Leigh Whanell

Spiral: From the Book of Saw

21/05/21

The Saw franchise always seems to me like a missed opportunity. The first movie, way back in 2004, was a decent low-budget thriller, tightly directed with a clever climactic twist. But its success gave creators James Wan and Lee Whannel carte blanche to go bigger and nastier. Which they promptly did. The result was a long stream of torture-porn specials, where people the viewer didn’t really care about were messily dismembered in a series of Heath Robinson torture contraptions. In the ‘final’ episode, Jigsaw (the eighth film in the series), the ingenious serial killer was caught and put to rest.

So the news that comedian Chris Rock (a self-avowed Saw fan) had plans to ‘reinvent’ the series seemed to offer at least the possibility of something fresh. In Spiral, he plays detective Zeke Banks, who becomes the ultimate victim of a ‘Jigsaw copycat’ killer. See what they did there? The main difference is that the new murderer is killing only corrupt police officers, which Banks’ department seems to be overrun with. Indeed, it feels at times, that he is possibly the only good guy on the entire force. We quickly learn that he once turned in a fellow officer for breaking the rules and, as a consequence of this, he is disliked by his colleagues.

It probably doesn’t help matters that I find myself in full agreement with them. As played by Rock, Banks has all the inherent charm of a dead mouse in a loaf of bread. Those, who like me, were hoping for a sprinkling of witty repartee to leven the usual visceral mix will be sorely disappointed. Rock’s dialogue – if I’m allowed to call it that – is composed mostly of F bombs, directed at anybody who disagrees with him – and trust me, that’s a lot of F bombs. Even his new partner, doe-eyed Detective William Shenk (Max Minghella), comes in for scorn, mainly because he’s a married man with a new baby to think about.

Banks’ dad, Marcus (Samuel L Jackson, who looks like he’s wondering how he ever got himself into this debacle), is also a highly regarded police officer, retired now, but still taking every opportunity to stick his nose into the latest cases, because… well, every retired guy needs a hobby, right? The question is, who is the mysterious killer? If it takes you longer than twenty minutes to work it out, then you really haven’t been concentrating…

From the opening scene onwards, it’s clear that writers Josh Stolberg and Pete Goldfinger aren’t the tiniest bit interested in breaking any new ground – but breaking limbs, now, that’s a different matter. There’s the usual prurient torture scenes with the camera lingering a little too gloatingly on severed tongues and shattered faces. There’s a labyrinthine series of (frankly ludicrous) flashbacks and, finally, we’re offered a ‘reveal’ which is going to surprise precisely nobody. Ominously, the ending is left hanging, presumably in the hope that Spiral will initiate yet another series of diminishing returns, but I for one certainly won’t be back for more. Once bitten and all that.

This is dismal filmmaking that consistently fails to break new ground. Why not leave it here and look for some new ideas? Just a thought.

2 stars

Philip Caveney

The Invisible Man

01/03/20

HG Wells’ landmark novel first appeared in serial form in 1896. Since it’s screen debut in 1933, it has become one of the most adopted stories in movie history. Leigh Whanell’s version of the tale has little in common with Wells’ brainchild. If anything, it’s closest to Paul Verhoeven’s The Hollow Man (2000), in which Kevin Bacon took on the titular role. But where that film was unforgivably salacious in tone, Whannell, rather astutely, uses the central idea as a metaphor for the way in which certain men can exert a powerful and malign influence over their female partners.

Here is a version of the story that chimes perfectly with #metoo – yet boasts all the thrills and jump-scares of a traditional fright movie. No mean achievement.

When we first encounter Cecilia Kass (Elizabeth Moss), she is already on the run from an abusive relationship with Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). He is an ultra-successful inventor, working on a top secret project. The couple live in a super-swish home on a remote clifftop, where Adrian controls every aspect of Cecilia’s life – what she says, what she does, what she wears, what she eats – and he’s quick with his fists if she’s slow to obey him. She’s had more than enough. So she slips her husband a tranquilliser, grabs her pre-packed bag and makes a run for it. The film is taut with tension from the opening scene. The mere act of accidentally kicking a metal dog bowl is enough to make me almost jump out of my seat.

Two months later, Cecilia is lodging at the house of friendly cop, James (Aldis Hodge), a close friend of her sister, Emily (Harriet Dyer). When news comes through that Adrian has killed himself, Cecilia starts to believe that her long nightmare is finally over – but then inexplicable things begin to happen around the house, incidents that threaten Cecilia and her developing friendship with James’ teenage daughter, Sydney (Storm Reid). Cecilia gradually begins to understand that Adrian is still somehow holding the reins that govern her life. But she can’t see him. And the problem is, when she tries telling others that she’s being hounded by her invisible, dead partner, eyebrows are inevitably raised.

It’s strangely reassuring in this CGI-addicted era to see how much suspense Whannell manages to generate with what is mostly a traditional, low-tech approach. Shadowy corners, unexplained sounds in the night, brief glimpses of ‘something’ glimpsed from the corner of an eye … all of these are used to great effect to ramp up the steadily building tension to almost unbearable levels. Furthermore, there are enough twists and turns in this retelling to keep an audience guessing. It’s only as the film thunders into the final stretch that we actually get to ‘see’ the villain’s invisibility… if that makes sense – and to realise that the only person who can help Cecilia out of this sitation is Cecilia herself.

Moss is, as you might expect, superb here, convincingly showing us a character pushed to the very edge of sanity by the machinations of a vengeful and highly inventive partner.

Originally concieved as part of Universal’s planned (and promptly abandoned) ‘Dark Universe’ series, The Invisible Man is strong enough to stand on its own two feet. And then some. Be warned. This is not one for those of a nervous disposition.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney