Horror film revivals are becoming increasingly common in the movie industry. Series like Halloween and The Grudge have experienced different fortunes with their respective relaunches in the past few years, while other properties, like the upcoming Scream reboot, will hope to capture that old magic by blending nostalgic horror and modern themes.
Spiral, the latest entry in the Saw series, finds itself in a similar position. Tasked with appealing to established fans and newcomers alike, the ninth Saw movie tries to recapture the gory essence of its predecessors while moving the series forward.
Spiral, though, struggles to find a balance between preserving the Saw series’ identity and broadening its genre appeal, and ultimately stumbles through its 93-minute runtime.
Playing a new game
Spiral stars Chris Rock as Ezekiel ‘Zeke’ Banks, a police detective charged with finding out who’s responsible for a series of gruesome murders reminiscent of those carried out by John Kramer, aka the Jigsaw killer (Tobin Bell).
Forced to work alongside rookie cop William Schenk (Max Minghella) by precinct captain Angie Garza (Marisol Nichols), Zeke soon finds himself at the center of the killer’s twisted game – one that seemingly has ties to his father Marcus (Samuel L. Jackson).
Structurally, Spiral is a solid homage to the Saw series. As with previous entries, there’s a new cast of characters who become embroiled in a murderous game of cat and mouse, plenty of gruesome moments (more on these later) and a wider mystery that the film’s protagonist – Chris Rock, in this case – has to solve.
It seems peculiar, then, that Spiral isn’t being marketed as a horror movie in the same vein as previous entries, with Lionsgate angling Spiral as a suspenseful thriller instead.
Sure, switching up the series' genre is one way to give it a fresh start, and audiences may not necessarily care about how Spiral is categorized from this standpoint. Still, it feels like a misstep, particularly when Spiral supposed to continue the horror-flavored story that we’ve followed since 2004’s Saw.
It’s a decision that seems stranger still considering that Spiral is, well, anything but suspenseful. The plot moves at such a quick pace that there’s no time to take stock of the events that play out, which kills any of the tension that might have built up over the film's runtime.
This lack of suspense bleeds over into the film’s tentpole moments, too. Despite the gravity of what happens to Rock’s protagonist in this story, or the horrifying events that play out around him, Spiral doesn’t allow Zeke to come to terms with the story's major developments. Spiral puts Zeke through a gauntlet of psychological torture, but it’s difficult to empathize with him when he appears to shrug most of this off with relative ease.
Ironically, despite Spiral’s pacing, it also never seems like there’s any urgency to the characters’ actions. Zeke is in a race against time to stop the murderer's plans from coming to fruition, but it doesn’t feel like there's much tension in this, even though there’s a serial killer at large.
Nobody’s ever in much of a hurry to stop the killer’s murder spree, one driving sequence aside, as Zeke hares across town to prevent one particular event from happening. The amount of exposition before and after each death doesn’t help Spiral’s cause, either, and it would’ve helped if audiences were given the chance to put the puzzle pieces together themselves, rather than have plot points force fed to them.
Of course, some viewers won’t be watching Spiral for its plot, but for its terrifying traps and gruesome deaths. For those hoping for some truly grisly moments, there are plenty of them. Saw fans will get a sadistic kick out of the contraptions on show, especially those reserved for the less likeable characters. As someone who isn’t ordinarily affected by gory horror, there were certainly moments where I felt genuinely squeamish, and it’s a positive for Spiral that it elicited that reaction from me.
If you've seen the other Saw movies, you'll be happy to hear there are references to the series’ wider lore in Spiral. There aren't many of them, but these callbacks do help to cement Spiral’s plot in the Saw universe. They also help series newcomers to get a basic understanding of previous Saw movies, and even if a couple of references feel a tad forced, they provide context to events surrounding the Jigsaw killer.
Outside of the gore and series throwbacks, though, Spiral doesn’t have much else going for it. There’s a timely thematic message at Spiral’s center that leaves viewers with something to ponder once the credits roll, and Rock does bring some comedic touches to scenes early in the film – an obvious upside to casting a seasoned standup as the lead. These touches make way for the movie's serial killer hunt, though, which is a shame. If Spiral really wanted to stand out from its predecessors, it might have helped to lean into some darkly comic elements or focus more heavily on the themes hinted at by the story.
Spiral's casting choices are pretty solid, at least. Rock and Jackson do their best to liven things up, and the duo have a natural chemistry in the few scenes they share together. Given how well the pair bounce off each other, though, you might have expected them to share more screen time together.
What we think
Spiral feels like a movie from another time. The Saw series is one of the highest grossing horror franchises of all time, but the bulk of its success came during the early 2000s when audiences needed a new dread-inducing, grotesque horror series to get behind.
If Spiral had arrived during the height of the series’ success, I might have looked on it more favorably. In 2021, though, its premise feels stale. Despite the creative team's best efforts to make it feel fresh, and their obvious passion for the source material, the movie's change in genre doesn't give it enough of a kick.
Another Saw movie has already been greenlit, but Spiral is just the latest entry in a series that’s outstayed its welcome by this point. There might be enough nostalgia for Saw down the line that a new entry could generate a little more goodwill than Spiral manages; four years after the release of the series’ last movie, though, isn’t the right time for that.
Spiral arrives in theaters on May 14 in the US and May 21 in the UK.
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