The grisly murder of a police officer recalls the heinous crimes of The Jigsaw Killer. Detective Ezekiel Banks (Chris Rock) is tasked with finding the culprit before a new cycle of cruel and sometimes ironic games begin, but the killer seems hellbent on making this personal for Banks, and may well have already struck close to home.
The Saw Franchise was something of a guilty pleasure of 00s horror. Key viewing of the “torture porn” movement, the saw films were in fact deeply masochistic fair. The main appeal was forcing the viewer to ask themselves some very difficult “would-you-rather” style questions. Could you cut off your foot with a hacksaw to survive? However the franchise frequently distracted itself with an unfortunate obsession with the police undertaking dull investigations and increasingly obtuse flashbacks to the labyrinthine past of the killer and his acquaintances. The films remain entertaining thanks to the often terrible acting and dialogue, the rapidly aging film-making style and, occasionally, the actual survival premise which remains tantalising.
It is very surprising then just how many of the franchises biggest flaws Spiral manages to indulge in successfully. With no main game for the story to revert back to, we are solely left with the police investigation plot. However with a surprisingly committed and compelling performance from Chris Rock and an attention to character that has been sorely missing from the franchise, makes the investigation far more interesting than the usual dot-connecting exercise that just about tied the eariler films together. The gory set pieces are far fewer, matching perhaps only the first entry, but hit with greater resonance. With a more restrained filming style and a grisly simplicity, the traps feel painful and relatable. The prospect of ripping one’s tongue out one’s mouth to survive is made viscerally real.
As a saw film, this is actually one of the best sequels for what that’s worth. But as a standalone horror film and thriller, Spiral is only really competent. It does enough to keep you invested in it’s main character and his world, spreads out it’s thrills well and builds a sense of mystery that it’s not quite able to pay off. The twist is fairly predictable and a plot beat at the end of the second act confirms the identity of the killer, resulting in a fairly dull third act.
The best saw films gave a little though to it’s victims, particularly the riotously blunt critique of the healthcare system in Saw 6. Here is a very interesting commentary of issues in modern policing, specifically of corruption and use of extreme force. Had the film been produced after last summer, instead of before they may have bitten a little harder, but it’s still interesting and a little exciting to see a rotten police district torn apart for their sins. It’s transgressive in that way that horror can be.
Spiral is not revolutionary but it might just be good enough to rejuvenate the franchise. Darren Lynn Boseman has developed his style considerably over the past decade and offers a vision of the series that is both faithful and thoroughly modern. For all it’s faults, I can’t help but hope that this game is far from over.