John Kramer (Tobin Bell), the dying mastermind behind the chamber of horrors in the Saw films, manages to find people who are frittering away the precious gift of life and administer a harsh lesson in why they should appreciate it. One would think that a man with such impressive brainpower and resources could turn both to curing the cancer that’s killing him, but then Lions Gate wouldn’t have a prosperous Halloween-weekend franchise.
In Saw II, the diabolical puppetmaster turns his rough attentions to a variety of people who’ve been on the wrong side of the law. They find themselves in the usual abandoned building, with the usual taunting tape recordings and the usual cryptic clues. Among them is Amanda (Shawnee Smith), who’s dealt with “Jigsaw” before, and Daniel (Erik Knudsen), the emo son of hotheaded cop Eric (Donnie Wahlberg), who’s been busted down to desk duty for cracking too many perps’ skulls. The cops actually track down “Jigsaw,” who sits hooked up to an IV and forces the impatient Eric to listen to his every whispered utterance.
Which boils down to: Hahaha, I know more about you than you do. Hahaha, only I hold the key to your safety and you must do exactly as I say in order to escape. What a control freak. Unwilling to fix what wasn’t broken (or original), Saw II dishes up more of the same dare-you-to-look moments. Will this guy put out his eye to escape death? Will someone dive into a pit of syringes to obtain a key? Will this person risk a paper cut by licking an envelope??? Well, actually that last one isn’t in the movie, but I guess they have to save something for Saw III.
The ornate sadism isn’t enough to carry our interest this time around; for one thing, there are fewer moments when a character does have to make a choice between the agonizing and the lethal, and the bloody fates don’t have much to do with the characters’ individual foibles. Much of the movie is given over to watching the various captives argue about what to do next. The madman’s ratiocinative powers seem to cross over into psychic abilities, since he seems to know how each character will react, when they’ll react, and what effect the reaction will have. As in the first movie, the real tormentors of the characters are the screenwriters. “Jigsaw” has such power, such malign foresight, he practically is the screenwriter.
If the first Saw was indebted to David Fincher, this one takes its cues from The Silence of the Lambs; there’s even a similar SWAT-team-invades-house misdirection, and “Jigsaw” himself comes off like a detached psychotherapist. I’d have more fun with these movies if they didn’t take themselves with such grisly shock-cut seriousness; they’re basically derivative, hermetically sealed head games for the young and jaded, and ripe for parody.
These movies have gotten a rep for being nastily transgressive, but the filmmakers may already be running out of tricks: aside from the admittedly wince-worthy opening demise, we have here a gunshot to the head, a slit throat, death by nail-studded baseball bat, death by furnace, and — most inventively — slow death by poison gas. Gee, haven’t seen any of those before. Saw II gives us a bunch of mostly stupid people and invites us to wonder aloud who’ll be stupid enough to stumble into the next uninspired deathtrap. Forgive me if I want a little more from my horror films.