How 'Spiral' Is Reviving the 'Saw' Franchise

The Chris Rock-led horror film is adding a sense of urgency to the property that hasn’t been felt in years.

“Do you want to play a game?” Well you’re in luck, because a twisted new challenge is about to begin. Wednesday morning, Lionsgate released the first teaser trailer for Spiral: From the Book of Saw, the new installment in the long-running Saw franchise. This latest entry, the ninth in the franchise, appears to neither reboot the series or rely too heavily on the previous films, offering a fresh start and a new mystery. Produced by, and starring Chris Rock, Spiral, follows Det. Banks (Rock), the son of a veteran police officer (Samuel L. Jackson), and his rookie partner (Max Minghella), as they discover a crime that ties to the infamous Jigsaw murders of the past. Director Darren Lynn Bousman, who helmed the second, third and fourth entries of Saw, returns for Spiral, and looks to give the franchise a new visual language while still playing homage to familiar aspects of the past. What seemed like a strange marriage and career choice for Rock when first announced, could end up being one of the biggest surprises of the year, and allow Saw to mean something once again.

There was a time when Saw meant Halloween, and the franchise, created in 2004 by James Wan and Leigh Whannell, was a yearly event, one that shaped the horror of the 2000s and gave rise to the term, “torture porn.” The low-budget franchise, which began as a short film used to pitch a feature, has collectively grossed almost a billion dollars worldwide. At the height of the franchise’s popularity, Saw III (2006) grossed $164.8 million worldwide, on a $10 million budget. Even after a seven-year break and return in 2017 with Jigsaw, each of the franchise's installments have earned at least $100 million worldwide, excepting the dud Saw VI (2009). Never a critical darling, the Saw franchise a became midnight favorite, and a rite of passage for high school students looking to get into R-rated movies. Though the later entries took a dip in quality, the franchise weaved together long-running narrative threads, timelines and surprising returning faces in a way that’s now become common for big-budget franchises. And of course, there was Tobin Bell’s iconic performance as John Kramer, aka Jigsaw, a movie monster for the modern age who has joined the ranks of Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger and Chucky as one of the genre’s all-time villains. But Kramer, like the title Saw, appears to be a thing of the past.

Spiral is rather obviously riffing off of Seven (1995), which isn’t surprising given that the Saw franchise has always aimed for Fincher-lite. But the format of two cops coming across a grisly crime tied to the past also has elements of HBO’s True Detective, which makes for a more contemporary entry point. But even with those apparent inspirations, Spiral looks different from any Saw movie that’s come before. It’s slicker, literally (every actor appears sweaty), more cinematic and less an aesthetic product of grunge rock and nu metal like the 2000’s entries. Even the poster, awash in warm tones, suggests a new direction, and an artfulness that could entice those outside of longtime fans. There’s also the case of motive, which could certainly play into the horror of this post-Get Out (2017) era.

The fact that the new killer is targeting cops seems more pointed now than it would have two decades ago. While cops have always played a significant part in the franchise, particularly as the entries went in a more procedural direction, they’ve never been the sole target. But the fact that we have two black cops at the center of this story, during a time when police brutality against black people is topical, suggests that Spiral is aiming for social horror beyond the theme of “appreciate your life” that the previous installments thrived on. There are already theories that Jackson’s character will be the killer, and the one behind the nods to Kramer’s work that we see in the trailer, Billy the puppet and a hacksaw. But these films have always been reliant on twists and Jackson’s character feels like a red-herring, distracting us from a more horrific truth.

It’s been a long while since there’s been a Saw entry that felt worth getting excited about, but Spiral appears to be that film. If the game goes according to plan, then we could be looking at a new yearly franchise. If that comes to pass, then just as Saw once meant Halloween, Spiral could mean summertime, and the next important entry in black-led horror films.