Once upon a time, in what reads like a game of Hollywood Mad Libs gone wrong, Chris Rock approached a Lionsgate executive at a friend’s wedding and discussed reviving one of the company’s most profitable franchises: Saw. Rock is apparently a big fan of the horror series, which has endured for eight films and countless gruesome (and creative) deaths via Rube Goldberg–like torture devices. But while “Chris Rock does Saw” is an undeniably intriguing (if also head-scratching) selling point, the actual tone of Spiral: From the Book of Saw, which comes out on Friday, is less aligned with the franchise’s torture-porn origins and more rooted in the ’90s. Specifically, grim ’90s police procedurals, and more specifically, that infamous movie in which hotshot detective Brad Pitt got really upset after looking inside a box.
Few thrillers have cast a longer shadow than Se7en, David Fincher’s 1995 sophomore feature, which remains an uncompromisingly bleak outlier in the major studio pipeline. (Remember what actually was in the box?) Beyond establishing Fincher as an exciting new filmmaker—and vindicating him after the well-publicized fiasco with Alien 3—Se7en became the gold standard for R-rated procedurals, thrillers, and other genre fare trying to push past the constraints of working within the studio system.
Spiral director Darren Lynn Bousman, who previously helmed three Saw sequels, has admitted the spinoff cribbed some from Fincher’s masterpiece, telling Empire that he and Rock envisioned a film that felt like Se7en while maintaining the franchise’s mythos. (By “mythos” I think Bousman mostly means “we still have the torture devices on deck.”) But Spiral’s similarities with Se7en isn’t such a major tonal shift that it’ll discombobulate audiences. If anything, the franchise could be considered one of the more successful—if not somewhat distant—descendants of Se7en. (Both feature depraved minds with twisted moral codes playing god to anyone they deem unworthy. I’m pretty sure John Doe and John Kramer would vibe.)
Of course, minor spoiler alert, one of the key distinctions with Spiral is that John Kramer and his disciples don’t have anything to do with the killing spree in this film—they’re mostly mentioned offhand and serve as inspiration for the spinoff’s new sadistic mastermind. Here we have a vigilante of sorts who wears a pig’s head and targets cops with a history of corrupt behavior: lying on the witness stand, shooting unarmed civilians, etc. (A more appropriate title would be ACAB: From the Book of Saw.) And just as Se7en’s John Doe left cryptic clues while re-creating the seven deadly sins, Spiral’s killer sends videos and creepy packages to Zeke Banks (Rock), a detective loathed by the rest of the police department because he reported a fellow officer who killed an innocent man. It’s the bad apples analogy in reverse, I suppose.
Because of this, the film falls into interesting—albeit half-baked—political territory, more of a piece with the underrated Purge franchise than Saw’s previous attempts to make a statement. (Like, for instance, when the franchise took aim at the American healthcare system.) But in the end, Spiral most of all harkens back to Se7en—from its jaundiced lighting to its spotlight an unnamed city so miserable and gloomy that it might as well be called Metropolitan Hell. (Incidentally, the city where the Saw movies take place has never been named, which gets funnier the longer it continues.)
Spiral’s self-awareness in leaning into Se7en territory might not be as noteworthy if another 2021 studio release hadn’t done the exact same thing. In January, Warner Bros. dropped The Little Things: a procedural with enough surface similarities to Fincher’s film that writer-director John Lee Hancock has gone out of his way to remind people that he wrote the original script before Se7en came out. In Hancock’s film, an upstart Los Angeles detective Jim Baxter (played by Rami Malek) teams up with former detective Joseph “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington) to investigate a recent string of murders that could be related to an unsolved serial killer case that has long haunted Deacon.
The Little Things coming across like a Se7en knockoff has more to do with its ambiguous storytelling than the particulars of the case. (The crime scenes aren’t so elaborately staged, either; this killer doesn’t have quite the same taste for the theatrics.) Because Hancock’s film was in development hell for long enough that it feels less like a subversive approach to the genre and more like a throwback—complete with a ’90s setting that’s actually more effective because detectives aren’t carrying around cell phones—The Little Things came and went with minimal fanfare and middling reviews. In fact, the movie is perhaps best remembered for an improbable (and nearly successful) awards campaign for Jared Leto, who played a suspect so cartoonishly sleazy and bizarre it’s probably the only time the actor’s notorious antics actually stole the show.
Two movies doesn’t quite make it a trend, but Spiral and The Little Things are among the most high-profile examples of R-rated crime thrillers with such obvious nods to Se7en that the filmmakers have had to address the similarities in interviews. It’s not enough to suggest that Hollywood is trying to make the ’90s happen all over again on the big screen—there are too many superhero movies clogging the multiplex for that to be feasible, anyway. But in the grimy world of hard-nosed detectives and methodical serial killers, it’s clear that one particular film from the decade is viewed as a muse, even if its inferior offshoots won’t be remembered as anything more than movies of the week.