SAW II (2005)
Director: Darren Lynn Bousman

If you've read any of my reviews, you've probably learned that there's one rule in filmmaking: the sequel's the thing. If your film gets any kind of success whatsoever, your movie will get a sequel even if it seems like there's no way it could happen. Disney somehow made a sequel to The Wizard of Oz in 1985 (Return To Oz, starring Fairuza Balk as Dorothy), so anything could happen. I wouldn't be surprised if someone made Titanic 2: DiCaprio's Revenge sometime in the future. No genre is safe from the power of sequels, especially horror movies. Most horror movies can be done in a relatively quick amount of time for next to nothing, so if they're moderately successful, why not make another chapter and make a little more money? Such is the case with 2005's Saw II, the sequel to the sleeper hit from a year prior. Filmed in just under three weeks on a shoestring budget (somewhere in the neighborhood of one million dollars), Saw's creativity pulled in 102 million dollars worldwide. With that kind of turnaround, distributor Lions Gate Films decided to strike while the iron was hot and immediately sent a sequel into production. But is Saw II as imaginative as its predecessor, or is it another case of a sequel not living up to its full potential?

SAW II (2005)Things aren't going well for troubled detective Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg). He had extreme anger management issues, he's going through an extremely messy divorce, and his strained relationship with his delinquent shoplifter of a son Daniel (Eric Knudsen) is pushed to its breaking point. However, Detective Matthews's life begins to get even more complicated when he finds a message for him at the scene of the latest game played by self-righteous serial killer Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), a message instructing Detective Matthews to "look closer."

And look closer, he does. He notices a factory logo stamped on the side of the murder weapon, prompting him to lead the SWAT team into what proves to be Jigsaw's lair. Extremely ill due to the cancer that is killing him, Jigsaw informs the police that they should be less worried about arresting him, and more concerned with what's being broadcast on the monitors in the back of the room.

What the monitors convey cuts Detective Matthews to the bone, as they reveal that his son has become part of Jigsaw's most ambitious game yet. As Daniel awakens in a seemingly vacant house, he learns that he is trapped there with seven complete strangers: drug dealer Xavier Chavez (Franky G); Addison Corday (Emmanuelle Vaugier), a prostitute; corporate embezzler Gus Colyard (Tony Nappo); Obi tate (Timothy Burd), an pyromaniac; Laura Hunter (Beverly Mitchell), a kleptomaniac; former jailbird Jonas Singer (Glenn Plummer); and Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith), who survived Jigsaw's wrath in the first Saw yet apparently didn't learn her lesson.

The eight prisoners are quick to discover a cassette tape that tells them the rules of the game. Deadly sarin gas is being pumped in through the air vents, and each of them has two hours to find an antidote before it kills them. And of course, each vial of the antidote is hidden on the other end of one of Jigsaw's sadistic traps. As the clock slowly ticks away, the police frantically search for the house while those inside it try to survive, and revelations are made regarding the residents and their connection to not only one another, but to Detective Matthews as well.

I'll say right now that casual fans are probably going to see Saw II with certain expectations, and I'm willing to bet those expectations center around Jigsaw's traps. And boy, are there traps like crazy. From a helmet similar to a medieval iron maiden and a sadistic version of a Chinese finger trap, to a pit of hypodermic needles and an oven-like furnace, each of the traps are deliciously violent and certainly didn't let me down. It seems as if those behind Saw II tried to top its predecessor by just doing more of everything. There are more traps, more cast members (and thus more victims), and much more violence. In a genre in which methods of execution are starting to lose their creativity, Saw II's ingenuity can pull those that enjoy inventive deaths in horror movies out of any listlessness recent fare may have brought upon them. However, the majority of Jigsaw's complicated traps come across as Rube Goldberg machines used for murderous intentions. Some are seemingly so complicated that the only way for them to succeed are either jumps in logic or their victims being dimwitted or panicky enough to not figure out the quickest means of survival. However, by no means does that make them any less frightening or entertaining.

While the script penned by Leigh Whannell and Darren Lynn Bousman does contain a few corny bits of dialogue, it eschews any pretentiousness found in the original Saw. It instead focuses more on the gruesome, violently over-the-top action inside the house, which Whannell and Bousman effortlessly juggle with the scenes involving Jigsaw and Detective Matthews, whose bizarre relationship comes across as an odd combination of Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling from The Silence of the Lambs, and Brad Pitt and Kevin Spacey in Seven. Whannell and Bousman's script also succeeds in taking us the viewer deeper into Jigsaw's psyche. We are given more insight into his motivation, his driving force. Reviewers (myself included) drew parallels between Jigsaw and Kevin Spacey's "John Doe" from Seven upon the release of the first movie, and these similarities are just as evident in Saw II. Like John Doe, Jigsaw singles out those he deems undeserving of the gifts life has given them, and sets into motion events that will cause their deaths. But Jigsaw may also be compared to classic Batman villain The Riddler. Each of Jigsaw's victims are placed in elaborate deathtraps, yet they are all given the opportunity of survival, provided that they use their brains, pay attention, and simply follow the rules that they have been given. Sure, Jigsaw's instructions and clues may sound vague at times, but they can be easily figured out if one thinks about them. But because they think his riddles are much more complex than they really are, they end up over-thinking the situation and causing themselves more pain and sorrow than if they had just stuck to the obvious. If Jigsaw tells you a certain key shouldn't be used for a certain lock, he isn't using reverse psychology. He may be crazy, but a liar he is not. Jigsaw's games are exactly that: games. They're sick and twisted games that will more than likely result in the victim's very painful demise, but if those forced into participation can stay calm enough to play along, they can be beaten. And the thing is, if any of us were stuck in the same situation, we'd probably make the same mistakes as Jigsaw's victims. Why? We've seen too many movies featuring murderers that make unspecific pronouncements of impending doom.

I really can't argue with the direction of co-writer Bousman. Teamed with director of cinematography David Armstrong, he presents us with some very neat camera moves and setups that, while not as kinetic as the first movie, make for a very engaging style. However, I do think Bousman's use of the quick flash frames bordered on overkill, but hey, I'll forgive that. Meanwhile, I don't really know how to feel about the changes in set design when comparing the two movies. The first Saw's primary bathroom set made me feel like I needed to take a shower after watching the movie. It was nasty, gross, and everything the movie needed. With Saw II, on the other hand, the house the victims are trapped in doesn't have that same aura of dread. Jigsaw's lair, on the other hand, I have no problems with. He's surrounded by computer monitors, blueprints for various traps, and all kinds of tools for bringing these traps to fruition. It feels like you've crash landed into the workshop of an evil genius, and I think it's effective.

Also effective is the score, composed by former Nine Inch Nails member Charlie Clauser. His industrial-tinged music is as down and dirty as his score from the original Saw, even including a neat recurring melody for the characters of Daniel and Detective Matthews. Clauser's reprisal of the ending music from the first movie is an awesome touch as well. The acting, as with the first movie, can be give or take at times. Let's start with the victims. Most of them are forgettable, disposable cannon fodder for the various implements of destruction that Jigsaw has left for them. However, there are a few notables in there. Franky G is as engaging as his character is despicable. I can't really give a lot away without spoiling some of the better parts of the movie, but the character is a total slimeball and Franky G makes it work. I also thought Shawnee Smith, who reprises her role of the woebegone drug addict Amanda from the original film, was great. She was one of my favorite performances from the first Saw (despite having what amounted to a bit part), and I found her to once again be both sympathetic and wonderful. And she gets around pretty good for someone who, according to the DVD commentary, was a few months pregnant during production. I'm sure she had a stunt double, but her role is still somewhat physical, and I applaud her for going through it like a trooper. Back in Jigsaw's lair, former boy band sensation Donnie Wahlberg acts circles around his little brother Mark, portraying a character that seems to be absolutely rotten yet wants to be a halfway decent father. But let's not forget Tobin Bell's amazing performance as Jigsaw. Bell obviously takes the role seriously, and he exudes a brash superiority that the character needs. And frankly, if Freddy Krueger ever needs to be played by someone other than Robert Englund, I think Bell should be their guy.

There's no doubt that Saw II is absolutely dripping with misanthropy. I think 2005 was the right time for Saw II to be released, as it gets to share a calendar year with other unfriendly movies in The Devil's Rejects and Wolf Creek. All three movies serve as stark reminders that, in these times of inoffensive films where good and evil are drawn right down the middle, there is a darkness in the human heart that is rarely explored. This sort of thing is why I think horror movies are important to society as a whole. We need movies these to remind us that there are certain shadows that should probably never have light shine upon them. And while it can be argued that Saw II is simply a slasher movie with delusions of grandeur, it is evidence that in times of severe duress, we just might go a little crazy. And for that, I give it four stars.

Final Rating: ****