Saw II

Saw II (2005)
Lions Gate Home Entertainment
Cast: Tobin Bell, Donnie Wahlberg, Shawnee Smith, Frankie G, Glenn Plumber
Extras: Commentary Tracks, Featurettes, Trailers

"Some people are so ungrateful to be alive, but not you… not anymore."

The latest batch of torture-horror flicks, unintentionally popularized by the national debate on military interrogation methodology, seems to have found its poster child in the 'Saw' franchise. 'Saw II,' the cleverly titled sequel to an extremely low-budget, theatrical mime show, came as a huge surprise to me. I loved the bookends of the first film, but found a lot of the meaty character opportunities in the middle to be overacted, overwritten, and overproduced. My expectations for 'Saw II' were lower than you can possibly imagine so the fact that I found myself enjoying every sick minute of this sequel was an absolute shock to my system. While still packed with bloody exploitation and improbable circumstances, this intelligent, manic sequel towers above its older brother while providing a fun and entertaining night in your home theater.

Much like the uber-popular, Sci-Fi, Indie smash, 'Cube,' 'Saw II' gathers a group of strangers and imprisons them inside of an inescapable house, forcing them to find an escape while surviving the twisted traps of the labyrinth. The psychotic cancer patient, Jigsaw (an ominous Tobin Bell), kidnaps Amanda (the impressive Shawnee Smith), one of his original victims, and the son of Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg), a police officer with a strong temper and a short fuse. As Amanda tries to keep a band of terrified housemates alive, Eric interrogates Jigsaw at a safehouse to learn the whereabouts of his son and the latest victims.

The thing that lifts 'Saw II' above its predecessor is the strong performances of the entire cast. There are extreme, one-note characters, but they're quick to die, leaving behind a wealth of layered, troubled victims with secret pasts and conflicting goals. Beyond this, the twists and turns of this sequel are on par with the final Jigsaw reveal in the original… but, luckily for us, each one is grounded in a more realistic, psychologically mapped collection of character motivations. A new and interesting villain even raises his head, a plot point that threw me for a loop, but fell perfectly in line with the dark redemption preached by Tobin's delightfully pastoral serial killer.

Sure… there are still a few plot holes if you look around. If you think about anything in a horror movie for too long, it seems unreasonable. The joy of a good horror flick, however, is that it forces you to think about what you would do in such an extreme situation. That's where the chills come from… that's where the jumps come from… and that's where horror fans will find a nice package of scares. 'Saw II' isn't perfect (it still occasionally has some overacting), but it does deliver on everything it promises without resorting to cheap thrills. On top of this, this series has almost crafted its elaborate death traps into characters all of their own. You'll marvel at their complexity and consider all of the possibilities as to how you'd escape such dreadful mousetraps.

'Saw II' is certainly not the best the horror genre has to offer. But when you focus your lense onto the subgenre of the torture craze, the 'Saw' sequels provide a huge punch to the gut that keeps you at the edge of your seat. It's certainly worth a rent, even if you despised the first film in the series like me, and you may just find yourself twisting and turning in your seat as much as the story does on the screen.

The video presentation of 'Saw II' was an interesting conundrum… I've never been so satisfied to report that a movie looks so bad in high definition. The entire 'Saw' series is a gritty, grimy roll through a dirty alley and everything about the cinematography reflects this style. However, the MPEG-2 codec brings the film to sharp life, with rich details and a lot of wonderful enhancements to the shadowy corners of each shot. The colors are vibrant but ugly, the contrast is boosted to a sickly extreme, and the entire film hangs a heavy, green filter around its neck. All of these things should ruin the transfer but they actually enhance the tone and the discomfort you'll feel watching the movie.

Your enjoyment of the visuals, like the film, will come down to your opinion of the stylistic decisions of the filmmakers. There are some rough patches regardless of your taste – blacks could be deeper, depth could be extended, and reds could be reduced to be less manipulative – but these are minor complaints considering the purposeful production techniques. I can understand if you hate this sort of presentation… but it worked for me and, technically, it's a great transfer.

The audio is also impressive, particuarly the fuller DTS HD track, and will take advantage of each channel in your setup. Horror movies tend to have uninspired auditory experiences because there are only so many screams and flesh rending effects you can apply to a track before it gets repetitive. The nice thing about both mixes on 'Saw II' is subtle soundfield enhancements with Bell's lectures, Wahlberg's shouts, and Smith's measured panic. These sounds are used intermittently throughout the soundscape to produce maliciousness, desperation, and awakening, and the designers utilize multiple speakers to create interesting modulations in different strings of dialogue. The death-house provides a good environment for your surround sound to show off how well it can handle convincingly realistic echoes bounding around your room. To top it all off, scares and surprises bring all of the channels to life simultaneously to send you rocketing toward your ceiling. All of that aside, the slashing, tearing, sloshing and dripping does wear thin and, like most horror movies, there are only so many ways you can combine sound effects for a character's death before the audio presentation becomes far less important than the visuals.

There's an average supplemental package on this Blu-ray disc with one particular highlight that offered a unique look at the film. The second commentary track on the disc (with the original film's creators, James Wan and Leigh Whannell) is well worth your investment. Both guys are engaging, revealing, and amusing with a lot to explain concerning the entire 'Saw' franchise. I was impressed to find they had no intention of patting each other on the back but, instead, were focused on discussing problems, errors, shortcomings, and the trials of low budget filmmaking. It made for an intriguing and fascinating listen.

After you take your time with the second commentary, skip the plodding, overly technical, first commentary track (with the director, production designer, and editor) and head for the featurettes. Be warned though… these mini-docs are short and mildly confusing additions that don't really belong alongside the film. There's a short film, mocumentary that follows a character named Scott Tibbs who inhabits the world of 'Saw,' an interesting but thin featurette on the newspaper articles that inspired the plot and serial killer of the franchise (much like Wes Craven's eerie recounting of true events that led to the creation of Freddy Krueger), and a tribute doc to one of the filmmakers who died after 'Saw II' was finished. I'm glad the filmmakers were thinking outside of the box when they added supplemental features to this release… but I found myself wondering what a lot of these featurettes had to offer when I really wanted to explore the process of making the film.

In the end, I was glad I gave 'Saw II' a chance. It fixed many of the problems I had with the original 'Saw,' offered solid performances in a frightening and psychologically twisted morality tale, and brought a host of clever traps to life in my imagination. I'm usually not a huge fan of torture-horror, but I find it only takes a bit of character development and innovation to bring me over to the fold. Whether you loved the first film or hated it, be sure to rent 'Saw II' and give it a try. It's smarter, faster, and more devious than most horror movies that land on the shelves at Blockbuster.