“spiral” isn’t great, but it belongs to a valuable tradition

I saw the new Saw movie, Spiral, and liked it in the most basic and personal way, the same way that I like Jigsaw, which is to say that I can see how, from an objective standpoint, this movie is pretty bad; maybe awful; nonetheless I dig the premise and the tone and even, to some degree, the earnestness behind its stupidity. 

We’ll get to that. 

First I wanna say that I’m heartened to see Chris Rock take this kinda risk, pressing his creative thumbprint into a mostly-maligned franchise because he saw an opportunity to explore  an important theme. It’s a risky career move, something that could have (and might yet) prove embarrassing, maybe staunch some opportunities. 

It’s heartening, especially if you’re a fan of horror, to see someone use their starpower to shine some public consideration onto the genre.

That aside: there’s a good essay waiting to be written about the Saw franchise and its rollover with the Hostel franchise might reflect something about the traumas of a certain generation of filmmakers and moviegoers–ultraviolent horror movies of the oughties that were all grouped and then dismissed under the pejorative umbrella “torture porn,” a term that was coined by critics and sensationalized by the press, as though these movies didn’t mean anything, as though these extremely violent movies depicting the desecration of bodies with instruments, with machines, and all of them coming out at roughly the same time (i.e. the aftermath of Columbine and 9/11), weren’t a symptom of some kinda discontent; no; rather, they were some self-invented aberration. 

Go and check out any of the Saw movies and you’ll find that, when it comes to actual gore and guts on the screen they’re no worse than your heavy-handed shoot-em-up; what really makes them brutal is the frantic editing, the blue filter that makes you feel like you’re watching something illicit, the actors’ constant screaming. 

And that’s not nothing! Shit’s upsetting.

But those sequences last for maybe a minute at a time. 

I remember being frustrated to learn that, back in the oughts when cinephiles were privileged to the phenomenon of “Unrated” cuts on DVD; this was generally when something like The Hills Have Eyes or Dawn of the Dead would release the theatrical cut and then, for the real aficionados who weren’t pansies, they’d release the “Unrated” cut. Sometimes this was called the Director’s Cut–although that’s a problematic moniker because it suggests that these movies are governed by a director’s sensibility. 

For the most part, they aren’t. 

On a budget of just over $1 million, the first Saw movie went on to earn just over $100 million worldwide. Doesn’t matter how auteur or brilliant your first movie was in that case–it namesake will be a product now. Same thing happened with Paranormal Activity. These things are made cheaply and flipped for a huge profit on the basis of a gimmick, a formula. If you’re a hawkeyed viewer you might see some directorial flair here and there among the sequels, but for the most part these are potboilers for everyone involved. 

            Anyway, those Unrated Cuts: they billed themselves as being “too extreme” or “too terrifying” for theaters but, if you checked the runtime in comparison to the theatrical cut, they were seldom more than a minute or two longer. That’s because production on these movies hews closely to the MPAA’s rules–they get as close to the extreme as possible, without crossing the line into an NC-17 rating. Of course, they all get an NC-17 on first submission, and the MPAA’s notes amount to hedgework along the lines of, “Remove three seconds of screaming from this scene, remove the close-up from that one…”

            Again, these are products. There’s no artist behind them trying to lead you into the bowels of depravity, trying to subvert cultural mores. There’s really no artistic impulse or sensibility at all. No more than you’d find in a carnival ride.

The early Saw movies have a pseudophilosophical premise whereby some old man is telling people they need to learn to appreciate their life better; thus, he’s putting them in some horrible situation where they’ll have to inflict great bodily harm on themselves in order to get out with their life–a life, presumably, that they will leave here to live with something like gratitude and altruistic zeal. 

People don’t actually work that way but whatever. The notion of subjecting someone to emotionally- and physically-debilitating trauma so that they can then go out and live a better life is so inherently backward and stupid, we just have to give it a pass at the door, and try not to think about it too much before doing so.

But it’s interesting to note that these movies involving extreme violence, often in confined spaces, all came out in like the five years after September 11th, and in a cultural milieu that was mindful of mass-shootings. I think the first Saw, in its rawness, says something about a nation’s adapting to a 24-hour awareness of extreme suffering; seeing the suffering; not just the footage from 9/11 but the photos from Columbine and now, twenty years later, take your pick: the Vegas shooting, the Pulse nightclub shooting, the Mosque shooting, the church shooting (of which, again: take your pick), the grocery store shooting, the elementary school shooting, the office party shooting, the Walmart shooting…

You can see photos from all of them online. Sometimes footage. 

And yet despite this volcanic eruption of national violence in the news we’re told that this is the greatest and safest country on Earth and we should be incredibly grateful to be here. 

It takes a certain self-mutilation to tell ourselves that this is true, and then go out and live our lives accordingly.

            But getting back to the Saw movies: 

The evil genius of engineering behind all these torture sessions, the terminally ill Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), can, in this analysis, be seen as Uncle Sam. Old and ailing. Punishing random people for not being grateful. Taking life and limb from drug addicts and thieves for not adhering to his moral code (which, as these movies kind of inherently suggest, is the right moral code).

I’m not sure where to go with it, but I think 20 years is enough distance to gain some new perspective on what was going on in the decade that birthed these movies. Devil’s Rejects, Hills Have Eyes, Dawn of the Dead, The Collector, American Psycho, Final Destination, The Purge, Hostel, the New Line Cinema remakes of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street and The Hitcher–the fact that a single country is churning out a slew of horror movies with distinct thematic characteristics and visual motifs is pretty telling.

Anyway. I watched Spiral and I was excited to see that this was a genuine reboot to the franchise, honoring the original series and just taking its material in a new direction, unlike the last reboot, Jigsaw, which was good, but basically a more polished version of things we’ve already seen. 

Spiral really tries to be something different and, if we can say that the original Saw was holding a dirty mirror up to the culture back in 2004, this reboot is tryna do the same thing in 2021. It uses the serial killer gimmick to address police violence. Dirty cops who kill witnesses, lie on the stand. But it doesn’t work. The acting is bad, the violence I’d cartoonish, Chris Rock can’t seem to make up his mind about whether this is a buddy cop movie or a psychological thriller…

            It just doesn’t work.

And maybe it doesn’t need to. Looking at that slew of “torture porn” movies I just mentioned–none of them is really trying to say something. The filmmakers’ posturing aside, there isn’t any kidna thematic investigation going on in something like The Collector or The Hills Have Eyes. 

Nonetheless, they end up reflecting something about the cultural moment that spawned em. 

So yeah: Spiral kinda sucks but, if you like horror (and especially if you like the franchise) it’s a good way to spend 90 minutes.

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