Rating: 4 out of 5.

Spiral: From the Book of Saw is the first film in the series to stray from the central mythology, but the connections are rich with a clear love of the franchise at large. As a big fan of the Saw series, Chris Rock saw some dark comedic potential to be mined. Rock works with Jigsaw writers Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger to craft a vastly different police procedural meets thriller—it takes a ‘back to basics’ approach to a series that is still full of surprises nine movies deep. 2017’s Jigsaw actually ranks among one of my favorite Saw movies, so noticing that Stolberg and Goldfinger were returning had me both nervous and excited. Spiral boasts probably the biggest injection of star power you could imagine from Saw: Chris Rock, Samuel L. Jackson, Max Minghella, and Marisol Nichols. The return of director Darren Lynn Bousman, who is responsible for Saw II, III, and IV, cherry-tops this delightful amalgamation of old meets new. His direction, especially in the grisly tortures, is stylish and gripping.

Before I go into the specifics of the plot, I wanted to dive briefly into why this series means so much to me. At the tender age of 13, I went to theaters not knowing that I was about to witness one of the greatest twist endings of all time. When the sequel rolled around, I organized a big event with all of my friends from school, not knowing we would have a major issue getting in to see an R-rated film. A parent of one of the friends I invited ended up having to come and accompany us to the sold-out show of Saw II. This turned out to be one of the best theatrical experiences of my entire life. 

Part of this was due to the rapturous audience reactions, and the intensity of experiencing all of these twists and turns together. From then on, every year I made an event out of it, even as I began working at an AMC theater. Just like the trademark slogan of the series—“if it’s Halloween, it must be Saw”—so too was my yearly tradition. Eventually, when I double-featured High School Musical 3 and Saw V in theaters on the same night, I’ll never forget one of my coworkers saying “you’re literally the only person excited equally about torture and singing.” A hungry fanbase armed with extensive theories, complex mythology, and vigor for the brutal kills made seeing each Saw film on opening night a communal experience. Saw 3D: The Final Chapter was a fun time in theaters despite the pink blood and unsatisfying plot resolutions.

Now, we arrive at Spiral: From the Book of Saw. For the first time, I watched a Saw film from the comfort of my own home; though I will likely trek to my Regal theater this week to watch the film a second time, a sacred experience amongst fellow Saw fans is hopefully still to come. Thankfully, the narrative is strong and concise, rippling waves of familiarity and relevance into a vastly different horror landscape than the one indie darling Saw entered in 2004.

Detective Zeke Banks (Chris Rock) works in the shadow of his legendary retired father, Marcus (Samuel L. Jackson). After botching an undercover operation only Zeke was privy to, he gets assigned to ambitious new partner William (Max Minghella). Zeke teases William about his marriage and the slow-rot of young love; Zeke literally compares going through a divorce to being treated with chemo. When a cop turns up dead—the victim of a sadistic death trap in a subway tunnel—they immediately note some similarities. It must be a Jigsaw killer copycat, one whose patterns for targeting cops starts to emerge after another person’s severed fingers make an appearance snug comfortably in a tiny box. It’s not long until the case starts to consume Zeke; in his own words: “I’ve been staring at this shit for 5 hours, I don’t even stare at porn that long.” As the mystery deepens, Zeke becomes transfixed on the twisty red spirals and creepy pig-faced psychopath videos that become the killer’s defining modus operandi. 

Spiral: From the Book of Saw opens with literal fireworks on the fourth of July, and features one of the series’ signature gory trap set pieces. One trap brings new meaning to the term ‘Chinese finger trap,’ and another with hot wax recalls the nastiness of later installments. This is one gnarly and gross film, with skin-flaying and flesh-piercing that’ll satisfy any gorehound. From the moment I heard “Today, you will be railroaded,” I knew that this would be a decidedly different flavor of Saw. The video voice is at first striking in contrast to Tobin Bell’s, lacking the bite of personality by using an electronic female voice. However, this is a choice that serves to distance Spiral from some of its predecessors. It started really working for me about halfway in, when I realized the cold and lifeless voice on the Jigsaw videos adds an element of creepy emotionless distance. 

Nods to iconic imagery and ideas from the originals are splattered all over this film like a badge of honor. A “PLAY ME” tape pops up, only it’s in the form of a USB this time around. A pig-cop puppet acts as stand-in for the most recognizable image in any Saw film, Billy the Puppet and his creepy tricycle. Something as simple as a sliding door provided a chilly reminder of ghosts of the series’ past. While the one thing I was truly missing is a jigsaw-puzzle shock-and-awe connection to previous installments, I actually loved the backstory and flashbacks. They form a brand new identify for what I hope will pave the way for future sequels.

The tone and delivery of acting performances doesn’t always land, but it’s really only the lesser players I had a few small gripes about. The three leads—Zeke, Marcus, and William—are all honestly great. The only one I really had some reservations about was Chris Rock, and to my surprise he delivers a captivating dramatic turn. If they didn’t have a line like “you wanna play games, motherfucker?,” delivered by Samuel L. Jackson, this would’ve been one gigantic missed opportunity. Zeke’s relationship with his father is weird and strained. They barely talk and pass each other by with little care. It’s only through Jigsaw’s twisted games that the two begin to fold back into a family dynamic. Rock and Jackson have an impeccable chemistry that makes the suspenseful finale all the more satisfying.

While it may take several further viewings to demystify a spot for Spiral in my overall rank for the Saw series, I really loved this movie. It approaches the series from an exciting new direction, weaves in effective character drama, respects the lore of Saw, and concludes with a knock-out, jaw-dropper of an ending. I think the twist is a little too easy to call, but it is, at least still actually considered a twist (I’m looking at you, Saw V!). The final scene is unfathomably worthy of the Saw brand. Love it or hate it, I’m just hopeful that Spiral: From the Book of Saw will help convert new fans into the cult of Jigsaw. I’ll be marking my calendar for the next gory date with this iconic franchise. Game over.

Spiral: From the Book of Saw invites audiences to play a game exclusively in theaters this Friday, May 14th.

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