Trading in mindless slashers and supernatural menaces with something altogether more pathological and inventive, the SAW franchise provided a ravaging new direction for horror when it debuted in 2004. But after about the fourth installment, the ruthless, game-loving John Kramer a.k.a. Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) and others inspired by him in sequels, lost some edge in terms of the elaborate kills and motivations behind them. Or maybe it was just us, the audience, desensitized and craving the tension and carnage of the first films. Either way, if you were a fan of the millennial “torture porn” onslaught SAW wrought, you probably enjoyed every bloody eye gouge and severed limb they threw at the screen, regardless. But it’s been 4 years since the last sequel (part VIII) was released and it’s safe to say that a 9th, especially a 9th coming out in 2021, needed something fresh and fearless to have an impact.
Spiral: From the Book of SAW, which came out last Friday, is definitely a new spin on the classic cinematic shocker. Chris Rock is at the helm both on-screen and off, Samuel L. Jackson plays his father, and both actors play cops. Meshed with SAW’s gluttonous gore, psychological amplitudes, and morality subtext, the 9th installment is definitely a novel nod. Still, as Rock was making the project happen, he understood the need for a director who knew the nuances — and lack thereof — of the early films, so that the twisted humor, shameless violence, and cat and mouse exchanges were most potent.
Darren Lynn Bousman, director of SAW II, III, and IV was the obvious choice. The L.A.-based creator and filmmaker left the franchise to pursue other endeavors (we’ll get to those in a minute) but Rock’s passion for the twisted games the films were known for — and his idea for an all-new story within its universe — reigned him back in.
“The whole thing was surreal,” Bousman tells L.A. Weekly by phone. “I was in New York, getting ready to actually sign a contract to direct a Broadway show, which was like a lifelong thing that I’ve always wanted to do, and the same day that the contract’s presented to me, I get a phone call from the producers, Mark Burg, Oren Koules, and Gregg Hoffman — Twisted Pictures main architects — and they say ‘hey, we need you back in Los Angeles, for a meeting with Chris Rock.’ I paused for a second because never in a million years would I expect them to call me about that Chris Rock. But they told me to look at my email and there was this script called The Organ Donor. So I started reading it on the plane and was like, holy shit this is a SAW movie.”
Bousman met with Rock the next day and immediately knew that the project had serious potential. “He gets it and he’s a fan of it,” he says of Rock. “From that first conversation it was clear, he was down.” The script was conceived by Rock and after he pitched it to producers, he hooked up with writers Josh Stolberg and Peter Goldfinger. Several re-writes and hotel roundtables later, Bousman, Rock, and the scribes ran through every scene, making for a collaborative process that conjured the mystery and mayhem of the original films with a new socially conscious subtext about dirty police, vengeance, crime, and punishment. The idea was conceived pre-George Floyd, but of course, police brutality was a problem long before. It feels timely regardless, especially the climax (which we won’t spoil here).
“The first idea I had was, what if I was a cop who woke up in a trap, or had one hand chained to a pipe and a saw in the other,” Rock explains in the press junket for Spiral. “That spurred all of our conversations, and as we talked, everybody got excited about what this movie could be. We keep everything that defines a Saw movie, but we also delve deeper into the psychological and suspense thriller elements that have always been there, beneath the surface – we’ve got the traps, we’ve got the gore, but we’ve also got a story and characters that will keep people guessing. That’s why I really don’t look at Spiral as the next Saw film. We’re actually starting over and heading in an entirely different direction with this movie.”
This new approach obviously excited Bousman, who sought to challenge himself and his audiences throughout his career. He had left SAW behind in 2007 after part 4 to do “more dangerous things,” the biggest of which was bringing a gothic rock opera to film.
His early fascination with dark entertainment began when he first moved to Los Angeles and became a fan of Repo! The Genetic Opera, a popular stage show in the L.A. theater scene in the early 2000s. It was eventually turned into a short film by Bousman, then a full length in 2008 starring Paul Sorvino, Alexa Vega, and Paris Hilton, with a soundtrack produced by Japanese rocker Yoshiki (from the band X Japan). Though it wasn’t a hit upon limited release, it was popular on the midnight movie circuit, often screening alongside The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Getting the film version of Repo greenlit was always a goal for Bousman and he says following the success of the SAW movies, he finally got to realize it. “I said if I ever make it in a director, I’m doing this as a movie,” he recalls. “I think at the time the writers were just like, ‘yeah, sure.’ Well, cut to SAW 2 and then three and I finally had the power to go back to them and say, ‘let’s turn this into a movie.’ Six years later we did it and it got a huge cult following, where people would dress up like the characters and sing the songs on the screen. And even now it’s been 13 years since we’ve made it and people still remember it. It’s something to seek out just for the pure ‘what-the-fuck’ factor and that’s why I love it.” The film can currently be viewed on Amazon Prime.
In addition to his directorial work (see niche horror films like Mother’s Day and 11:11), the Kansas-bred L.A. transplant has been a big influencer in the immersive horror world, exploring what weird and wicked experiential entertainment can look like. He created a traveling theatrical road show called The Devil’s Carnival that was sort of a follow-up to Repo and eventually became a film with some of the same stars. When the movie wasn’t getting booked and promoted to theater audiences the way it should’ve been, he added interactive elements and made it a live show and movie hybrid experience, which toured theaters around the country. The self-financed bet paid off.
“It was a weird, crazy, carnival-like environment,” Bousman explains of the 2012 show, which he also did in 2014. “It allowed us to charge a premium to go see the film because it was theatrical too. We were selling out every single night. What that proved to me was there is an audience for everything. You just have to think outside of the box and I think that is what shaped my career, realizing that things have to be marketed the right way.”
After the last Carnival in 2014, Bousman became obsessed with how he was able to connect with the audience in ways beyond the cinematic, which inspired him to create immersive experiences. With heavy influences via the David Fincher thriller The Game, he created in-person and online ARG (alternative reality games) with ominous titles like The Tension Experience, The Lust Experience, Theatre Macabre, iConfidant, and One Day Die.
“The Tension Experience, which is the thing I’m most proud of, is probably the coolest thing I’ve ever done,” he shares, explaining that it involved social media and mysterious websites, online challenges, cell phone calls, and visits to a warehouse in downtown Los Angeles where teams of actors provided information for a spooky scavenger hunt that took place in the real world. The inventive game went viral thanks to Reddit, and turned into what Bousman calls a “year-long murder mystery.” Participants had to sign waivers before becoming “the star of their own horror film,” and though the director says “it was invasive, intense, and scary,” there was never a shortage of people wanting to do it.
“It was so exciting as we started to see the viral buzz of this thing, with these people in Los Angeles living in this real-world mystery,” he recalls excitedly. “And no one knew who was running it.”
Clearly, keeping busy with creepy real-life experiences informed his directorial work. Part of Spiral’s unnerving narrative features Rock’s character getting delivered boxes with clues, which subtly references The Game, but also makes sense as part of the serial killer movie milieu.
“When I first started talking about making Spiral, several people thought I wanted to make a broad comedy, like Scary Movie or something,” Rock says. “And so I had to tell them ‘No, I’m picturing a horrifying version of Beverly Hills Cop.’ I always look at comedy as a spice. In something like Dumb and Dumber, comedy is the main course, but in a movie like Spiral, it’s just a flavor you add to the movie. So I talked to the screenwriters, and we communicated back and forth, and I basically asked them to write a frightening cop movie that works without any jokes. Then my job on set would be to add a dash of comedy spice to some of my lines.”
While Spiral has received mixed reviews so far, there is no denying the film’s fresh feel and star power. Rock might not have been an obvious choice as lead, but his comic timing and charisma make it one of the most original of the series. Adding Jackson only takes things to a satiric and stylish new realm. And yes, his character calls out the “muthafucking” insanity of the Spiral murders more than once, which is essentially a copycat situation (the “spiral” design represents the eyes of Billy the puppet, a clown-like doll Kramer used to communicate with his victims) with a whodunit storyline and not so shocking but fun twist. There’s humor there for sure, but it’s more subtle than one might expect.
Bousman’s balance of absurdity and brutality comes through so strong, we wouldn’t be surprised to see him reunite with Rock for SAW 10, and once the pandemic subsides, maybe even spiral into an immersive new theater experience with the franchise. As Rock touts, the director’s attention to detail and ability to bring audiences in makes his work riveting to watch. “Darren is a great shooter. His movies always look incredible and he has a way of creating stylized images by using quick cuts and speeding up the footage that makes everything look extremely cool,” Rock praises. “He elevates whatever he directs and adds amazing visual elements to his work.” ❖
Learn more about Darren Lynn Bousman’s work HERE.