Don’t bite your tongue, people. If Spiral: From the Book of Saw is the start of a new side-quel series in some kind of Saw-verse, we can only expect a continuity that swaps the Donnie Wahlbergs for the Chris Rocks, but keeps the same tortured mechanisms - from props to story. Bigger names, suffered plots, same old same old expectations and payoffs. To go boldly into the breach of horror with a clever eye isn’t what the filmmakers usually go for with this, and likely isn’t what most audiences prefer. Just have creepy bad guys put other bad guys in rough contraptions, and let us grab onto our armrests in suspense, please. The gimmicky carnival approach isn’t unheard of or unwelcome, but remove anything from the formula and replace it with next to nothing, and you’ll take a downward dive even further than you thought you would.
There’s a copycat Jigsaw killer out and about, targetting former and current cops for their transgressions, capturing them not so much for “lessons” to be “learned,” but for more twisted reasons, under a veil and facade of insight through pain. Each crime scene that Chris Rock’s detective investigates is brutally visceral and bloody, impressively and excessively so. Familiar horror director Darren Bousman revels in these sequences, lighting and composing them with highlights and atmospherics that are terribly missing from every other scene in the film, which looks and feels mostly ugly but thankfully quick. When Rock approaches a parked car that could potentially hold a clue, there’s a briefly heated color palette with a yellow-ish glow that bathes around him, intensifying the heatwave hovering over the setting and the broiling anger and trauma within his body. Sadly, these bits are few and far between.
Everything in Spiral is hinged on Chris Rock’s appearance. Not performance mind you, but appearance. His sheer showing up in a Saw film has all of our attention, and no matter how well he acts (and he does a damn fine and fun job), we’re more transfixed by this casting fact than anything else. It’s an interesting kind of exploitation to be sure, one that executive producer Rock participates in gleefully. I’m not against it, but did a Saw project, all things considered, need his hook? Or even Samuel Jackson getting hooked up, so to speak? Yes and maybe no, of course. As a moviegoer, sure. As a neither here nor there casual acquaintance of this series… eh. That’s just me.
Beneath all other criticisms of Spiral, there’s this unfortunate attempt at having something to “say” going on too. Crime reform, policing policies, racial equity, etc - you’ll get a headache keeping track of what the film feels and what we’re supposed to feel at a given moment. Spiral is a stinker of a thinker, going out of its way and over its head in forming a not so eloquent statement on modern times. Stick to the traps of pain, and stay away from the trappings of a message - at least with this kind of movie. It all started with mysteries and twists, so keep that going, no matter how silly they might end up being. As long as the kills are effective, most else will be smoothed over. Keep it simple.
By the very end, I was genuinely laughing out loud at how far off the rails Spiral went. It turned into a literal spiral of chaos, only to crescendo as it could: confused brutality with mixed messaging and an exclamation point of punctuation. It was quite a sequence, uncomfortable to watch and to absorb it probably represented, but that last shot of a man screaming in drained terror summed up everything. Spiral isn’t good, but it does have less than a handful of good pieces, which ultimately made my first post-vaccination screening an odd joy. Very odd.
It’s borderline offensive to senses and sensibilities, it’s a poor passing of problematic progression, and yet it makes for a decent watch. One decent watch, but still. Sometimes, even the bad flicks can make for a kind of decent pick. Kind of “decent.” 1.5/5