun of Stolberg and Goldfinger’s twisted script, with certain key players all earning prominence throughout as either the next potential victim or the eventual shock reveal as the mastermind behind the very R-rated carnage; Max Minghella‘s nice guy rookie Schenk, Marisol Nichols‘s no-nonsense Captain Angie Garza, and Samuel L. Jackson‘s veteran officer all in the film’s firing line.
Much like the majority of the Saw films, it’s the knack for surprising throughout – however convoluted it may be – that consistently assists Spiral in its violent pacing towards its inevitably shocking conclusion. Whether it’s unable to blindside you or it manages to gleefully knock you for six, Bousman’s confident return behind the camera and Rock’s capable performance (one that’s intelligent enough to let him flex his comedic muscle at times) help elevate this particular chapter above a great deal of the more gory-minded sequels that Saw gave licence to.
Spiral: From the Book of Saw is now screening in theatres.
*This review originally appeared on The AU Review. It has been re-published with the author’s permission.