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Review – Spiral: From the Book of Saw

Jonathan Tevendale dissects the new Saw movie and asks what makes bad films so good.

My friend and I arrived about thirty minutes late to see Spiral: From the Book of Saw in the cinema. It didn’t particularly matter. There was no awkward shuffling down the aisle, because, apart from the phlegmy weirdo on the other side of the room, we were the only ones in the cinema. We smiled at him in quiet recognition of the reason we were all there; of the foul experience we had come expecting. 

Our lateness also allowed us to skip straight to gore, right past any pretence of interest in the plot. We were – after all – expecting a certain efficient minimalism from the ninth Saw film: an obliging nod to narrative structure, followed by a pervert’s buffet of blood and suffering. Then again, I’d read it had Samuel L. Jackson in it, so maybe it was going to be arty. 

But after an initial – rather promising – torture scene involving a tongue and a train, the film settled into uncomfortable new territory. There was dialogue not punctuated by screams. There was comedy, written by a comedian. Wait… is that Chris Rock? Oh god, what’s happening? The phlegmy weirdo on the other side of the room looks at me through the half-baked buddy-cop set-up, visibly tearing up. I shut my eyes, not wanting to spend another second watching police movie clichés ruin what was supposed to be an enjoyable experience. And yet the audio was even more unbearable. Why was the zebra from Madagascar shouting about his troubled past? I didn’t know his dad was the police commissioner. At this point, phlegmy weirdo was drinking vodka from the bottle, and throwing chocolate-covered raisins at the projectionist, who had themselves left in disappointment. 

But then something odd happened. Slowly but surely, the film started to grow on me. Chris Rock – it turns out – is a gloriously bad actor. Each time he earnestly shouted one of his lines before looking, visibly confused, into the camera was a new high point. Did he know where he was, or had the real Chris Rock stumbled into some waking nightmare? 

The buddy-cop set-up degenerated into a frigid, comical awkwardness. At times, it was like I was watching a Wattpad fanfic of Se7en, to the extent that I felt – at any moment – Chris Rock and his partner might kiss. 

In its attempt to elevate the torture by giving it some wider social meaning, Spiral takes aim at corrupt police officers, the focus of the mysterious killer’s work. And yet it does so in such a ham-fisted way that each shifty side-eye from one villainous, scarred cop to another pulls the plot further into hilarity. Only Chris Rock – loud, lost and confused – can save ‘generic American city’ from immorality, vice and a talented, but sadistic, engineer. Sure… why not? 

And then – at last – came the torture: gratuitous, and at total tonal odds with the rest of the film. It was best this way; I didn’t want it darkening the tone of the comedy I was watching, nor did I want comedy diluting the effects of the gore that phlegmy weirdo and I were enjoying so much. Eventually, the film settled into a satisfyingly regular structure, in which scenes of violence punctuated the hilarious plot every twenty minutes or so, like deranged ad-breaks. 

And every now and then Samuel L. Jackson saunters in, delivering a bad line with a little too much gravitas – the cherry on top. 

Critics have, en masse, missed what makes Spiral so enjoyable to watch, focussing on the distasteful gore, the ‘missed opportunity’ to make something better, or the film’s pretences of refinement; its desire to be a more ‘intelligent’ entry to the Saw franchise. But it is good because it’s bad, funny because it doesn’t want to be, and compelling because it’s so needlessly violent; because around every corner lurks a horrible thing which probably won’t happen to you, but what if it did? A better film would have been a bad Se7en; what we got was a masterpiece of accidental parody. 

And so by the time we left, phlegmy weirdo had fallen asleep in a vodka/torture-induced state of bliss, presumably to be jolted awake the next day’s first showing of Peter Rabbit 2. My friend and I left satisfied on all fronts. It’s great to be back in the cinema. Thank God we didn’t go to see something good, like Minari.

Spiral: From the Book of Saw is showing in Oxford in Curzon and Vue. 

Image Credits: BagoGames via flikr / CC-BY-SA 2.0

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