As 'Saw II' opens, it is several months after the events depicted in 'Saw,' and Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) is ready for more mayhem. After Sgt. Kerry (Dina Meyer) stumbles upon the scene of another horrifying murder, she gets a request from Jigsaw himself to engage fellow cop Eric Mathews (Donnie Wahlberg) for his input. It seems everyone's favorite cancer-ridden serial killer-slash-puzzle maker has Mathews's son and seven others locked up in a house which has been rigged to slowly leak in nerve gas. To stay alive, the captives must solve several puzzles to locate syringes full of antidote. Eventually, officer Mathews will discover Jigsaw's hidden lair, and will be forced to play his own pre-planned game of torture.
As a begrudging fan of the original 'Saw,' 'Saw II' isn't a bad follow-up. It also is far more mean-spirited, gruesome and recycled, taking the violent extremes of the original and amping them up even further, while dropping the suspense and adult elements that made the original film more of a thriller and less of a generic horror film. With 'Saw II,' the filmmakers seemed to realize that the appeal of the first film was not so much the detective storyline, and more the creative murder sequences. Appropriately then, Jigsaw himself is the star of the sequel, not those who are trying to stop him. And though he doesn't really wear a mask, he does prove just as much a horror icon as Freddy, Jason or Michael Myers. In some ways, that makes 'Saw II' a more effective film than its predecessor -- it reduces the formula to its bare essence, and delivers on expectations. But what it lacks are characters we give a hoot about, and the interesting moral complexities of the original are tossed aside in favor of cheap, trendy thrills.
So, what are we left with? A cultural artifact more interesting for what it represents than what it's actually about. And while moralists and social commentators continue to search for reasons why films like the 'Saw' series are so popular, two theories are most prevalent. The first is that, like the Godzilla films did for a Japan reeling after the destruction of the atomic bomb, post-9/11 Americans need extreme imagery to help them deal with the world's horrors. When the nightly news is filled with images of people jumping off burning buildings and journalists being decapitated by religious extremists, escapist horror films offer a certain solace in that ultimately we all know they're pure fiction. And second, we all carry inside us a certain fascination with death. It is the universal truth of humankind -- no one is getting out of here alive. Psychologists call it the "rehearsal of death" -- that somehow, by enacting these scenarios in fiction, the burden of being conscious of our own mortality is eased. And so maybe watching the poor souls in the 'Saw' franchise being forced to contemplate their pending demise makes us feel a little less helpless about our own.
Perhaps those are just silly theories. But it's worth considering that the 'Saw' films aren't really scary in the traditional sense. There is little suspense of the Hitchcockian kind here, nor are there the delicious chills you get from a haunted house thrill ride. Instead, a film like 'Saw II' is an assault -- a rollercoaster of a film that seeks to pummel and horrify. I remember seeing this film during its theatrical run, and being struck by how many of teenagers (who apparently snuck in to the Rated R flick with fake IDs) were cowering behind their fingertips while simultaneously daring their friends to keep watching. They were practicing an adolescent sport, not reveling in cinematic engagement. And on that level, the (pardon the pun) well-executed 'Saw II' seems to serve its purpose just fine.
As you might expect with such a grimy, stylized horror movie, colors are usually so whacked on this 1080p/MPEG-2 encode that they don't even try to resemble reality. Scenes are often heavily processed towards a particular hue, such as deep red or garish green. Still, all things considered, the image remains surprisingly sharp and clean. Yes, there is some grain throughout, which is exacerbated in the film's many dark scenes, but depth still holds up. A quick compare between the standard DVD and the Blu-ray on a few scenes revealed improved fine detail, from decaying walls where you can seen tiny fissures in the plaster, to small widgets in the jaws of a steel trap that blurred into abstraction in standard-def. (We horror geeks revel in these small pleasures.) However, I was surprised by a bit of dirt blotches on the print, and even some white speckles -- not since MGM's Blu-ray release of 'Species' have I seen this phenomenon. And while these snowflakes aren't severe or long-lasting, I was distracted the few seconds they were on-screen. Otherwise, there are no compression issues or other artifacts to be found on this one.
Like 'Saw III,' 'Saw II' provides DTS HD High-Resolution 6.1 Matrixed surround and Dolby Digital Surround EX 5.1 tracks. And like the other 'Saw' flicks, the sound design is often front heavy, except when someone is being tortured.
Still, pain and misery can sound pretty good if you have a decent sound system. I remain impressed with the quality the makers of the 'Saw' films have been able to achieve on a low budge -- no chintzy ADR or hammy dialogue here. Instead, it's all very well-recorded, with nice dynamic range, from pretty tough low bass to clean highs. Aurally, I actually found 'Saw II' to be the most effective of the three 'Saw' films thus far, perhaps because the action is almost entirely confined to a single location. Surrounds certainly kick in during the more aggressive moments -- anytime there is some offscreen noise or a cheap "Boo!" scare, effects are nicely directed across the entire soundfield. Envelopment is also pretty consistent, with the score nicely filling up the rears, and even some minor ambience (such as echoes, droning mechanical noises and the like) heightening the spook factor. Kudos to you, Jigsaw -- you give good scare.
'Saw II' has had a somewhat unusual history on standard-def DVD. Though the concept of a studio double-dipping a title by adding a bunch of new features to subsequent editions is nothing new, usually the second (or third, or fourth...) versions contain most of the old stuff, especially when it comes to audio commentaries. But the second, two-disc DVD of 'Saw II' boasted not only an unrated, slightly more gory cut of the film, but also two all-new filmmaker commentaries, a couple of very lengthy documentaries, and more. So the two editions really were quite different. This Blu-ray version, unfortunately, doesn't port over anything from the first edition, and very little from the second. Gone is the original audio commentary with director Darren Lynn Bousman and a couple of cast members, six short featurettes on the film's murder sequences and some storyboard comparisons from the first edition, and all of the major documentary material from the two-disc set. Lionsgate really should have given 'Saw II' the BD-50 dual-layer treatment -- as such, it feels severely undernourished.
Kicking things off are the two audio commentaries from the 2-disc standard-def release. The first track is largely technical, and features Bousman, plus production designer David Hackl and editor Kevin Greutert, while the second is simply a total hoot-fest with original 'Saw' creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell. The former is definitely where all the technical info on 'II' can be found. From its speedy conception and production (to ensure that the sequel would debut only a year after the break-out success of the original), to casting the various victims (er, excuse me, "characters") to the production challenges in creating the Jigsaw lair, it's a very entertaining, very thorough track, if a tad dry near the end. Bousman also describes in detail the changes to the "Unrated" version, which is really a director's cut, as it includes more than just extra gore. The second commentary is really just two Australian guys with great accents waxing incredulous over how their low-budget little horror film spawned a franchise. What's so fun and refreshing here is how little forethought Wan and Whannell gave to what has become the franchise's "iconography." Listening to them watch the sequel to their unexpected sleeper is often hilarious, as they recount how cheaply the first film's "Billy" puppet was created (out of clay and two ping-pong balls) and reveal a complete lack of awareness that they were creating a "visual style" that had to support future sequels. It's rare to hear such an unpretentious commentary, so diehard 'Saw' fans and aspiring genre filmmakers should definitely give this one a listen.
Though the two-disc DVD edition of 'Saw II' contained two great, nearly hour-long documentaries, neither have been carried over here. Instead, all we get are three featurettes, two of which pretty much suck. "The Story Behind the Story" runs only a few minutes, and finds Wan and Whannell revealing the true origins of Jigsaw. It's actually kind of intriguing: the story was inspired by a newspaper article Whannell found about a man arrested for breaking into children's bedrooms and tickling their feet -- creepy, indeed. "The Scott Tibbs Documentary," however, is a four-minute mockumentary that's just plain dumb. Similar to the short film that appeared on 'The Ring' DVD that was supposed to tie the films together, "The Scott Tibbs Documentary" fall somewhere in the 'Saw' timeline. Too bad this just isn't interesting or revealing in the least. Finally, there is a six-minute dedication to producer Gregg Hoffman, who sadly died at the age of 42, only a days after 'Saw II' premiered. This is just a talking-heads piece, with Bousman contributing a memorial letter to his friend and collaborator, whose death was entirely unexpected.
By the way, though the extras here are not nearly as insightful as those found on the 'Saw III' Blu-ray release, they do improve on their sucessor by being presented in full 1080i video. Weird that the later film didn't also see its supplements produced in high-def.
'Saw II' is a pretty good sequel -- it may not quite as fresh as the original, but it does effectively deliver on expectations, streamlining the formula to its bare essence. This Blu-ray release is just fine. The transfer is a step up over the standard-def DVD, if still a bit grainy and speckled, and the soundtrack is solid enough. Unfortunately, the extras are very slim, missing most of the good stuff from the previous standard-def DVD editions. And while diehard fans can still pick this one up with confidence, I can't help but think Lionsgate will double dip this one on Blu-ray at some point in the near future.