It may sound a little odd to say, but a franchise sometimes really doesn’t start until the second movie appears. Now, before you point out that that sentence sounds like the garbled, random nonsense of someone who regularly suffers disorienting night terrors, but hear me out as I use Saw II as an example.
The first movie of any franchise (e.g. Saw) is usually a stand alone affair that is so self contained that if all subsequent sequels where erased is some kind of random sequel fire the first film would basically remain utterly unchanged. It’s actually the first sequel that dictates the direction of the series as it has the task of cherry picking which threads of the orginal to run with and expand upon.
This brings us nicely to Saw II, a follow up that thankfully matches up to my horribly flawed theory exactly and that creates the deeper parts of the Saw mythology that usually gets credited to James Wan’s intense original.
Prolific serial torturer Jigsaw continues to work his magic on the hapless victims he selects to put through horrific ordeals that resemble a Rammstein live show, but the most resent death adds something new. Found at the lastest grizzly scene of the forced self mutilation of a police informant is a direct message to Detective Eric Matthews scrawled on the wall much to the law man’s confusion.
Matthews, a man who’s actual adherence to the law matches his stratospheric inability to contain his volcanic temper, is one of those typical movie detectives that has a failed marriage under his belt, a strained relationship with his son and constantly looks like he’s gotten his clothes from goodwill and then slept in them for three days before wearing them to work, so his patience is somewhat tested by Jigsaw’s mysterious jibe but he still manages to unearth a clue that leads a SWAT team to the sadist’s door.
However, despite cornering Jigsaw in his lair surrounded by enough evidence to put him away until cockroaches rules the earth, the man himself is not what anyone excepted him to be. Jigsaw is John Kramer, a man slowly dying from cancer who has used this new outlook on life to realise that mankind no longer has the instinct to survive and thus targets people who dedicated their existence to not living their life to it’s full potential and sticks them in lethal traps to give them a boost (a bit more advanced than holding a self-help seminar, but there you go…). Matthews involvement finally becomes clear when a monitor reveals that his son and a bunch of other people are sealed in a house being pumped with a poisonous nerve agent and in order to survive they have to traverse a string of predictably grotesque traps in order to gain an antidote. Also among the group is Amanda, a previous victim of Jigsaw who has been selected to play against her will once again due to an apparent suicide attempt and while her and Matthews’ son try to avoid the rapidly deteriorating sanity of their housemates, Eric struggles to keep his temper when all Jigsaw wants is to sit down and have a talk…
As I hinted at the top of this review, it’s actually this movie and not the first that fills in a lot of the story that the rest of franchise built itself on as it relentlessly released a new instalment every Halloween for the next couple of years. The main example of this is it’s most obvious addition – that of the expanding of Jigsaw’s role into an actual person and not just a voice on some tape recordings while he lies face down on the floor of a shitty bathroom for a bunch of hours. It may be an obvious move, but more Tobin Bell in your movie is usually a good thing and he’s generally a good man to have in your corner when you need someone to churn out endless exposition while still managing to be hella creepy while he does it and the humanising of John Kramer is one of those rare instances where finding out details behind a deranged maniac in a film actually enhances and not weakens the villain’s effectiveness.
Another thing Saw II established was to push the body playing contraptions even further thanks to the reception to the infamous reverse bear trap from the first flick. Now, instead of just having a couple of people chained in a room trying to match wits with an unseen tormentor, we now have eight people locked in a house negotiating violently dangerous tasks like a version of Big Brother that people would actually watch. The new traps include some memorable, squirm inducing shit like an iron maiden mask that slams shut like a venus fly trap and a glass box with retractable blades in the openings, but the prize for the most pallor inducing is an impressively memorable scene where some poor sap has to plough their way through a pit of used hypodermic needles which leaves them looking like a porcupine with a high risk of HIV. There will be blood? Try nausea – lots and lots of nausea.
However, while Saw II should rightly be commended for cementing the template that kept the franchise going for so long, it also manage to transfer it’s many flaws to it’s many successors – the main one being that virtually all the characters in this film are so odious, I don’t think I’d actually piss on any of them even if they were on fire. To this day I’m genuinely unaware what emotions I’m supposed to have concerning Donnie Wahlberg’s violent protagonist – am I supposed to feel happy that the man can’t sit in a chair for two hours without trying to break Jigsaw’s face? I understand that that’s the point of the film, but compare it to Brad Pitt’s bitter vengeance at the climax of Se7en to this; Matthews is merely a violent hypocrite who has all the morals of an amoeba and it’s tough to give a shit about him one way or the other. That being said, all the best roles come from the actors you actually recognize such as the dependable Dina Meyer and a returning Shawnee Smith who’s role satisfyingly expands from being just another callback; however, everyone else is horribly forgettable and only make an impact depending on the manner that they’re messily dispatched – apart from that they’re also as appealing as stepping in dog shit.
Still, it’s still relentlessly twisty enough (assuming you don’t think about it too hard) and whether you like it or not, the franchise was about to embark on a grueling release schedule the like of which the horror genre hadn’t seen since the slasher gold rush of the 1980’s that saw Freddy and Jason sequels released almost yearly.
While admittedly lacking the leaness of the minor masterpiece that is the first Saw, this fittingly grimy sequel immediately settles into a groove that would propel it’s puppet-using villain forward for years to come and proves that this second piece of the jigsaw fits just well enough to work.