‘I just discovered that pilates ain’t a thing!’ says Chris Rock in one of a number of amusing deviations from the gnarly plot in this fresh take on the nasty-ass horror universe seen in the Saw movies. Spiral rather pompously announces itself as ‘from the book of Saw’, but totally works as a stand-alone film. I only remember the first Saw film, but Darren Lynn Bousman’s ninth entry in the series feels like a tried and tested mix of police procedural a la Se7en and bursts of deeply horrid torture porn, and will probably satisfy the target audience.
Rock executive produces here and plays Detective Zeke Banks, who is investigating a serial killer who is murdering members of the police force in innovative and unpleasant ways; Theatre of Blood-style, the methods used relate specifically to the corrupt behaviour that the killer wants to punish. Zeke enlists the help of his father Marcus (Samuel L Jackson) in attempting to track down the murderer, but it would be a considerable understatement to report that his investigation does not go well. Pretty much everyone on the force gets captured by a mysterious figure in a mask, and subjected to some kind of horrible physical dilemma; usually involving vital organs being removed at speed while alive. Can Zeke identify the killer before the killer’s game is complete?
Bousman claims to have dialled back the levels of gore and violence here; it’s hard to comment given that I had to watch much of this film with my hands over my eyes. That’s easy enough in the opening, tongue-ripping sequence, but gets trickier as the violent endings become more integrated into the main narrative. Rock gives a remarkably undisciplined performance here, drifting into stand-up riffs about Forrest Gump, or admonishing a colleague about phone use ‘Don’t use up the battery watching Twilight!’, a line we hear twice. That jovial tone works against the atmosphere of dread that Spiral is supposedly working towards; if you skip the gore, the police procedural elements actually work well, with Rock an unfamiliar presence and several effective plot twists that I certainly didn’t see coming.
Spiral feels hastily put together; with flashbacks and edits out of place, it might be interesting to see a director’s cut to sort out some of the glitches. But Spiral is a more interesting movie than it has to be, and ingeniously uses elements of Saw while describing a different if similar situation. It’s cruel, mechanical, and grim as a Jacobean tragedy; if nothing else, an exciting final shot sets Spiral up for more grisly manifestations in the future.
Spiral is out now in cinemas in the US and UK. Thanks to Lionsgate for the advance screener.