October Horrorshow: Saw II

Like the poor characters who populate the Saw franchise, I seem to be a glutton for punishment. I roundly excoriated the first Saw film and the torture porn subgenre of horror in yesterday’s review, yet here I am, writing a review of another Saw flick. I can’t seem to look away, and that’s part of the point of these films, right? During the progression of the series, plot continued to descend further into a convoluted pastiche that existed only to place characters into harm’s way, where they were confronted with machinery designed to maim them and delight us viewers.

Did I just write ‘delight’? I did. If horror and revulsion held no fascination for us, then films like Saw and all its sequels wouldn’t exist. Well, maybe the first film would, but it would not have found the audience sufficient to justify further entries.

Just how far can a film go? The Human Centipede and its sequels have tried to answer that question, as have dramas such as Irreversible, Eraserhead, and Raging Bull. There are a wide variety of films, indeed, that seem to be designed specifically to be unwatchable. Saw II, written by series creator Leigh Whannell and the film’s director, Darren Lynn Bousman, doesn’t reach the same heights of repulsion as something like Irreversible, but that isn’t for lack of trying.

Following the events of the first film, Jigsaw has more people locked away and surrounded by traps. There are more people this time, and the location is more expansive. A whole group is forced to navigate a house where every room contains a deadly trap. How does Jigsaw get his captives to cooperate? Simple. They are all being exposed to a deadly nerve gas that will overcome them in exactly two hours (a rather specific time that is dependent on many coincidences to work, but this type of narrative weakness is typical of the series). If they want to leave the house, they have to acquire items from each of the rooms. If this sounds familiar, that’s because Saw II plays out like every survival horror videogame that has been released since the mid 1990s.

Who the people Jigsaw has gathered are, and why he has kidnapped them, is unimportant. The cast consists of low-rent talent who can scream better than they can read lines, but a viewer can safely ignore any instances in the film where someone isn’t dying a dreadful death. Saw II turns the Bard on his head. Here, the play’s not the thing. There are no great truths to be extracted from this drama, no profound secrets revealed. Sure, more characters find out who Jigsaw really is, but that is of no matter.

I wonder how a film like this would play out if there were no need to satisfy the simplest requirements of plot. I imagine it would even further resemble a funhouse, a showcase of violence without sense or reason. This film comes closer to that strange ideal than I think Whannell and Bousman realized. Unlike the first film, where Whannell and director James Wan were groping, this film establishes more of the formula that would provide so much success in later installments. Saw was full of possibilities for a pair of young filmmakers. Where would their careers go after this? What lessons would they learn? After they cut their teeth on horror, like so many filmmakers before them, what types of projects would they take on to expand their horizons? Maybe we would have found those things out, had Saw not made a ridiculous amount of money. Instead, this horrible thing they have created continued to get worked and worked and worked. And out here, we couldn’t get enough of it.