Since its inception in 2004, Saw has had a long and tumultuous journey throughout the horror landscape – causing its share of controversies and even forming its own subgenre of horror along the way. Saw was a fresh take on the splatter film genre, forming into what is now known as “torture porn”. Because of this, many are under the assumption that Saw popularized gore and therefore that is what defines it, but this is only partly true; as the original Saw (2004) film was not quite as gory as one may think. What Saw really had going for it shouldn’t be diluted down to something as simple as just gore; it contained a combination of aspects that made it a genuinely compelling film. These aspects? The desperation, the moral, and the twist. The original Saw film wasn’t gratuitous for the sake of it, instead it married together the aforementioned aspects to subvert its audiences expectations on what exactly they were receiving. Anyone going into Saw expected blood and they most certainly received it, but it also provided far more substance than anyone had expected.
“Better than I expected” is about the highest praise you can give a Saw film, as none of the successive films within the franchise managed to ever top the original in being a solid all-arounder. After years of these unremarkable installments, it has become clear that the Saw franchise has lost sight of its core identity; film by film, piece by piece, limb by limb; the core aspects of Saw have been plucked away. 17 years on, eight films later and here we are with Spiral – an attempt at reviving this tortured franchise so it can bleed out a little longer. The question is, does it succeed?
Well, just like the name suggests Spiral has a tendency to go in circles – following the typical structure of caught, bound, tortured, and repeat – until eventually the perpetrator is caught. Who’s tracking down this killer might you ask? Detective Zeke Banks played by Chris Rock. Rock stands as perhaps one of the worst lead performances I have seen in a film in quite some time, especially by such a powerhouse name. Chris does not, for one moment, portray himself as a convincing detective in this film. From his exaggerated mannerisms to his loud and distinctive angry tone during tense sequences – Rock absolutely held this film back, as his on-screen presence and blatantly unappealing facial expressions were a direct distraction when they should have elevated the story. This simply is not a film with particularly strong performances from any of its cast members – but what it lacks in that area it does somewhat make up for in providing a genuinely respectable moral message and a final twist that genuinely raises eyebrows.
But there’s an absence of something in Spiral that irked in just the wrong way, something less tangible than unsatisfactory performances. I’ve mentioned that Spiral succeeds in providing a moral message and succeeds in deploying a surprising twist – but where it ultimately falters is in its lack of tension and desperation. A few of the Saw films have this ability to make everything feel like a race against the clock, from the threat of the killer, to the time ticking by before one of traps activate and cause a gruesome death – but little to none of this desperation or fear is felt in Spiral as each trap sequence is so cluttered with clumsy editing and poorly throughout direction that ultimately, death sequences feel more like a chore than a core aspect that this franchise has been heralded by. Spiral simply doesn’t quite have that same bite as your typical Saw film.
Spiral drifts away from the usual rusty aesthetic of the original Saw films and aims towards sun-drenched color grading that becomes tiresome quite quickly. The heavily muted color palettes feel completely artificial and unnatural that doesn’t quite draw you in or align close enough to the tone of the film. The shot selection is unusual and chaotic as it doesn’t distinct itself with a style of filmmaking but moreso, relies too much on its editing rather than trust the cinematographer, Jordan Oram. This is particularly exposed in its gory kills as an overwhelming number of extreme close-up shots are shown within seconds rather than allowing the audience to absorb the brutality of these sequences.
Honestly, a particularly redeemable factor of Spiral is the production design which approaches the set-design with a sense of care and creativity. The gory sequences are creative, interesting (even if the camera doesn’t allow us to experience it in all its glory) but it presents compelling decision-making situations from these. The blood work is exceptional as it makes each scene that little bit more squirmish – as it is expected to be in a Saw film. Charlie Clouser doesn’t stray too far from the typical horror movie formula with his score being borderline uninspiring and forgettable, the only notable aspect of the score is the two rap soundtracks we hear earlier in the film when introducing Chris Rock’s character, Detective Zeke Banks. If you were hoping to have a more natural jump scare throughout Spiral then sadly it’s not going to happen as the film makers decide to use another typical horror trope and have screeching high pitched sounds to induce the jump scare out of you. Now this is fine for the first few jump scares, however they use it far too often which devalues the scare and after a while it just irritates your ear drums.
Spiral provides an admirable message within its “plot” – but it’s ultimately let down by its circular storytelling, lackluster horror, and a performance by Chris Rock that was so painful that I genuinely felt trapped in a Jigsaw contraption at times. This is perhaps one of the better Saw films to release in a long time and with that all I can say is, keep it up. But for horror fans looking for inventive gore or that gritty sadistic tone, look elsewhere. This follow-up makes some heavy sacrifices to achieve the half decent message it managed to portray.