It's hard to overstate the impact the original 2004 Saw had on the world of horror, as it not only signified a trend in which the genre attempted to push the limits of violence that could be depicted on screen, but also demonstrated director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell's ambitious ideas of horror, with the pair going on to dominate the genre world over the coming decades. The series was so effective and came with an inherent replication, a new sequel would debut every year, culminating with Saw 3D in 2010. In hopes of reviving the dormant franchise while also offering new perspectives, Spiral: From the Book of Saw offers a number of glimpses at the potential of revisiting the concept with a fresh perspective, though ultimately relies on its old tricks to prevent it from setting itself above its predecessors.
After turning in one of his crooked coworkers, detective Zeke Banks (Chris Rock) doesn't have many allies in his precinct, which doesn't help when he's the responding officer on a gruesome crime scene. Enlisting the help of rookie detective William Schenk (Max Minghella), Zeke realizes he's become a pawn in a grisly game of cat and mouse that eerily resembles the crimes of the brutal murderer John Kramer.
Other than Tobin Bell's performance as Kramer in the previous eight films, you'd be hard-pressed to point towards any memorable characters or performances in the history of the Saw franchise. This isn't to say that those films are devoid of any competent performers, but when you're churning out a new film every year, the star of the show quickly became the gruesome traps over any character development. Spiral, on the other hand, immediately sets itself above a majority of what came before it, thanks to the dynamic between Rock and Minghella. The formula for their relationship is far from unique, as we've seen it in countless buddy-cop adventures, though the writing and execution of this dynamic, as well as the time we're allowed to spend with these characters, causes the audience to actually invest in their wellbeing. Rock's scenes with Samuel L. Jackson offer us a pairing we might not have anticipated, yet can't get enough of, as compared to the disposable, one-dimensional figures from the franchise's past.
When fans heard about Rock's involvement in the new film, some were wary that he was merely getting invested just to lampoon the absurd premise. Luckily, it's quite clear that Rock has immense respect for the series, while also managing to give multiple genuinely hilarious quips, none of which take away from the intensity of the subject matter. One joke about pilates, in particular, is likely the funniest moment in the franchise's history.
Devout fans of the Saw franchise will likely try to explain how the true magic of the series is its complex and surprising narrative, shocking audiences with each new reveal and connection to the past, though the more lackadaisical viewers will tell you the appeal of Saw is one thing and one thing only: traps. Whether you've seen one installment or every single one, you can likely recall one of the punishing torture devices more easily than any character name, with Spiral pivoting away from the more cumbersome devices and sticking with simpler, yet no less gruesome, methods of death. Rather than Rube Goldberg-ian contraptions, we're given mechanisms that could feasibly have been crafted by anyone with enough sadistic passion, yet wouldn't have required an engineering degree from MIT. The visual unease from each device and the carnage it commits will vary with each viewer, based on your own specific bodily trauma triggers, with every instrument of death not only feeling consistent with its predecessors while also suiting the tone of this reinvention of the series.
Virtually all murder mysteries come with the inherent issue of an audience attempting to uncover the mystery before the characters do, with the Saw series facing the added issue of characters seemingly coming back from the dead or discovering the timeline of a narrative isn't exactly what we had assumed. Despite much of Spiral delivering a fresh take on such a formula, its third act ends up largely replicating the expected notes of the eight films that came before it, thanks to all manner of unexpected reveals. This setback, as we've experienced time and time again, leaves the audience to feel swindled as opposed to surprised. When a magician manages to successfully identify your card, you're initially impressed, though when they reveal they've also stolen your wallet, you're frustrated and disappointed that you allowed yourself to be impressed that someone could find the eight of hearts.
Spiral: From the Book of Saw almost immediately shows off just how much more entertaining and impressive a sequel in the series can be when it focuses on story and character as opposed to unsettling the audience, but it fails to come out from under its own legacy, still culminating in an "unexpected" finale. Longtime fans will surely appreciate the new approach to the concept, yet it offers little to win over those doubtful about how much potential the concept ever had in the first place.
Rating: 3 out of 5
Spiral: From the Book of Saw hits theaters on May 14th.