Review: Spiral (2021)

For those keeping score, Spiral: From the Book of Saw is the ninth movie in the splatter horror franchise that built a name on elaborate death traps and perverse morality. For this latest entry, Chris Rock takes the lead as a police detective investigating an ever-growing pile of bodies left behind from a copycat of Jigsaw, the twisted mastermind of the series. Rock's character is the son of a famous cop, played by Samuel L. Jackson, and in addition to solving the murders, he's got a lot of baggage from a complicated father/son relationship. 

The reader may be wondering "what does this movie bring to the table that's fresh and unique?" The answer? Not much. Because we finally seem to have moved on from Jigsaw, we've got a new mystery to unravel and new victims, even new faces leading the charge against these horrific crimes, but really, Spiral offers more of the same that we've come to expect from this series. That's either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your affection for the Saw films.

Chris Rock has been making an effort to stretch outside of his comedic wheelhouse into more dramatic fare, and he actively pursued this horror part. As he mentions in the behind-the-scenes documentary that accompanies the 4K/Blu-ray/Digital release, he saw an opportunity to bring a bit of humor to the lead role of Spiral. Unfortunately, most of the humor seems missing, or just doesn't work. This is one of Chris Rock's darkest, angriest performances, and it's such a dramatic departure from what we've come to expect for him, I'm not sure most of it works. He feels in over his head for most of the film. When Samuel L. Jackson shows up, he makes everything seem effortless by comparison. The movie co-stars Max Minghella (The Social Network) as Chris Rock's protege, and Marisol Nichols (TV's Riverdale) as the police captain. 

Because this is a cop drama as well as a horror film, there's an interesting theme of corruption that surrounds the film. It's worth mentioning that the movie was completed in 2020, but put on hold due to the global pandemic. Therefore, certain timely elements of the story concerning police brutality and revenge against cops are even more relevant than they were when the movie was being filmed. 

Unfortunately, even though delayed for a year, the movie still feels rushed. Certain plot points feel unexplored, and the third act has an interesting premise that it ultimately fails to deliver upon. The film is not helped by bad dialogue, either. When a character asks to borrow Chris Rock's phone, he replies "don't drain my battery watching Twilight." What an odd reference. When exploring the evidence after a murder, he says "I've been staring at this s**t for 5 hours. I don't even look at porn that long." Even the great Sam Jackson is not safe from bad lines: when he clashes with his son on the case, he says "I knew I never should have let him become a cop." Such lines are clunky, unfunny, and unnecessary. 

Still, for a Saw movie, everything we want and expect from the series is here. Fresh elaborate traps that would make Rube Goldberg proud? Check. Creepy puppets and masks? Check. Outrageous gore, done mostly with practical effects? Check. Even the tried-and-true music video editing techniques are here, though they don't feel nearly as fresh as they did back in 2004. For a franchise that built a reputation on one new film every year for an astonishing seven consecutive years, familiarity is part of the charm. 

Something else worth praising is the fact that this is a $20 million dollar movie. In today's movie marketplace, it's not at all uncommon for budgets to bloat upwards of $50 million or even much higher, so Spiral is something to celebrate: a modest budgeted horror movie with big-name talent that doesn't compromise what fans expect. The film was written and directed by veterans of the Saw movies. Screenwriters Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger wrote the prior installment Jigsaw together, and director Darren Lynn Bousman has now shepherded four of the nine films to the screen, going all the way back to Saw II in 2005.  

The new 4K disc looks very good for a movie shot digitally. Saturation is deep, colors are rich, and the textures of fabrics and even stubbled faces look fantastic. The film is accompanied by the aforementioned behind-the-scenes feature, The Consequences of Your Actions: Creating Spiral--also presented in 4K--which runs nearly one hour and is packed with stories from the production. It's interesting, if not surprising, to learn that this movie began life as a completely different film that would once again feature Jigsaw. How and why the story changed, how Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson were brought aboard, and how the film ultimately took a new direction are all subjects that are explored in depth throughout the feature. The executive producers even speak about their fatigue after the first seven films and why a break, or even an end, was a necessity. The disc also includes featurettes on the traps (visualized through schematics), and the marketing of the film. Two audio commentaries are included: one with the director, one of the writers, and the composer, and another with two of the producers. 

For those that love the very specific brand of horror found in the Saw films, Spiral presents more of what we expect. This is the franchise that spawned an entire style of horror, and has been imitated endlessly. The presence of Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson bring something new to the table, and the arrival of a copycat killer offers a twist on a well-established formula. On the other hand, this is the ninth movie in the series, and one can't help but wonder how much life is left in the series. Nevertheless, technical merits are high, and horror hounds can feel confident in adding the latest story in the long-running splatter series to their shelves. 


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