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The Netflix Files: Halloween Horror Week!

Ah, it's good to be back! Yes, I've been gone for weeks, and yes, I've got a ton of movies I need to review, and I hope to get to them in good time, but for the next five or six days, I'm diving head-first into the horror genre to review five or six movies that deal with slashers, the supernatural, and remembering the Maven of the genre himself. To kick things off, I'm reviewing horror's newest icon on the block - Jigsaw.

Back in 2004, director James Wan bust onto the scene with his psychological thriller, Saw. Written by his writing partner Leigh Whannell, the film dealt with two men, Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) and a photographer, Adam (played by Whannell himself) awake to learn they are chained in a dingy room by a sadistic serial killer known as "Jigsaw" (Tobin Bell). His motive is that he wants to play a game of survival with the two men: one must kill the other and escape in the time provided, of they both will be trapped in the room forever. As both men try to work out of their dilemma, they begin to realize the meaning of their entrapment, as well as neither person are really what they seem to be. There's also a subplot about a former cop (Danny Glover) who's on the trail of the Jigsaw killer to satisfy his own agenda, but that is basically the jist of the first movie. Saw, while made for just over 1 million dollars, became a cult hit with horror buffs, and grossed more than fifty times its small budget at the North American box office, cultivating in the sequel I choose to begin Halloween Horror Week, Saw II.

Like any sequel to a popular hit movie, the second outing ups the ante by adding new characters, crafting more bizarre death traps, and having more scenes of gore and dismemberment than the first go around. Unfortunately, bigger doesn't necessarily equal better and the film does suffer as a result of it. Wan himself didn't director the film, nor would he direct any of five sequels in the series, thought he is listed as an executive producer thought the series. Taking over in the director's chair would be Darren Lynn Bousman, who also co-wrote the script, along with returning writer Whannell. One thing that becomes obvious is that while the original had a foreboding sense of unease and tension, this sequel starts off with a gruesome death of a man with a metal Venus fly trap across his neck. From there we're introduced to Detective Eric Matthews (Marky Mark's older bro, Donnie Wahlberg) who's currently tracking the whereabouts of the Jigsaw killer. A SWAT team corner Jigsaw at an abandoned factory, only to learn that he is a weak cancer patient and that he has eight victims trapped in a room on monitors, including his son, Daniel and Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith, returning from the first movie), the only known person to escape from Jigsaw's deadly game. The game is simple: in two hours, the victims will all die from breathing in a nerve agent, unless they can find the antidote hidden all around the house, which sets the stage for traps, grizzly deaths and drippy gore.

As I said earlier, the violence is more gruesome and frequent in this sequel than it was in the first movie. Yes, there were scenes of a cop getting his face blow clean off and a guy hacking off his foot, but there was a good amount of restraint with the grizzly violence, and the most terrifying scenes were of the two men trying to work out of their bondage without resorting to killing one another. The last 15 minutes where Cary Elwes fears that his wife and daughter are dead, he loses his sanity and resorts to his primal instincts to "win", thus making the trap frightening because of how broken down Dr. Gordon became psychologically by his ordeal. This installment has little of the original's unease and mistakes sadistic acts of violence as scary, when in reality, they're not the same thing. Sure, the traps are more creative, like the inferno trap and the glass box trap (complete with razor blades inside the handles), but why should any of us care about the characters when they're written as one-dimensional bits of meat to be slaughtered for the sake of checking off horror tropes?

The lack of characterization and poor acting is another fatal flaw in Saw II. In the first installment, Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannell had a pair of decent performances as the two men chained up and stuck playing Jigsaw's twisted game of survival. Whannell's Adam and Elwes' Dr. Gordon were both sympathetic character who, despite having moral failings - the latter being a cheating bastard and a workaholic dad, the other tailing said cheating scumbag to pay rent and put food in his mouth, they were both not annoying prats who constantly bicker at each other, and actually tried to work together to escape, making their fates all the more horrifying to see unfold. In the sequel, the characters here are mostly thoroughly unlikable and under-developed, and it makes it hard for me to feel for them when they get killed because they're constantly combative with each other. Donnie Wahlberg is reduced to being a walking cop cliche with problems on the homefront, a distant son who hates him, and finding out he's a dirty detective who's fudged reports and evidence to put the very same people behind bars who are currently in the trap. Franky G is a drug-dealer who's one of the victims in the latest Jigsaw game, but he's such a misogynist/dickhead caricature that you begin to hope he dies swiftly and quickly, and the other two female characters are basically disposable, with one being a former prostitute, and the other being a blonde who just happened to be kidnapped to fill out the body count. Terrific female writing there, filmmakers.

The only two people that manage to turn in decent performances are Shawnee Smith as returning survivor Amanda, and Jigsaw himself, Tobin Bell. Speaking of the former, there is one dazzling and terrifying set piece, the needle pit. In order to unlock a steel-plated door and escape from this hell hole, Jigsaw tells the drug-dealer to get into a pit of used drug needles and search for the key to escape. Being the coward that he is, he throws Amanda into the pit, given her past as a heroin addict. The scene is brutal and terrifying to watch, partly because we understand her previous life, and partly because we feel every skin-crawling moment she's in that scenario, and it reminds me of how well done Wan made the first movie by playing to our psychological fears, as well as gross-out scenes like the barb-wire trap. But even there, you know that she's an obvious femme fatale, because she said how Jigsaw saved her in the first movie. Bell himself has more to do in this sequel and his reasoning for committing these atrocious crimes of torture makes him a twisted philanthropist. Instead of using wealth to help others, he puts them in diabolical scenarios to make the victims appreciate the one thing he's taken for granted all this time: life itself. It's twisted logic, but Bell is convincing enough to make us understand this new devil.

Apart from those aspects, Saw II is essentially bigger, gorier, and grosser than it's predecessor, but it's hardly better than the first. The characters are underdeveloped and almost unlikable, the acting is simply bad almost all around, and the sequences of torture and violence is gratuitous to the point of being mean-spirited. Unfortunately, this series would serve as the blueprint for dozens of horror movies and spawn the torture-porn sub-genre, where relentless, sadistic scenes of torture and shocking violence counts as "scary". And yes, there are two more movies that will be reviewed which cashes in on the torture-porn craze. To quote Jigsaw himself, "Oh, yes...there will be blood." Oh, deep joy.

* 1/2 stars out of ****


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