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The Saw franchise tries to turn the page with Spiral

The long-running horror series is still struggling to replace its iconic villain

Can a horror franchise kill off its main villain and still retain what made it so iconic in the first place?

That's a question the Saw series has been grappling with ever since its antagonist, the Jigsaw Killer (Tobin Bell), died just three films into a now nine-film series. Subsequent sequels utilized increasingly convoluted means to keep Jigsaw around anyway via flashbacks and storylines he was somehow still involved in. But the latest entry, Spiral: From the Book of Saw, finally attempts a clean break.

This chapter is the first with no appearance by Jigsaw, nor even a direct connection to him, and it makes an admirable attempt to forge its own path. The retooling, though, feels disappointingly like a generic serial killer film that just happens to have a coat of Saw paint applied to it. It also serves as a reminder that truly memorable horror villains aren't so easily replaceable.

Chris Rock stars in Spiral as Detective Ezekiel Banks, the son of retired Police Chief Marcus Banks (Samuel L. Jackson), who leads the investigation into a grisly murder of a police officer apparently inspired by John Kramer, the Jigsaw Killer who has been dead for years. An opening sequence finds the officer put through a torture trap very much like those Jigsaw made, and Banks teams up with a younger partner, hoping to stop this copycat before they strike again.

Looking back to the original Saw series, John Kramer found a place in the horror villain hall of fame thanks to Tobin Bell's pitch-perfect performance and the character's twisted philosophy. As a cancer patient nearing death, Jigsaw puts his victims through brutal torture games to teach sick moral lessons related to their personal sins and make a point about the importance of valuing one's life. While only so much can be said about Spiral's antagonist without spoilers, this installment tries something different. There's still a killer putting victims through familiar torture games, but the copycat is specifically targeting cops connected to one police department, declaring in a threatening tape they're out to "reform" them.

The story, then, ends up playing out sort of like a Seven-esque crime thriller, in which a detective must catch a serial killer going after dirty cops on the force, and it just so happens this killer sporadically makes use of torture devices in a few scenes. From a plot structure perspective, the first eight Saw entries all involved one long game that Jigsaw's victims were going through, usually intercut with a law enforcement subplot. But Spiral has no real central game, and it quickly becomes clear just how crucial those were to the franchise's identity. There was something distinctly Saw about the dark sense of discovery that came with slowly exploring the bizarre, haunted house-type set pieces that Jigsaw elaborately designed. Spending the vast majority of Spiral following police officers in the outside world just isn't as interesting.

The best decision the film makes is moving on from John Kramer. In its later sequels, Saw's obsession with keeping a long dead character around could be to its detriment, as when Saw V spent way too much time on pointless flashbacks just to give Bell scenes.

A Jigsaw replacement, though, should somewhat favorably compare to the original character, and Spiral's doesn't quite get there. The killer is not very intimidating, and the use of a robotic voice on the trap videos that sorely lacks Bell's gravitas is a big problem. More importantly, Kramer's broader philosophy was intriguingly distinctive, while this copycat's motives feel like something out of any non-Saw crime film, and they're not as well explored as they could be. The push for police reform is a good concept, but the film doesn't go as far as it could, making surprisingly little effort to delve more specifically into current politics or Black Americans' relationship with law enforcement.

Why this copycat is even modeling themselves after the original Jigsaw at all is a bit strained. Kramer generally wanted to test people and their will to live, hence the torture devices being actual games, but there isn't as strong a reason for this copycat to be putting people through games rather than just straight-up torturing them. This is a bit of an issue for a series built off the "I want to play a game" hook. If this killer was conceived prior to the decision to tie this into the Saw franchise, in fact, it wouldn't be surprising.

Spiral isn't a terrible first step in a new direction for the series, and the trap sequences are as twisted as Saw fans would want. But bringing back the kind of imaginative central game we could only get from this series, a truly compelling villain whose broader philosophy is more fully fleshed out and tied to the traps, and a less predictable plot might help make the case for continuing Saw and not just telling serial killer stories in the franchise's world. If future movies can't get to that place and establish a truly worthy Jigsaw successor, audiences may soon question whether they still want to play this game at all.

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