Directed by: Darren Lynn Bousman
Starring: Donnie Wahlberg, Shawnee Smith, Erik Knudsen, Tobin Bell, Dina Meyer
I had the pleasant experience of seeing Saw II in pretty distinguished company, which included Don Mancini (the creator of the homicidal Chucky doll and writer-director of Seed of Chucky) and Barry Sandler (the writer-producer of the Ken Russell film Crimes of Passion). We tried to get Ken Russell to go with us, but he demurred, saying, "I didn't travel 10,000 miles to see Saw II," proving himself a gentleman of some perspicacity.
Now, Don obviously knows his way around horror pictures, and Barry is hardly unfamiliar with the genre (there are elements of it in Crimes). The verdict? Barry was underwhelmed, finding Saw II less engaging than the first film. Don, on the other hand, said it scared him and that it was better acted than the first -- the latter being a claim that doesn't mean much, since Ed Wood movies are better acted than was the first Saw.
All in all, I'm more in accord with Don. The new film is, I think, better than the original on almost every level. I don't know if it scared me exactly, but I did find it reasonably suspenseful. This does not, however, mean I exactly liked it. I admired its efficiency at what it set out to do, but the problem -- apart from a certain lack of logic (something that doesn't necessarily matter in this kind of movie) -- is that, at bottom, Saw II is just an utterly sadistic horror picture that exists for no other reason and has no discernible point apart from getting horror fans to shell out a few bucks. But on that level -- limited and possibly loathsome as it is -- it's hard to deny that Saw II achieves its goal.
Newcomer director Darren Lynn Bousman is a good bit more stylish than the original's director, James Wan, though in all fairness, he also has an obviously larger budget to work with. The setup is roughly the same, but on a grander scale and without the mystery element of the first film. This round, we already know about John the "Jigsaw Killer" (Tobin Bell reprising his role), who is dying from cancer and has set out to make his victims better appreciate the lives they have by making them have to fight in various unpleasant ways to stay alive -- often involving murder or at least self-mutilation. The life of the party, he ain't.
For Saw II he's collected a group of significantly unpleasant characters and placed them in what one critic called an "old dark crack house." This is really just a variant on the old horror/mystery ... er ... saw of trapping a diverse group in a location and killing them off -- or getting them to kill each other off -- one at a time. Think of it as And Then There Were None with a lot of blood. Just how John can afford this elaborate creation and its various engines of destruction is not addressed in the movie and it really doesn't matter, since this is an essay in grue, not logic. His guests have all been subjected to some kind of nerve gas that is making them cough up more blood than in the last act of 20 productions of Camille and look increasingly like refugees from a George A. Romero zombie picture. The trick is that all they need to do is figure out the combination to a safe that contains the antidote.
Complicating matters -- as only a movie killer would -- John has thrown the son (Erik Knudsen, TV's Mental Block) of a morally dubious cop (Donnie Wahlberg) in with the other guests. And, of course, it just so happens that dad not only arrested everyone else in the house, but framed them as well. (The film goes out of its way to make the others pretty vile, which creates the problem of just why they'd all need to be framed in the first place, but we'll ignore that.) John seems to be mostly doing all this to taunt the cop and get us to a profoundly convoluted solution that mostly proves he's seen Ocean's 11.
The whole thing often makes only sketchy sense and it's all predicated on people doing really stupid things to keep it going, but the individual nasty set-pieces are pretty effective, and at least one image -- a pit filled with dirty, used hypodermic syringes -- is worthy of William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch. Still, let's face it: Saw II is just a rather repellent movie the raison d'etre for which is to show a lot of blood flowing, followed by a trick ending and the obligatory heavy-metal-festooned end credits. All in all, I'd say Mr. Russell made the wisest choice by passing on it. Rated R for grisly violence and gore, terror, language and drug content.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke