Game over, I hope.

By Louis Balzani


  • You love the Saw franchise and thought Jigsaw wasn’t gory or edgy enough.

WARNING: Minor spoilers for Spiral follow.

Let’s get this straight right at the top – I’m not a horror prude. I’ve seen every Saw film, and there are a few I really like, but it’s hard to get past how ridiculous the franchise gets. For many years, the series dutifully trudged along as little more than torture porn wrapped in a ludicrous, soap opera-esque narrative. Even a step in the right direction in the form of 2017’s Jigsaw didn’t energize viewers (or critics) enough to reignite much public interest. Imagine my surprise, then, when Chris Rock of all people comes in to try and inject some life into the proceedings. I was intrigued by Spiral given the caliber of its actors, the passion behind the project, and the return of the writers who helped make Jigsaw, in my eyes, a reasonably fresh take on a franchise well past its expiration date. I guess you can’t make spoiled milk good again.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one – a copycat Jigsaw killer is on the loose! Rock plays Ezekiel Banks, a prickly and irritable police officer whose father (Samuel L. Jackson) and his accomplishments loom large over his precinct every day. When one of his department’s officers dies in brutal fashion, it becomes clear that someone is using Jigsaw-like traps to murder cops, one by one. Saddled with a rookie officer to train and mentor, Banks gets to work and races to discover the identity of the killer as he repeatedly tries and fails to save his colleagues from increasingly-gruesome fates.

Despite this premise’s promise – say that five times fast – it doesn’t take long for the story to disappoint. The idea of a serial killer targeting corrupt police officers is ripe for exploration, but the film doesn’t give its cops enough backstory or humanization to make us feel anything when they inevitably wind up in a trap. Like so many victims before them, they essentially exist as torture fodder, and given how the film wants to elevate this franchise, we should expect more. I’ve heard some float the idea of turning the series into a TV show, and I think that makes a lot of sense. The annual release schedule already essentially serialized those older films, and with more time to flesh characters out, we might actually care a bit once the torture starts. Just a thought.

At any rate, we can levy the same complaint about expecting more toward Jackson’s involvement; so little time is spent on his character, you’ll often forget that he’s in the movie at all. He and Rock share very little screen time, and their father-and-son relationship essentially goes undeveloped. There’s nothing here that needs an actor of Jackson’s ability to pull off, and aside from a couple of trademark swears, his presence is more or less an afterthought. It’s a missed opportunity, and it’s a damn shame.What’s worse is that this is all in service of an ending that kind of sucks. As with many horror movies, Saw films live and die by their climactic twists, and Spiral‘s is a major letdown; you’re suddenly thrust into the big finish with questionable pacing and next to no build-up. The still-iconic¬†Saw theme mandatorily revs up, shoehorned-in and unearned, while everything falls apart for the protagonists in increasingly-implausible ways. It’s frustrating to watch, and it burns through what little goodwill the preceding story beats may have earned. The ending is so abrupt and jarring that it almost feels unfinished, as though key scenes were cut with nothing left to stitch together something more coherent. Not everything needs to be a masterclass in narrative innovation, but come on, give me something to chew on.

Of course, none of this will matter to the fans who are only here for the traps, many of which are admittedly pretty intense. While none are as iconic as the reverse bear trap or the needle pit, one trap involving fingers is particularly gruesome and vivid. While die-hards will rejoice, critics of this kind of horror will find plenty to complain about, as the sizable budget enables the bloody nightmares to look even more lavish and distressing. What makes this series better for some makes it worse for others.

Aiming high and missing, Spiral struggles to connect itself to the world of the eight slaughter-fests that precede it. For much of its runtime, the film feels like something entirely different, a bland police procedural with sudden bursts of gore throughout. Chris Rock’s performance as the frustrated, cynical Zeke is bolder than you might expect, but he’s let down by a disjointed story and direction that reinforces the weaknesses of this franchise instead of its strengths. Hardcore fans will appreciate its efforts, but as usual with these movies, I was left hoping for better. It’s a bit fresher than many of the older entries, which is a good thing, but that’s not saying much.¬†Spiral may come from the book of Saw, but it’s one of those chapters you should skip and read the SparkNotes instead.