Spiral, Saw, and attempting to rebrand a franchise

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Spiral: From The Book Of Saw is a fascinating example of a horror franchise trying to reinvent itself and break free from certain formulas while still retaining others.

Spiral: From The Book Of Saw is finally in actual cinemas in the UK and for many, it will be their first trip back to the big screen. The film, directed by franchise veteran Darren Lynn Bousman and starring Chris Rock – who is also on producing duties – has already garnered a mixed response from critics, with some praising it as the best entry in the franchise and some saying it might be the very worst it has to offer.


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James Wan’s Saw was a horror hit when it first premiered at Sundance in 2004. It was clever, contained and mean without ever becoming nasty. What’s more, that final twist remains one of the most memorable in the last 20 years. The film spawned several sequels, all of which capitalised on the traps glimpsed at the first film. The traps were set up by the Jigsaw killer aka John Kramer, played brilliantly by Tobin Bell. From Saw II onwards, the focus was clearly on Jigsaw’s traps and elaborate games he used to teach the meaning and value of life to his victims. They got more and more gruesome as the series went on and the plots got increasingly convoluted and intertwined.

The franchise received its seventh sequel in 2017 in the form of Jigsaw, which received largely negative reviews and holds the second lowest debut in terms of finances for the franchise. So economic are the films to make though, it still made enough money to keep Lionsgate, the studio behind the franchise interested and open to new instalments. So Spiral faced a problem. How do you reinvent and rebrand a franchise within a genre that has vastly changed since the early noughties?

It’s pretty well-known that Chris Rock is the power that got Spiral made, his interest and love for the franchise acting as a catalyst for Spiral and Saw’s rebirth. Bousman has insisted that Spiral isn’t Saw IX, but its own independent instalment taking place in the same universe. The film’s subtitle, From The Book Of Saw is there to remind us of that.

In many ways, Spiral is a Saw-film for those who don’t like Saw. It only has a handful of traps and while they’re gory, they’re nothing compared to traps such as The Public Execution Trap or The Acid Room. Here, the focus isn’t on the spectacle of the violence, but on a simple police procedural, the plot following Detective Zeke Banks (Chris Rock) as he tries to uncover a killer who is placing cops in Jigsaw-style traps. The film also stars Samuel L. Jackson as Zeke’s father Marcus – and who would have thought we would see Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson in a Saw-film?

Horror as a genre has always been viewed as something rather low-brow. Blood and guts have been deemed distasteful and fear isn’t as an attractive emotion as sadness, empathy or even laughter. Yet the genre seems to be currently be undergoing a renaissance of sorts, with the term ‘elevated horror’ leading the conversation, describing high-concept, critically acclaimed horror films. Films such as A Quiet Place, Get Out, The Babadook and Hereditary have all been described as ‘elevated’. It’s something many genre fans actively reject as it creates a gap between the acclaimed, mainstream horror and the smaller, often more gruesome products of the genre, and implies that horror in itself can’t be enjoyable and needs to be elevated. In a way, films classed as ‘elevated horror’ are more accessible for a larger group of people outside of those who already love the genre.

With the rise in the interest towards horror and studios backing more horror films, the Saw franchise has been forced to adapt. As a franchise, Saw was always viewed as trashy and nasty and it even helped kickstart a whole new subgenre called torture-porn, together with Eli Roth’s infamous Hostel, thanks to the films’ love for gore and cruelty. Although Saw was always incredibly popular with audiences, it could only dream of attracting both the talent and the audience numbers the more recent horror films enjoyed.

Whereas Saw I- VII were grimier and grosser, Spiral is flashy and sleek. It tries to find the middle ground between what the fans of the franchise love – the traps and the twist ending – and something more elegant and accessible in order to appeal to a whole new market. It also taps into some contemporary, timely issues as a killer in a pig mask targets dirty cops and uncovers corruption at the highest level. Although Spiral was written and filmed prior to the 2020 BLM protests and the murder of George Floyd, it feels like a new type of film. Much like Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning Get Out, it attempts to tackle societal issues through the lens of violence and horror.

Going spoiler light, the film has its turns, and they arguably work because they’re deeply rooted in our own morals and emotional connection to what’s going on. We know killing is wrong, but we also understand his anger and frustration because it’s that same anger and frustration that runs through our veins as we watch the news every night.

Spiral wants to be both a Saw-film while also distancing itself away from the franchise’s previous aesthetic and torture-porn reputation. This is a film to be taken seriously – although Rock brings in a lot of laughs – because for the very first time, it is an option for a Saw film to be taken seriously on a different level to before. While not everything in Spiral works, it’s a fascinating example of a horror franchise trying to reinvent itself and break free from certain formulas, while still retaining others.

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