What to Know About ‘Spiral’ and the ‘Saw’ Franchise

You don’t have to know a thing about the horror movie “Saw” or its spawn before watching the latest movie in the franchise, “Spiral: From the Book of Saw,” opening in theaters on Friday.

But if you’re curious to know more about what helped “Saw” slice through the competition and why “Spiral,” starring Chris Rock and Samuel L. Jackson, might be worth checking out, here’s a primer.

What is “Saw” and why does it matter?

James Wan’s low-budget indie horror oddity “Saw” landed on the film festival circuit in 2004, and became a sleeper hit thanks to a diabolical story and hair-raising performances by Cary Elwes (the swashbuckler Westley from “The Princess Bride”) and Leigh Whannell (who wrote the screenplay). The macabre story is about two men isolated in a grimy death trap of a room, where they’re forced by a madman, known as the Jigsaw Killer, to undergo brutal morality-testing games to escape alive. Danny Glover plays a detective obsessed with catching the killer.

Wan was a 27-year-old unknown when “Saw” came out; he’s now a Hollywood bigwig known for directing blockbuster horror (“The Conjuring”), action (“Furious 7”) and superhero movies (“Aquaman”). Whannell, who starred in Wan’s original “Saw” short film, went on to write horror megahits, including Wan’s “Insidious,” and also to direct (his credits include last year’s “The Invisible Man”).

The original “Saw” cost just $1.2 million to make and grossed more than $103 million globally. With eight films in the “Saw” franchise, most recently “Jigsaw” in 2017, the series is now one of the highest-grossing horror movie franchises and is credited with helping usher in the “torture porn” era of horror filmmaking.

What is “Spiral” and why does it matter?

Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman (“Saw II,” “Saw III” and “Saw IV”), “Spiral” starts a new chapter in the “Saw” universe, an extension that Lionsgate no doubt hopes will again result in box office gold.

Rock stars as Zeke Banks, a seen-it-all detective who reluctantly works with a rookie (Max Minghella) to investigate a series of murders of police officers that, by the look of the gruesome crime scenes, appear to be the work of the Jigsaw Killer. Samuel L. Jackson plays Zeke’s father, a police veteran, and Marisol Nichols plays the police chief.

Rock has said he’s a fan of the “Saw” films, and he came up with the idea for this new iteration.

Mainstream horror still doesn’t feature many Black leads, so “Spiral” is a welcome departure from the genre’s whiteness. It will also be interesting to see Rock tackle a dramatic role, as he recently did in the series “Fargo.”

Tell me more about Jigsaw.

The Jigsaw Killer, better known as just Jigsaw, is the bloodthirsty maniac who orchestrates sick little games for people he thinks don’t deserve to live. He communicates via a dapper ventriloquist’s dummy with a white face, red beady eyes, a red lip and signature red swirls on his cheeks. The killer has a fascinating back story revealed in one of the original film’s biggest twists.

Jigsaw doesn’t have the name recognition of villains like Jason or Freddy, but he has a devoted fan base. In “Spiral,” his catchphrase — “I want to play a game” — is delivered in a digitally distorted voice that sounds like what a perverse and unforgiving psycho would sound like. (It also, strangely, has the flat affect of the Midwest.)

How scary are “Saw” and “Spiral”?

That’s a tough question to answer. Horror fans love “Saw,” and might enjoy “Spiral” for its ingeniously cruel tests, gory outcomes and “what would you do?” scenarios. For gorehounds, the pleasure comes with each scene of graphic and fantastic carnage at the hands of contraptions that make an iron maiden look like a Sit ’n’ Spin.

If you can stomach watching people make terrifying decisions that result in a blood bath of severed limbs and dramatic deaths, these films are for you. If not, steer clear.

If I only had to watch one “Saw” film, which one should it be?

The original. (Stream it on HBO Max or rent it on Amazon Prime.) The first “Saw” succeeds because its most grueling scenes take place in one room, giving it the feel of a very intimate, if bloodcurdling, play. It values storytelling over butchery (of which there’s still plenty), and does so with elements of raw exploitation but also Grand Guignol chamber drama. For some critics it was too real; Stephen Holden, in his review for The New York Times, said parts of “Saw” bore “an uncomfortable resemblance” to the horrors of Abu Ghraib.

The “Saw” sequel and the latter films have their merits, especially in some of the more spectacularly devised deaths. But they are too often overwhelmed by plot twists, overlapping story lines and contradictory timelines.

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