How the Grisly 'Spiral' Connects to the Rest of the 'Saw' Franchise
Do you have to be a 'Saw'-head to enjoy this new horror movie starring Chris Rock? Not necessarily.
If you only caught a glimpse of its stark, minimalist poster, which highlights the names of stars Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson against a fog-drenched city street, you might assume Spiral, a serial killer thriller debuting in theaters this weekend, was a prestige crime drama airing on HBO or FX. After all, Rock just appeared in Season 4 of Fargo. Or maybe it's a David Fincher movie? But then you look close and notice the subtitle: Spiral: From the Book of Saw. Wait, Saw? Like the grungy, nu-metal-y horror franchise from the '00s?
Yes, that Saw, known for that little puppet guy, the tape-recorded messages, and the scenes of bodily mutilation where victims get tossed in needle piles and deformed by bear traps. Reportedly, Rock is a fan of the series and chatted with a Lionsgate executive at a wedding in Brazil, and now, after COVID-related delays, the film is arriving in theaters with the difficult task of both reinvigorating the franchise and bringing in new viewers who might not even know Jigsaw's real name or his puppet's name. (Don't worry: It's John Kramer and Billy the Puppet, respectively.)
For the Saw faithful, Spiral is a no-brainer. But what about everyone else? If you like Chris Rock and enjoy horror movies, Spiral might look fun, a mix of comedy and scares with some social commentary thrown in. If you're nervous about the Saw franchise's reputation as a delivery system for gore-filled "torture porn," Spiral might look like a nightmare. We've seen the movie and are here to offer some guidance on how to navigate the "twisted" world of Spiral.
When does Spiral take place in the Saw timeline?
Though the Saw series, created by James Wan and Leigh Whannell, is often celebrated (and lightly teased) for its narrative complexity, packed with dense flashbacks and bizarre twists, the latest Saw movie is relatively straightforward: Spiral takes place after the other eight Saw movies. There's very little tricky chronology here. Jigsaw, the ethics-obsessed killer played with an unsettling blankness by Tobin Bell, is dead and out of the picture. He actually died at the end of Saw III, but Bell kept popping up in the series through the power of wild plotting and copycat killers.
Largely free from the mythology of the original series, Spiral is essentially a police procedural about a Jigsaw copycat. Rock plays a detective in the nameless city where the Saw franchise takes place and he finds himself hunting down a killer intent on using elaborate death traps to murder police officers. On a basic plot level, Spiral resembles Seven, a movie that informed Wan and Whannell's original Saw way back in 2004.
Still, this is a Saw movie. In keeping with the melodramatic storytelling approach of the franchise, Rock's detective character Zeke, is loaded up with backstory: He's hated by his fellow cops for being a "rat," he's divorced, and his dad (Samuel L. Jackson) is the chief of police. Plus, he's got a new partner, a fresh-out-of-the-academy rookie named William (The Handmaid's Tale actor Max Minghella), and their first case together is to track down the Jigsaw copycat, who uses a marionette with a pig-head for his puppet but retains Jigsaw's love for rusty metal.
Do you need to have seen the other Saw movies to enjoy Spiral?
Based on the synopsis above, you might think having some built-in awareness of the Saw franchise will help you make sense of Spiral. It does––but only to an extent. The death trap scenes, which are graphic but not as elaborate or gore-filled as they have been in the past, would certainly be out of place in a more "normal" thriller and it helps to know what you're getting into here. Spiral was directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, who directed Saw II, Saw III, and Saw IV, so he knows what he's doing when he shoots people getting their skin peeled off and their fingers removed. These loud, scream-filled scenes are meant to be shocking and clever in the way Saw movies typically are.
Here's my genuine recommendation: If you're not looking to dive into every Saw sequel, just watch the first Saw movie, which still works as an inventive low-budget thriller, and then check out Spiral. You could certainly skip the original and just watch Spiral and have a goofy time at the movies, laughing at some of Rock's more comedic dialogue and recoiling at the gruesome carnage. But the first movie will give you an understanding of who Jigsaw is, a feel for the grimy production design, and a broader understanding of the convoluted moral logic of the franchise. The sequels are chaotic and strange and filled with some admirably ambitious plotting; they can also be gross and tedious. When it comes to Spiral, they're not exactly essential.
Should you watch Spiral?
With the necessary caveat that Spiral is often stupid and broad—the script, from writers Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger, features some hilariously over-the-top cop movie dialogue—this is both a relatively strong Saw movie and a mostly satisfying stand-alone thriller. Though Samuel L. Jackson's part is far too small, the moments when he and Rock get to interact as father and son have a real pop to them, and Minghella brings a light touch to his aw-shucks rookie role. The acting in Saw movies can be notoriously shaky; Spiral, with a couple exceptions, is on firmer ground.
Rock is quite good in the early scenes, where he gets to do some riffing on Forrest Gump and divorce. As the situation grows more dire and his character is forced to contend with increasingly outlandish and bloody situations, Rock effectively grounds the ridiculous drama while also adding a surreal layer to the proceedings in the fact that you're actually watching a Saw movie starring Chris Rock. It feels off at first, like a parody drained of anything satirical or biting, but, as the movie builds to its inevitable twist ending, you might decide this is a game worth playing.