de facto film reviews 3 stars

It all started with a little movie that could. The brainchild of two Australian film grads in James Wan and Leigh Whannell, Saw was a scruffy little thriller that channeled the likes of Dario Argento and Tobe Hooper while infusing a modern frenetic energy that would become a mainstay in 2000s era horror. After the film became one of the most profitable hits in Hollywood history, a franchise was born, running a new film every Halloween weekend for seven consecutive years. The franchise, later known for its mix of gruesome torture traps and soap opera-like plot twists eventually wore itself out. While the series tried rebooting itself with the adequate, but conflicted, Jigsaw, the series found itself in serious need of new blood. In comes Spiral: From the Book of Saw, a film that exists within the Saw universe, but has no immediate connection to the previous films. Tobin Bell does not return, Billy the puppet is nowhere to be found, this is a new story that only references to the original films.

Chris Rock stars and executive produces — it was his pitch to the studio that got this film made — as Detective “Zeke” Banks, an outsider in the police force after selling out his corrupt partner to Internal Affairs that has left a target on his back. When bodies of Police officers start piling up around the city in what appears to be in the form of a Jigsaw copycat, Zeke must track down the killer before more people around him perish.

Saw 2, 3 & 4 helmer Darren Lynn Bousman returns behind the camera to give Spiral a new look and feel compared to what the franchise is known for. Immediately the tone is much different, riding a line between David Fincher’s Seven and 48 Hrs that works quite well. Chris Rock, who’s shown off his dramatic chops in films such as Nurse Betty, Top Five and most recently in Season 4 of FX’s Fargo, continues to showcase his range as an actor while infusing the film with a natural comedic energy you would expect from the legendary comic. Max Minghella plays off nicely alongside Rock as Zeke’s rookie partner, Schenk. Samuel L. Jackson is expected great as Zeke’s father and veteran Police Chief. The relationship between Zeke and his overshadowing feather is a critical element to Spiral and one that’s effectively explored.

Bousman does a fine job of differentiating the style he helped forge with his earlier entries, with newer visual flourishes. The use of long takes with fluid camerawork helps draw out the tension early on, that finely balances the more energetic editing styles in the trap sequence.

Speaking of traps, Spiral has some of the nastiest, stomach-churning sequences in the entire series. Refreshingly used with practical effects, these are among the gnarliest sequences of a studio film in recent years. Although there are only a handful that serve the story, another contrast to the previous films, each trap is fully utilized, giving hardcore fans plenty to relish over.

Spiral‘s superficial treatment of its core detective story proves to be occasionally frustrating and the script leaves plenty of untapped potential on the floor. In a series known for its crazy plot twists — even the worst Saw films have at least one twist that manages to slip the rug from out under you — its particularly frustrating how the central mystery of Spiral is so easily predictable. Even with a twist most filmgoers will be able to spot miles away, Spiral crescendos with a truly superb final reel that’ll leave you with a whirlwind of emotions. It’s ending that totally nails the pointed commentary Bousman and co. set out to explore that does quite a lot to forgive many of films shortcomings.

Spiral is perhaps too loosely constructed to be an invigorating game-changer the series wants it to be, but its a solid new step in the right direction. In a series in need of new blood, this is a good place to start.