It’s easy to see why Twisted pictures and Lionsgate must have thought Chris Rock’s pitch for a reboot of the Saw franchise, in the form of ninth chapter Spiral, was a good idea. Although Rock’s film output could be generously described as ‘changeable’, his captivating, fiercely opinionated early work in stand- up and sketch comedy is consistently featured alongside comedy greats like Eddie Murphy and George Carlin. And recently, comedians have been making a killing in the horror genre. With the financial success of A Quiet Place and Get Out likely still ringing in both of their ears’, Rock reportedly won over Lionsgate CEO Joe Drake with an idea that was “completely reverential to the legacy of the material while reinvigorating the brand with his wit, creative vision and passion”.

Had the franchise finally found a Jordan Peele/ Matthew Holness/ John Krasinski– style ‘comedian-turned-surprise-topical-horror-auteur’ of their very own? They certainly dared to dream. With Saw veteran Darren Lynn Bousman set to direct a searingly contemporary story about a copycat killer exacting revenge on corrupt cops, and promising a return to the franchise’s restrained, atmospheric roots – what could possibly go wrong?

Chris Rock and Max Minghella partner in Spiral: From the Book of Saw 2021
Courtesy of Lionsgate

Sadly, Spiral: From the Book of Saw (to give it its full and mildly pretentious title) manages to squander just about all the potential of that impressive pitch, while at the same time squeezing any last, desperate gasps of goodwill out of the franchise’s still-struggling body. Spiral largely jettisons the series’ scant guilty pleasures – the admirably convoluted plotting and grand, macabre traps – and winds up as a generic, tragically uninspiring Se7en knock-off.

The plot concerns grizzled, clichéd loner Detective Ezekiel ‘Zeke’ Banks (Rock) and his idealistic, young, clichéd new partner William Schenck (Max Minghella) as they investigate a series of murders inspired by the world’s most entrepreneurial corpse, the Jigsaw killer (who, lest we forget, died about six Saws ago). Regrettably, Rock’s first horror performance is as changeable as his movie output. During rare moments of levity, he is his usual forceful, captivating self, but when the spooks start flowing, his singular reaction is – sadly – not dissimilar to the bewildered squint of professional shit-goblin Tucker Carlson. Moreover, Det. Banks’ flinty temperament is frequently overcooked and he mostly just comes across as a belligerent control freak.

Meanwhile, Minghella proves the casting highlight; naturalistic and quietly charismatic, he somehow manages to make a script that has all the procedural authenticity of a Naked Gun movie sound legit. Also worth a mention are Samuel L. Jackson and Marisol Nichols who, if only for a few brief, heavenly moments, allow the viewer to imagine they’re watching one of their other, better movies, like Snakes on a Plane, The Sex Monster or Big Momma’s House 2.

Samuel L Jackson as Marcus Banks in Spiral: From the Book of Saw
Courtesy of Lionsgate

In other, slightly better news, the killer’s motivation has been updated to riff on the current discussion surrounding police brutality and institutional corruption, which on paper is a neat way of modernising the formula. However, instead of exploring these ideas (Who, if anyone, should have the legal right to administer lethal justice? How much force is too much?) the film simply waters them down and drizzles them around the edges of another very conventional Saw movie.

Sure, the traps are somewhat police-themed (a police officer known for lying in court must choose between losing his tongue and being turned into a bowl of smashed figs by a subway train, and another gets his fingers yanked off with excessive force for – you guessed it – using excessive force) but they are also uninspired and joyless… A cardinal sin for a film series whose high points include a guy drowning in pig entrails and dropping people in a big hole full of used needles.

The crucial failing of the pared-down death traps and cat-and-mouse cop thriller vibe is that they are meant to ground the horror and pull focus towards Detective Banks. Yet, the film offers nothing in the way of relatability or emotional development to make the viewer care either way. The series’ joyful bloodletting and winking self-awareness was its only remaining saving grace, but it’s been unceremoniously tossed out in a misguided attempt to remodel the franchise. Sadly, what’s left is just an unremarkable revenge thriller whose only surprise was its stylish marketing campaign. Imagine Spiral less as one of John Doe’s terrifying murder journals and more like a pop-up book on workplace injuries that only comes in large print.

Spiral: From the Book of Saw is out in cinemas from May 17th.