Sunday 22 October 2017

From the archive: "Saw II"

Released to coincide with Halloween, last year's first Saw - directed by James Wan from a script by leading man Leigh Whannell - was a sleeper hit distinguished by high levels of ingenuity, its grisly setpieces engineered by a doubly sick fuck (Tobin Bell's cancer-stricken John "Jigsaw" Kramer) for whom imprisonment and execution held no fear. Its immediate legacy appears to have been convincing multiplex bookers to take a gamble on films - like Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects or last month's Wolf Creek - which even hardened horror fans might concede hardly constitute a fun night out. The inevitable Saw II, written by Whannell with director Darren Lynn Bousman, is a messier film in several respects, expanding the franchise's queasy worldview while reducing any pleasures that might be gained from sitting in the dark with it. 

After a particularly nasty pre-credits sequence, we learn the police - in the form of seedy detective Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg) - have finally caught up with Kramer, only for the killer to reveal an extra trick up his sleeve. This is a bank of monitors, displaying a group of youngsters - including Matthews' son Daniel (Erik Knudsen) and Amanda (Shawnee Smith), the first movie's sole survivor - locked up in a house that's been heavily boobytrapped and is gradually filling up with nerve gas. What follows cuts restlessly between the kids, moving from room to room in search of an exit, and the police back at Kramer's lair, attempting to puzzle out what to do next.

Again, there's a smartness about some of the plot points - eventually explaining why one of the housemates doesn't appear to be affected by the toxin, a niggle that nags away at the viewer for much of the running time - and how the film goes about setting up fresh meat for a possible third film. There's also something clever about the conceit, which ties into why we might be watching horror movies in the first place. Kramer puts his victims through the mill in order to make them less inured to life, just as one supposes those heading to see Saw II do so in the hope of experiencing jumps and jolts they might not in the real world. 

These the film duly delivers, but its creeping sense of dread gives rise to more inevitable demises than surprise deaths, and it's hard not to notice the peculiar moral outrage underpinning this latest instalment. All the plot strands - from the housemates' incessant, finally fatal bickering to Wahlberg's ill-advised last-reel decision to turn maverick cop - have been calibrated to point up how selfishness inevitably leads to these characters' undoing; in almost every instance, death could have been prevented if the main players actually worked together. (That there is such carnage turns out to be the result of two psychopaths collaborating successfully.) 

The problem - more evident here than in the tight two-handed original - is that Saw II is too crudely directed and acted to really land these points. The wily Bell and Wahlberg lend the framing story an interesting dynamic, but those inside the house are a mixed bunch, the gruesome invention rather slips out of the death scenes after an hour, and it's, let's say, something of a downer as entertainment. Far better our horror films be horrifying than just loud or slick, but in the end, Saw II is the sort of film from which the viewer can only take away small mercies: that its makers applied their sadistic tendencies to celluloid rather than human flesh, and that real life rarely throws up 100 minutes as punishingly blunt and brutal as these.

(October 2005)

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