Warning: This essay contains spoilers for all Saw movies, including Spiral.
Like most reviewing Saw when it was released in October 2004, critic David Edelstein found the film so disturbing that he questioned the morality of screenwriter Leigh Whannell and director James Wan. But unlike most, Edelstein, who would later coin the term “torture porn,” still found value in the film, praising it as “an ingenious machine for inducing terror, rage, and paralyzing unease.” More importantly, he opens his review for Slate by urging readers to vote in the (then) upcoming Presidential election between incumbent George W. Bush and challenger John Kerry, offering Saw as a respite from that important work. “At least the people being tortured and/or killed on camera aren’t real Americans or Iraqis,” he writes.
By referencing the “enhanced interrogation” techniques used in the Bush administration’s War on Terror, Edelstein gestures toward what will become the defining interpretation of not only the Saw series but the entire “torture porn” genre that followed it. As critics and academics such as Aaron Michael Kerner contend, Saw and its followers tap into the discontent of a nation whose response to the wound of 9/11 was to harm others. President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were Jigsaw-like moralizers, forcing victims within the U.S. and across the Middle East to either accept their philosophies or be bombed and tortured. “Torture porn” gave Americans space to wrestle with the actions of our elected officials.
Was this what Australians Wan and Whannell planned when they started working on Saw in the early 2000s? All sources point to “no.” The duo simply wanted to make a locked room thriller in the style of David Fincher. And yet, despite the creator’s meager ambitions, Saw is a political movie.
The Inescapable Presence of Politics
All horror is political, whether the creators want it to be or not. Before you head straight to the comments with your list of apolitical horror films, let me define my terms. By “political,” I don’t necessarily Republican or Democrat (although it can certainly be that). Rather, I mean political in the classical sense, which is “pertaining to the polis.” For the ancient Greek stoics, the polis was the space between the oikos (the home) and the cosmos (the rest of the world). It was your social area, best represented in cities and nations. As soon as you leave the familiarity of your home and family, but before you enter the complete unfamiliarity of the cosmos, you’re in the polis. And within the polis, everything is by definition political.
In this sense, all horror is political because the stories derive their scares from social anxieties. Get Out visualizes the destruction of Black minds and the exploitation of Black bodies, A Nightmare on Elm Street tells us that suburbanization will not keep children safe, Psycho plays on fears of privacy, and so on. Even the Victorian horrors from which our modern stories come, such as Frankenstein and Dracula, gain their power by harnessing then-current anxieties about scientific developments and the old feeding on the young.
Sure, even a hypothetical person abandoned by their parents and raised by wolves would be scared by seeing Jason Voorhees waive his machete around. But that fear wouldn’t be as powerful, the story not as long-lasting, as it is for someone who connotes summer camp with innocence and safety. By pulling from these larger, political concerns, horror does more than simply shock or disgust.
Spiral’s Myopic Political Vision
Which brings us back to Saw. In perhaps the most shocking part of the franchise’s latest entry Spiral: From the Book of Saw, Detective Zeke Banks (Chris Rock) distinguishes that film’s new Jigsaw Killer from the older John Kramer (Tobin Bell) variety by claiming that the latter “never targeted cops.” That would come as a surprise to Detectives Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg) and Allison Kerry (Dina Meyer) and to Officer Daniel Rigg (Lyriq Bent), all of whom died at the hands of Jigsaw in Saws III and IV. And it certainly would be a surprise to Detective Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), who became Kramer’s hand-picked successor (well, one of them, anyway).
Although the line can be explained away by the fact that Banks wouldn’t necessarily know all of Kramer’s victims, it points to a bigger problem in Spiral. Like Saw: The Final Chapter before it, Spiral tries to be explicitly political, taking on the issue of police corruption. But in the same way that The Final Chapter says really nothing about the healthcare system, Spiral achieves no substantial statement about police corruption.
There’s definitely value to a version of Jigsaw who turns his moralizing torture devices toward crooked cops, but it never seems committed enough to make the analysis work. In the world of Spiral, a few bad apples resulted in the death of Will Schenk’s (Max Minghella) father, and he’s improving the force by cleaning them out. When he fails to recruit Banks, who has done his own work cleaning up the police force, Schenk makes his former partner complicit in the death of Chief Marcus Banks (Samuel L. Jackson).
Spiral‘s analysis of police corruption is far too generic to be effective. Not only do many experts reject the idea that police reform consists of only removing the few bad actors while training and promoting the good cops represented by Detective Banks, but Spiral also completely ignores the element of racism present in much police brutality. In Spiral, Schenk has to concoct an elaborate trap that makes Chief Banks into a marionette, put a gun in his hand, fake a shooting, and blind a SWAT team to make them kill Jackson’s character. Time after time after time after time after time in real life, police needed no such urging to murder Black people.
Spiral doesn’t fail because it brought politics into an apolitical franchise. Rather, Spiral fails because its half-hearted and inaccurate statement about police distracts from the more trenchant criticism already present in the previous entries.
Saw is a Series About Police Corruption
Corrupt cops are a mainstay in the series, earning more screen time than the franchise’s iconic Pigface and Billy the Puppet. In Saw II, Kramer plays a game with duplicitous Detective Matthews by locking his son Daniel (Eric Knudsen) in a trap with ex-cons he wrongfully convicted, including the secret apprentice Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith). Saw III–The Final Chapter feature Detective Hoffman, Kramer’s other secret apprentice. In Jigsaw, Kramer’s other other secret apprentice police medical examiner Logan Nelson (Matt Passmore) escapes by framing corrupt Detective Halloran’s (Callum Keith Rennie) as the new killer. Heck, not even Detective Tapp (Danny Glover) from the original Saw sticks to the book.
Even when it’s simply trying to tell a twisty story with gory trap plots, the Saw franchise critiqued police corruption and brutality by making bad cops a constant presence in the series. Sure, Detective Sing (Ken Leung) and Kerry seem like good people, but the focus on bad police proves the adage, “One bad apple spoils the whole bunch.”
The Saw franchise’s critique of police is particularly pointed in Saw IV and V, both of which feature Kramer recruiting police officers to be his apprentices. In the former film, Jigsaw puts Officer Rigg through a series of games to cure him of his obsession with saving people. Riggs encounters a sex worker in a trap that she cannot escape if he interferes, a rapist who must be placed into a trap by Rigg, and a battered wife who must pull away the spikes pinning her to her abusive husband. Jigsaw accompanies these traps with cryptic messages, urging Rigg to “see as I see” and “heal as I heal.”
More than trying to cure Riggs, Jigsaw wants to recruit him. In fact, the end of the film reveals that these traps have been set by Detective Hoffman, who has taken over as Jigsaw after Kramer’s death. And like Rigg, he joins Kramer precisely because he could not do enough to punish others. Embittered by his sister’s murder and disillusioned with the laws that let that man go free, Hoffman comes to realize that he and Kramer share the same ethos. Hoffman becomes the next Jigsaw not to betray his police work, but to extend it.
These two storylines carry much more force than the bad cops in the other movies. Sure, the respective Jigsaw killers expose the corruption of Detectives Matthews or Halloran, but they also ask viewers to sympathize with them. We gasp as Matthews gasps to see young Daniel in the poison gas trap house of Saw II. We scream as Halloran screams when the lasers come down on his face in Jigsaw.
But with Rigg and Hoffman, we see how police sympathize with the torturer. We see how someone given a lethal weapon to enforce the law would find value in Jigsaw’s policy of self-improvement by torture. More importantly, we’re invited to think about how real modern police activity mirrors Jigsaw’s twisted worldview.
Was that the intention of the filmmakers? I’ve found no evidence to suggest that it was. They seemed largely interested in telling a scary story with a twisty procedural plot. But just like the themes about the War on Terror, these ideas about police brutality and corruption are there.
In many ways, Spiral most obviously builds upon the previous Saw films by continuing their critique of police. But by loudly making an unclear, undeveloped point about policing, Spiral does a disservice to the previous movies’ work. The previous movies showed us the heartlessness and brutality present in so much police work, simply by involving police in its scary story.
Spiral didn’t make Saw political. Saw was always political. All horror is.