[Press play on microrecorder. A low, creepy-vocoder-ed voice begins to speak.]
Hi there. I want to play a game.
You are a cop who’s sent innocent folks to jail by giving false testimonies on the stand. Now, you find yourself hanging by your tongue — which is attached to a rusty, metallic trap — in a subway tunnel. Kick the box you’re standing on out from under you, and you’ll rip your tongue out and live. Stay there, and the 3 train will run you over.
What do you do?
You are a corrupt Homicide detective who didn’t help out a fellow brother in arms during a bust years ago. Now, you find yourself in a tub of water, with your fingers locked into industrial-type Chinese finger traps. Activate the machine that these traps are attached to — you can do it by pressing down on the iron doohicky surrounding your jaw — and these things will rip all of your digits off your hands, freeing you. Remain in the water, and a live wire will electrocute you.
What do you do?
You are a stand-up comic, someone at the top of your field, who’s also a movie star. You want to show your versatility in terms of your talents, and prove that you can do non-comic roles as well. A recent stint in an anthology TV show on a much-admired network helped sell you as a dramatic actor. Still, you want to branch out more. Then, out of nowhere, you have a chance to add your talents to a long-running horror franchise. You’ll play Detective Zeke Banks, who’s investigating a series of gruesome murders involving corrupt cops; when spirals start appearing at the crime scenes and mysterious gifts begin showing up at the precinct, Zeke suspects it’s the work of a copycat killer. Specifically, someone who’s emulating Jigsaw, the moralistic mass murderer from the Saw movies. You’d be in the Sawverse!
Take it, and this could up your profile substantially. Also, you’ll get to share scenes with Samuel L. Motherfuckin’ Jackson, who plays your father — a retired police officer who may have a connection to the case. If you do say yes, however, you will find yourself stuck in a far-below-subpar scary movie with a horrible script (“He’s a tweaker who flops in the bread factory downtown”) and a complete lack of originality or coherence.
What do you do?
You are a horror movie fan who has seen every single chapter of the Saw movies, that extremely gory torture-porn series with a fetish for puppets and garish, Rube Goldberg-esque agony-delivery devices. You’ve watched the seven official Saw films, including 2010’s Saw: The Final Chapter, along with 2017’s restart-button Jigsaw. You’ve totally dug all the creative ways that the filmmakers have come up with super-cool kills. (The “angel” trap! The reverse bear trap! The one thing with the competing scales and pounds of flesh!) Sure, the series ended up paying more attention to those ridiculously complicated, insanely baroque murder sequences than things like “story,” or “production values,” or “logic.” The returns were certainly diminishing. But you didn’t come to this for Strindberg-like studies of the human experience. You came because Jigsaw was going to righteously fuck some shit up.
Now you see that a new movie is coming out called Spiral, which hails from “the book of Saw” — your memory of Bible studies is little hazy, but you’re pretty sure that particular book falls somewhere between Matthew and Revelations. Darren Lynn Bousman, who directed Saws II, III and IV, is calling the shots. Chris Rock is starring in it, which suggests both a leveling up acting-wise and something a little different from those other slice-’em-ups. There’s even a new puppet, with a pig’s head. It matches the porcine mask that the Jigsaw-obsessed copycat killer wears before he nabs his victims and metes out his version of Old Testament justice.
You’re very excited by all of this. Having happily purchased a ticket to see this on opening day — because it’s safe to see movies in a theater again, or at the very least, safer than it was a few months ago — you sit down as the lights dim and the movie starts.
And you realize, about 20 minutes into this, that you’re in the presence of a stinker. Not a so-bad-it’s-good movie. Not a bad-but-consider-the-genre movie. Like, a bad-even-when-compared-to-other-Saw-entries bad movie. Rock is doing the best he can; ditto Jackson, for the .00001 minutes he’s in this. They’re one big bantering scene together is dynamic. But even they can’t carry this load.
The rest of the performances rank between Silver Birch and Sequoia in terms of woodenness. The style leans heavily on the sort of jittery, sped-up stock creepiness lifted from Seven‘s credits sequence and vintage Marilyn Manson videos, only diluted to the point of dullness. The story can’t seem to decide whether it wants to be a police procedural attached to a horror movie, a horror movie attached to a police procedural, or a Bulgarian knock-off of Law and Order: Special Hostel Division. Regardless, you manage to figure out the killer’s identity, backstory and motive roughly before the halfway point.
You’re tempted to read the targeting of bad cops as some sort of torn-from-the-headlines comment on police brutality in various communities, though given the lack of payoff on that front, it is a temptation that should be resisted. And the kills? The subway-tongue and finger-removal-machine sequences are fine. Everything else feels curiously D.O.A.
Having suffered worse than any of Jigsaw-lite’s victims, and fully realizing that, in addition to being the killer’s signature, a spiral is also the shape something makes as it’s flushed down a toilet or washed down a drain, you find yourself with a choice. This is the final game: Do you recommend this to your friends out of brand loyalty, knowing that they’re Saw completists and hey, you endured this, so why shouldn’t they? Or should you take mercy on them and let them know that Spiral should be avoided at all costs, regardless of its slasher-flick pedigree.
What do you do?
[Tape recorder shuts off]