Thanks to a wealth of added content, this slightly underwhelming sequel to the seminal scare smash now earns more of Judge Bill Gibron's respect.
Our review of Saw II, published February 14th, 2006, is also available.
Oh, yes…there will be blood.
It is several months after the events in Saw. Jigsaw (Tobin Bell, 24), the cancer-ridden serial killer from the first film, is still on the loose, wreaking his own special brand of havoc. When Kerry (Dina Meyer, Starship Troopers), the policewoman on the case, stumbles across the scene of another horrifying murder, she calls on fellow cop Eric Mathews (Donnie Wahlberg, The Sixth Sense) for his input. Why? Well, Jigsaw has asked for him personally. It turns out the psychopath has Mathews's son locked up in a house with seven others. A nerve gas is slowly leaking into the space. In three hours, the front door will open, but, unfortunately, the nerve agent will slowly kill them all in two. The captives must solve several puzzles and locate syringes full of antidote if they want to stay alive. Each conundrum has a deadly consequence if solved improperly. As Mathews discovers Jigsaw's lair—and the man himself—he too is required to "play a game." He must sit and listen to the killer's confessions as his son slowly dies or choose to take action before everyone is dead, but control of this situation is up for grabs as Jigsaw and Mathews play a fatal cat-and-mouse game over the fate of the individuals in the house.
When Saw leapt out of Sundance to stun and shock the jaded horror audience, its self-contained creepiness was a weird kind of wake-up call for brainless and busy movie macabre, mired in stupidity and endless repetition. Saw was seen as a sort of savior, a messiah for all that was wrong with the low-budget fright flick. Director James Wan and Screenwriter Leigh Whannell made the case that tension could terrify just as easily as gratuitous gore, and that a smashing trick ending can make up for some occasional narrative slights. They were right; the movie was a major cult hit. It was no surprise then when a sequel was announced; no one in Tinseltown lets a success go by without some serious redux consideration. Of course, the original film didn't leave many possibilities for potential plots. Yet few figured that Saw II would simply reset the storyline, dragging up an ancillary element from the original movie to make up its new configuration.
First-time director Darren Lynn Bousman, taking over for the great, if gimmicky, James Wan, has managed to maintain the original film's perfected claustrophobia while bringing a new aura of angst to the production. Sure, some of Saw II plays like a retread of those hoary old '80s horror films, its narrative fleshed out with unimportant characters who die quick, grisly, time-frame friendly deaths. Unlike Saw, which was more or less a puzzle box with two potential solvers trapped inside, Saw II opens up the concept, focusing primarily on the deadly dilemmas being presented. It unfortunately becomes far less interactive in the process. When you watched the original, you got the impression that, throughout the struggle, the clues to the victims' salvation were right before their eyes. In Saw II, however, it seems Jigsaw has cheated a little, making his traps too easily sprung, never really guaranteeing the players have a way to endure the game. Sure, this is a clever, creative way of extending the normal mass-murderer ideal (especially since Jigsaw personally does very little killing here), but one can start to see the holes in the overall idea. Saw, as a franchise, will grow very stale, very soon, if the riddles, not the characters, become the primary concern.
As for said shiver set pieces, one has to admit they are pretty good. There's a nice nod to Dario Argento's Opera, a particularly nasty Plexiglas cube, and an opening bit of brazenness involving a death mask, a scalpel, and a key placed conveniently behind the victim's eye. Yet the other two toppers—the needle pit and the cremation chamber—are rather anticlimactic. You understand what might happen, anticipate it even as it is playing out, and shake your head in realized resolve when it more or less occurs as you expected. Then there is the overall message of the movie. Something most fans overlook is the weird moral core at the center of the Saw films. In the original, Jigsaw was sort of John Doe-ing us, making people pay for their crimes, both social and moral, by making them come face to face with the wicked aspects of their personalities. In essence, it was the standard serial-killer-as-God concept, an entity of unlimited power personally measuring out the vengeance that these individuals deserved. In Saw II, the structure is the same—everyone in the house has a criminal past—but the murders are never the mirrors of the victims' inner vice. Yes, Jigsaw sets up each puzzle with a personalized note, but that doesn't mean the intended individuals always participate—or if they do, that they get the point.
All this taken into consideration, it is easy to say that Saw II is not the original film. Taken on its own terms, it is an engaging, entertaining horror film. Side-by-side comparisons are never really fair, and the purpose of the franchise is to invite directors with differing ideals and styles into the Saw world and let them loose on the basic elements of the movie. It is supposed to be open to interpretation, and in this case, Bousman (with a little help from Whannell) has done an excellent job. Fans foaming for the first film's novelty will probably be disappointed here. Saw II suffers from what could easily be called Final Destination syndrome. Since it argues that the characters are more or less interchangeable, it asks us to accept the premise and the way in which it is utilized as the means for its morbidity. If you don't find it scary in the first place, more of the same will not supply the shivers. If, on the other hand, you are looking for an above-average offering with good tension, interesting killings, and an unexpected twist at the end (on par, or maybe even better, than the original), you will thoroughly enjoy Saw II. Jigsaw's days may be numbered, but his franchise appears to be ready for the really long haul.
From a sound and vision standpoint, Lionsgate delivers another delightful technical package. The newly remastered 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen "alternate cut" is pristine and near-perfect, with its reliance of greens and grays really giving off a menacing vibe of rot and decay. The colors are crisp and the details are readily defined. From the aural angle, both the Dolby Digital 6.1 DTS-ES and Surround 5.1 EX mixes are amazing (the standard 2.0 has been removed). This is a movie that utilizes the audio as well as the atrocities to measure out its dread, and the various versions here capture the creepiness with perfect ambient expertise. We sense the presence of unseen sinister forces all throughout the decrepit house, and the eerie underscoring helps seal the sonic deal.
Of course, the big bonus this time around is the fully tricked-out Special Edition presentation (as predicted by this critic eight months ago in his original Saw II review). Adding about three extra minutes of running time (a little more exposition between Jigsaw and Matthews, a few additional snippets of blood in each death scene) and an entire disc of additional content, Lionsgate proves once again that no one understands the needs of the horror film fan better than they do. Disc 1 contains two cracking audio commentaries, and neither is a repeat from the original DVD. The first features director/co-writer Darren Lynn Bousman, production designer David Hackl, and editor Kevin Greutert, while the second is another comedy cavalcade from Saw creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell. If you're looking for information on the production presented in a lighthearted, humorous manner, focus on the first discussion. If you want to hear two bewilderingly witty Aussies yuck it up about their suddenly successful scare franchise, pick the second track. Both are excellent additions to the Saw story, offering up insights and anecdotes that really help the moviemaking process come to life.
The Disc Two material is far more bizarre. You begin by arriving in a CGI mockup of the Saw II house set. In there, you find many of the props from the film. As you utilize the directional buttons on your remote, you find access to clues, and admonishments from Jigsaw. He wants you to "play on," to find the room with the riddles (sorry, just word games, no gore), and to answer five of them correctly. If you do, you get the combination to the signature safe featured in the film and, once the code is cracked, witness an unusual set of "life lessons" (as the DVD cover art calls them), narrated by Billy the Puppet. Along the way, you can highlight different objects (needles in the pit, the door to the basement oven) and be whisked away to one of the numerous featurettes offered. They include looks at the phenomenon of the Saw films, a glimpse at how the sequel was conceived and made, and an introduction to the casting process and the actors finally chosen. There are also segments on the sets, the cinematography, and the sound design. Finally, there's a behind-the-scenes look at some of the fun the cast had while making the movie. Add in an odd mock fact film called "The Scott Tibbs Documentary" (in which a fake rock star tries to unravel the truth behind Jigsaw) and a chance to see director Bousman's two-minute short film, Zombie, and you have a pretty complete package.
Easily trumping most of the trash that passes for horror in our modern movie clime, Saw II is better than this review may have you believe. What Wan and Whannell did with the first film was simple: they went for broke, hoping their chutzpah would win the audience over. It worked. For Saw II, you can sense the shirts sitting back and making certain that the franchise stays fiscally sound and cinematically viable. Usually, we don't see the punches being pulled in a major motion picture, but Saw II does halt when it should horrify. The original will certainly go down as a minor masterwork somewhere in the future of fright. The sequel will only be seen as more of the same—for good and for bad.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Darren Lynn Bousman, Production Designer David Hackl, and Editor Kevin Greutert
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