I went to go see "Saw II" in the theater, not because I had seen "Saw" on the big screen. I saw the original because of the strength of strong reviews, but I went to "Saw II" on opening day before the reviews came out for one reason. I saw the trailer and discovered that Beverly Mitchell was in the cast and the idea of seeing Lucy Camden Kinkirk from "7th Heaven" die a horrible death in a splatter flick appealed to me (Lucy is #1 on my list of television characters who drive me up the wall). Now, lots of people went to go see "House of Wax" just to watch Paris Hilton die on screen, so it is not like I am the only sick person on the planet. The bad news is that I did not get what I wanted from "Saw II," but the good news is that my idiosyncratic desires are not central to the film, which I have watched again on DVD.
It goes without saying that your enjoyment of "Saw II" is predicated entirely on your having seen the original. There is not a recap per se, but we begin with a reminder of exactly the sort of games that Jigsaw plays. Then we are introduced to Detective Eric Mason (Donnie Wahlberg), who is brought in on the case because Jigsaw has left him a message. Mason is one of those world-weary cops who has enough personal and professional problems without having a psycho killer playing mind games with him, so he does not want to play. But of course Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) forces the issue as once again there are games within games within games to be played.
So, while Jigsaw is playing his little game with the police, on the monitors we see the interiors of a house when Jigsaw has trapped a group of people like rats. I do not need to get ahead of the movie in terms of introducing the characters beyond pointing out that we already know two of them. One is Daniel (Erik Knudsen), who is Marsh's son, and the other is Amanda (Shawnee Smith), who has the distinction of being the only person ever to have survived one of Jigsaw's little games. The game this time has two parts. The first is that they are all breathing a toxic gas. A door to the outside will open in three hours, but unless they get to an antidote they will all be dead within two ("There will be blood," Jigsaw promises). The second part of the game is that each person in the house will get to play their own little personal game in an effort to get their hands on the antidote.
If you are expecting everybody to take turns playing their own personal game, then you are going to be really disappointed, because that possibility disappears before they even get out of the first room. With more than two characters playing the game we certainly do not get to know any of them as well as we did last time around. Still, "Saw II" plays off of the original, which is exactly what you want it to do, and one of the strengths of this film is how it finds a new way to do old things in a new way, which is also what you want it to do. Unlike most contemporary horror films (e.g., "Jeepers Creepers"), this one has a better payoff than a set up. At least that is what I was thinking when I was sitting in the dark watching the end credits. So while I do not think many people will find "Saw II" superior to the original, I also think most people will not be as disappointed watching "Saw II" as they usually are when they watch a sequel to a horror film they liked.
Director Darren Lynn Bousman ("Butterfly Dreams," "Identity Lost") co-wrote the script with Leigh Whannell, who came up with the original story for "Saw" and wrote the screenplay with director James Wan, and I have a complaint in that the director undercuts the writers and actors at key moments. Take the opening sequence, where within a minute of the movie starting they have come up with a situation where you want to close your eyes rather than see what is happening on screen. But just when you are about to close your eyes and keep them shut, editor Kevin Greutert goes into overdrive and we are at the other end of the spectrum where things are flashing by so quickly you cannot tell what you are seeing. That strikes me as rather counterproductive for this type of a movie and is the reason I ended up rounding down on this one (and not because of what does or does not happen to Mitchell's character). "Saw II" is not a great horror film, but it is a pretty good horror film sequel, which puts it in small company indeed.