Saw II Review

“Remember the rules!”
-- Jigsaw

Horror sequels have always been gimmicky…

It’s about taking an established set of rules, and pushing them to their extremes; exploiting the formula, while maintaining the spirit of past success. Yet, upping the gore and dismemberment is often a bad sign -- would we rather see more violence, or dynamic storytelling? This is relevant, because the “Jigsaw Killer” is perhaps the most gimmicky antagonist in modern horror films. Setting diabolical traps for unlucky victims, Jigsaw has a rigid modus operandi, that he gleefully carries out. More sophisticated than Freddy or Jason he might be, but like the film itself, Jigsaw is content to be formulaic. But that isn’t a detriment. Saw was a breath of fresh air in an increasingly stale genre; claiming me as a fan, and showcasing one of the most memorable screen psychos in quite a while. When news came of a sequel, I was both intrigued and sceptical. Released only one year after its predecessor, I went into Saw II with some trepidation.

Amazingly, it bucks the trend of a thousand horror sequels, managing to be an engaging and thoroughly twisted follow-up. In most respects, Saw II is a fitting successor to James Wan’s nightmarish original.

In an amusing twist, the plot is both unexpected and derivative. Unexpected, since Jigsaw (the creepy Tobin Bell) is captured a mere 15 minutes into the proceedings. What a wonderful way to throw the viewer off-balance - we barely caught a glimpse of him in the first picture, and now he’s in the spotlight. Derivative, because the rest of the narrative merely rehashes elements of Wan’s concoction - a group of unlucky victims attempting to escape Jigsaw’s machinations, and an acceptable sub-plot involving the tortured Detective Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg). Jigsaw has asked for Matthews personally, drawing him into a new “game”, in which his son Daniel (Erik Knudsen) is trapped. He’s locked-up in a house with seven other victims; breathing in a deadly toxin that will prove lethal if they don’t find the antidotes in time (blocked by several sickening traps). As the tension rises, the bodies pile-up, and Matthews employs desperate measures to find his son…

Naturally, Saw II lacks the simplicity of its forerunner, adding more players and contrivances to the mix. What was novel in Wan’s film, is merely going through the motions here, although the filmmakers have improved on the originals low-budget charms; making a solid and streamlined effort, that drops the flashback structure of the first film (a bone of contention for some). Debut director Darren Lynn Bousman is every bit as capable as Wan, commanding the camera and pulling off a stylish film with very little money. Lion’s Gate seem to have the right idea - keeping the budget low at $4 million, they were able to maximise profit and maintain the down-and-dirty feel of Saw. It certainly feels like part of the same cloth, as most of the production staff returned; including composer Charlie Clouser and DP David Armstrong. It also helped that Leigh Whannell returned to co-write the screenplay with the director - a re-working of Bousman’s abandoned project, called The Desperate. The result is an enjoyably nasty brew, although it isn’t free from fault.

Many consider this to be a marginally better B-film than Saw, although the core protagonists aren’t as sympathetic as Wan’s characters (no matter how imperfect they were, we rooted for Dr. Gordon and Adam). Like the Final Destination franchise, the unlucky soles here are completely interchangeable - a collection of stereotypes, set-up for the gruesome death scenes. Among them, is Xavier (Franky G.), Jonas (Glenn Plummer), and Laura (Beverley Mitchell); ex-cons drawn into Jigsaw’s game for their past indiscretions. As you’d expect, the players are intricately linked to each other, in one of the many surprises that Saw II pulls off so well. Giving the cast extra allure however, is the return of Shawnee Smith as Amanda. Having escaped the “reverse bear trap” from part one, she once again finds herself at the mercy of Jigsaw’s grisly imagination. The diverse supporting cast includes Dina Meyer (reprising her role as a police officer), and a nice cameo from the one and only John Fallon (known to web-users as Arrow in the Head).

Despite the gruesome events committed in the house, it is the verbal sparring between Matthews and Jigsaw that holds the attention. Somehow, the writers were able to make the “interrogation” scenes feel fresh and unique, with Bell dominating the scenes with his cool-as-ice portrayal. Jigsaw (or John, as he’s really known) is certainly an interesting creation. Dying from cancer, he’s bound to a wheelchair in his grim, foreboding lair; plotting more diabolical traps. He has decided that to achieve immortality, he must live a life worth remembering - an aim he hopes to teach his victims. These moments with Matthews are some of the best in the picture, and interestingly, the director paints the detective in shades of grey. Over the course of the film, it slowly dawns on the viewer that Matthews is anything but a decent cop. There’s a strong moral streak running throughout Bousman and Whannell’s script, with few of the characters worth rooting for…

As with the first Saw, the performances are rather hit-and-miss, although many critics preferred the acting here to Cary Elwes’ stilted delivery in the original. Each of the protagonists are given clear, distinguishable roles, especially Franky G. and Plummer, who give their poor dialogue some clout. Yet, it’s left to Wahlberg and Bell to chew the scenery for much of the film. Wahlberg in particular, gets right to the core of Matthews, delivering a layered performance that simmers with anger. Bousman cleverly places CCTV cameras inside the house, allowing Matthews to watch as his son edges closer to death. The tension chips away at Matthews, and Wahlberg shows his slow mental breakdown with surprising restraint. He’s especially effective during the frenzied climax, in which he desperately searches for Daniel. While Saw II is hardly a platform for acting talent, the cast is definitely an improvement over the first film.

But the core audience for Saw II is after one key ingredient - the gruesome booby traps, that spring with Rube Goldberg-efficiency. Bousman takes great relish in revealing his house of horrors, subjecting the characters to deadly peep holes, rigged furnaces, and in one very uncomfortable scene, a pit of needles. My favourite, however, opens the picture; a man encased in a “death mask” timed to go off, unless he finds the key. There’s only one problem - the key has been planted behind his eye! It’s a scene that caused me to squirm in my seat, and has a typically gory pay-off. Abiding by the sequel rulebook, Saw II is definitely bloodier than its predecessor, and the make-up effects are frequently wince-inducing. A particular moment involving a nail-ridden baseball bat springs to mind, confirming Whannell’s imagination for sick imagery. Gore-hounds should go away happy…

Business as usual perhaps, but Saw II has one trick up its sleeve: the twist.

The conclusion to Saw - while victim to more plot holes than a block of Swiss cheese - was ingenious. After all, we didn’t see it coming, and it made the multitude of flaws easier to swallow. The filmmakers had tricked us, and there’s nothing better than surprising your audience in these jaded times. While not boasting quite the same impact, the denouement of Saw II caps off the film in memorable fashion. Until that point, Bousman’s film struck me as merely efficient, but the twist brings all of the elements together in perfect harmony. Compared to Wan’s gambit, the revelation here makes more sense, and better yet, ties into the first film with eerie precision. Fans of this burgeoning franchise are unlikely to be disappointed; giving Saw III a new avenue to explore, and providing a natural progression to the story. In other words, it’s the icing on this blood-splattered cake.

With the third film locked and loaded for Halloween, hopes are high that the standard will be maintained. After all, it’s strange for a horror franchise to be successful both commercially and critically, so Saw III has a lot of pressure riding on it. Consider me intrigued…

The Disc

With Saw III set for a tentative October release, you can bet we’ll see another edition of Bousman’s sequel - perhaps in an unrated flavour? Lion’s Gate did, after all, double-dip the first film. While that’s enough for some fans to resist temptation, the current DVD is anything but a dud; collecting some decent bonus material, and treating the film to a respectable transfer.

With each DVD, Lion’s Gate continue to impress as a genre studio…

The Look and Sound

Saw II might have been ultra low-budget by Hollywood standards, but the video transfer belies its shoestring nature. While it’s a good-looking presentation, there’s room for improvement. Showcased in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1), it’s a grainy, sometimes murky presentation (no doubt intended); redeemed by excellent colour reproduction. Certain colours were emphasised in post-production for effect (particularly the greens and yellows), and the blood really stands-out. Skin tones appear wishy-washy, and some shots are rather soft; problems attributed to Armstrong’s grim lighting. Yet, the image boasts plenty of detail, and common DVD problems like compression and edge enhancement are absent. It’s worth noting that Saw: Uncut boasted a major improvement in terms of picture quality, so Saw II could look a lot better. Nit-picking aside, the transfer does satisfy.

Much stronger, is the Dolby Digital 5.1 EX soundtrack. Lion’s Gate seem to get DVD audio, and the track for Saw II is typically atmospheric. Surround effects are nicely-varied, with a multitude of sickening cues. The sound of a man’s head getting squished, or nails piercing flesh, are expertly-produced; getting the desired effect from any squeamish viewers. Dialogue and Charlie Clouser’s music come across in passionate fashion, and the track is consistently active. In most respects, there’s little to complain about…

The distributor also provides an English 2.0 track, with English and Spanish subtitles.

Bonus Material

This one-disc affair won’t offer any surprises for seasoned DVD viewers, but it did keep me entertained.

Audio Commentary by Darren Lynn Bousman, Donnie Wahlberg and Beverley Mitchell

Anyone who heard the anarchic commentary for part one by Wan and Whannell, will know what to expect from this breezy discussion. It’s nowhere near as entertaining, but the contributors are in good spirits. Bousman clearly relished the chance to direct Saw II, and his youthful exuberance comes across well. He doesn’t offer much in terms of production insight, preferring to note his creative choices; what worked and what didn’t. He has a great camaraderie with Wahlberg and Mitchell, who offer the typical “cast commentary” quirks - good-natured joking, recollections of the shoot, and overblown hyperbole. That said, fans are likely to find this entertaining. It’s just a shame that the producers couldn’t pair Bousman with Whannell…


These begin, with “Jigsaw's Game”, 3-minutes of promotional tosh. The cast and crew explain the plot, with flashes of movie footage. Hmmm. "The Traps of Jigsaw" is more intriguing; focusing on each of the key traps: “The Head Trap” (4:19), “The Needle Pit” (8:29), “The Hand Trap” (2:42), and “The Furnace” (3:54). These offer some great behind-the-scenes footage, as the effects crew try valiantly to pull off the various devices. “Bits & Pieces: The Props of Jigsaw” (4:26) treads into similar territory, and is fiendishly amusing - these guys have a sick imagination…

"Storyboard to Screen" is pretty self-explanatory, allowing us to check-out the storyboard and completed scene. Four sequences are presented: “Death Mask” (3:39), “The Furnace” (3:23), “Needle in a Haystack” (2:43), and “Jigsaw's Lair” (1:45). I’ve never been a fan of these extras, but the set pieces are rather clever in execution. This is complimented by a concept art gallery, of around 20 images.

On the main menu, there’s a touching dedication (in text form) to Gregg Hoffman, by Darren Bousman, which paints a fond portrait of the producer. Finally, you’ll find trailers for Saw II, Saw: Uncut, Asian shocker Three Extremes, the Audition: Special Edition, Tamara (written by Final Destination scribe Jeffrey Reddick), and Marvel animation Ultimate Avengers: The Movie. A decent package.

The Bottom Line

Most people consider Saw II to be a slash above its predecessor.

While I wouldn’t go that far, it did exceed my expectations; a horror sequel that ups the gore quotient, while retaining some intelligence. The conclusion alone is a good reason to see this film - a genuine surprise, that bodes well for part 3. Could this be the first horror franchise to maintain its momentum? Only time will tell…

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out of 10

Last updated: 15/06/2018 18:56:00

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