Gentle readers, this review is dedicated to new beginnings.
As of this typing, the CDC reports that 61.1 percent of American adults have one or both COVID vaccination shots. Though new COVID-related cases and deaths are still coming in, they are on the decline.
Yes, the pandemic continues, and COVID will continue to be a worldwide problem for the foreseeable future. Moreover, we’re living in a world where countless businesses have been shuttered permanently, and over 3.4 million people are no longer with us. Those who survived a COVID diagnosis may have to deal with long-term health effects, those who’ve lost loved ones will have to carry on with their grief, and all of us will have to keep on living with the collective trauma of 2020.
We will spend the rest of our lives in a post-COVID world. But as the vaccine becomes more widespread, businesses open back up, and mask mandates gradually loosen, we’re starting to see what that post-COVID world will look like.
For my part, I went to a house party — an honest-to-God house party, with shared food and no masks! — just a couple days ago. Earlier today, I went shopping at a mall, I hung out with some friends, and I went back to a restaurant that was boarded up through all of 2020. And right now, I’m typing this intro in the main auditorium of the Regal Lloyd Center 10 — long one of my favorite multiplexes — which just reopened yesterday.
And in the spirit of new beginnings, today’s review will be for a soft reboot of a franchise I have zero familiarity with. Of course I know about the Saw franchise from pop culture osmosis, but I’ve never seen any of the films for myself. So let’s see what we’ve got, shall we?
Well, first of all, Spiral takes place in a world where the events of the Saw franchise very clearly happened, but the killer is merely a Jigsaw copycat and absolutely none of the characters are connected with the prior entries in any way. In fact, for better or worse, this really does feel like someone took a totally unrelated crime thriller Se7en knockoff script, then filed off the serial numbers and slapped the Saw franchise brand name onto it. Make of that what you will.
The kicker here is that this particular serial killer has a pig motif, complete with a pig mask and a little pig marionette puppet. And fittingly, his targets are crooked police officers. So here we have a vigilante trying to affect systemic change by brutally murdering corrupt law enforcement officers, potentially saving innocent civilians by killing and/or scaring to death the cops who tend to shoot first and ask questions never. It’s a timely and genuinely interesting moral conundrum we’ve got here.
Our sleuth is Detective Zeke Banks, played by Chris Rock, of all people. Zeke is the son of a retired yet still highly respected police chief (Marcus Banks, played by Samuel L. Jackson), so Zeke has to deal with accusations of nepotism on top of his own crippling daddy issues. More importantly, Zeke turned in a crooked cop early in his career, which has since made him persona non grata among his colleagues in the force. So Zeke is a hopelessly jaded cop who’s resigned himself to the fact that he’s going to die alone (very likely at the hands of his fellow cops), yet he keeps on trying to be a good police officer in spite of himself.
Incidentally, it hasn’t escaped my attention that this is a movie about police brutality, and our main characters are black police officers. The movie never thinks to comment on this, and indeed, there’s no shred of racial commentary anywhere in the film. Probably for the best, as the filmmakers likely weren’t equipped to go there, but I digress.
Anyway, our first murder victim was conveniently one of Zeke’s few remaining friends on the force, so he has a personal stake in finding the killer. And those personal stakes get even deeper as the victims turn out to be crooked cops that Zeke has taken issue with in the past, and so Zeke himself turns out to be a surprisingly viable suspect.
To address the cast, there are only two actors worth addressing. We’ve seen Chris Rock try to act as a leading man while pretending that he isn’t a comedian (the Fargo TV series, Two Days in New York, and The Witches all come immediately to mind), and this is pretty much more of the same, except a lot grumpier. Though his comedic talents give Zeke’s bitter outlook an especially venomous edge, so there’s that. And as for Samuel L. Jackson… well, it’s Samuel L. Jackson. You know what you’re getting.
But does the film work as a horror? Well, the big problem with the traps is that while they make a clever kind of symbolic sense, there’s absolutely no plausible way anyone could survive them. Even the best case scenario would result in so much blood loss that survival would be impossible. Thus the death of each victim is basically a fait accompli — in fact, a couple of traps are presented in flashback after the victim has already died — rendering the horror and suspense entirely void.
What’s even worse for the horror aspect is how freaking loud this movie is. Every single jump scare is accentuated by a painfully loud music sting that’s more obnoxious than terrifying. It’s the horror equivalent of a laugh track, an artificial means of telling the audience that this is where we’re supposed to be scared. I don’t know if that’s how the franchise operated twenty freaking years ago, but it sure as hell isn’t scary now. Speaking of which, all the speed ramping and quick cuts and varying color saturation only further attempt to make the traps look scarier and more exciting than they really are.
This is one of the fundamental problems with the Saw franchise and its legion of imitators. “Torture horror” was apparently built on the assumption that the kill itself is the most terrifying moment. In truth, the most terrifying moment is in those precious few seconds immediately before the scare, when we know that something is coming, but we don’t know when or what or from where. Alas, I never got that kind of dread anywhere in this movie.
So does it work as a murder mystery? I’d actually say that it does… right up until the big reveal. It’s a painfully narrow miss, but the reveal unfortunately depends on some key pieces of information that were needlessly withheld from the audience up to that point. More importantly, there are certain witnesses whose presence (or lack thereof) would’ve immediately tipped off Zeke and the audience if anyone had ever even attempted to reach out to them at the proper time.
The premise to Spiral deserved so much better than to be part of a franchise primarily known for spitting out low-budget sequels once a year. The basic notion of an honest police detective hunting down a vigilante who’s murdering crooked cops is a genuinely fascinating premise, and the film is at its best when it plays into that. Unfortunately, the surrounding film was very clearly made by people who wanted a fast and cheap production, and not necessarily a scary movie or a well-told story. There’s blood and gore aplenty, but no suspense and not enough attention paid to the mystery’s big reveal.
Still, Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson are always entertaining to watch. I can recommend a home video rental for their sake.