While it may offer viewers a glimpse at the balding former New Kid and convicted arsonist Donnie Wahlberg, there is very little humor or irony in the unmitigated gore-fest that is Darren Lynn Bousman’s “Saw II.”
While the first amusing, if gratuitous, installment nestled comfortably into the smartly scary genre beside 1995’s “Se7en,” its sequel relies too heavily on grimy settings, spooky music and an unfair twist to manufacture the excitement and entertainment that are lacking from its plot.
The sadistic serial killer from last year’s “Saw,” dubbed Jigsaw and played by Tobin Bell, is up to his old tricks once again. Despite failing health and house arrest, he manages to lock up eight evil-doers in a creepy old house with a closed circuit TV and impenetrable metal doors to continue indulging his fascination with torture. Motivated by spite and a desire to reinstate the survival of the fittest, Jigsaw combines ancient torture and modern engineering to punish his victims for their past transgressions. The house where the eight wake up, looking weathered and pale with no remembrance of how they got there, is filled to the rafters with macabre contraptions and lethal nerve gas, allegedly designed to test their will to survive.
In the midst of all this, the once-brave but now bitter homicide detective Eric Matthews (Wahlberg) struggles with simultaneous personal crises: his delinquent son has just been arrested for petty theft and his wife is seeking revenge after Matthews had an affair with his alluring ex-partner Kerry. The pensive and brooding domestic disaster comes to a head when Matthew’s former partner (and former lover) discovers a Jigsaw-esque homicide with a personal note, daring Detective Matthews to “look closer.”
While Jigsaw spent most of “Saw” torturing those more fortunate than himself — a young photographer and a wealthy oncologist who doesn’t appreciate his family — he appears to have lost this proletarian sensibility when it comes to choosing his victims for the sequel. Rather than white collar wastes of space, the booby-trapped house is populated by a mangy bunch of ex-cons who sport prison tattoos and can barely string words together without obscenities, let alone survive a complicated psychological game. As the twists begin to unfold and the effects of the nerve gas set in, it becomes increasingly clear that they were never really meant to survive, as all but two of the unfortunate captives die without substantial character development.
The logic breaks down, albeit subtly, as even the most cutthroat and animalistic hood fails to find his way out of the house, despite the film’s use of cliched horror movie ideology (i.e., always stick together, clinging to that flickering oversized flashlight). Combining a flawed and uninspired plot, strobe lights, dizzying cuts reminiscent of a death metal music video and the ever-popular red LED countdown clock, “Saw II” differentiates itself from the typical horror movie merely by being even more nauseatingly graphic and startlingly sadistic.
Even despite Jigsaw’s preachy (and redundant) sermons on the value of life, the success of “Saw II” only proves one thing: that the American movie-going audience’s thirst for violence and voyeurism has yet to be quenched. While there is nothing wrong with the occasional guilty pleasure B-movie, especially around Halloween, it’s hard to feel satisfied when there isn’t even a hint of ingenuity or honest entertainment below the grisly surface.
Just because writer Leigh Whannell had a couple more creepy gadget ideas up his sleeve — or because Beverley Mitchell and Donnie Wahlberg needed acting jobs — there is no justification for such a gruesome and meaningless sequel.