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'Saw II' more than a sequel

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DEADLY GAME: A contestant in 'Saw II.'
  • DEADLY GAME: A contestant in 'Saw II.'

I’m not one of those doomsayers who foresees the downfall of Western Civilization every time Marilyn Manson puts out a new album, but I do feel like a few words need to be said about “Saw II.” Maybe most surprisingly, they’re going to be in its defense.

In case you didn’t know, “Saw II” is the sequel to “Saw,” a film about a serial killer named Jigsaw who devises intricate scenarios to “test” the not-so-innocent victims he has kidnapped. Pass the test, and you emerge with your life. Fail, and you’ll die in a particularly gruesome way — burned alive, or caught an iron maiden for your head, or chained to a wall, to die a slow death. Pretty gruesome stuff.

In “Saw II” the conceit is taken even further. This time, Jigsaw has set up a whole house full of his diabolical games, with a group of subjects — among them the teenage son of hard-bitten and possibly crooked police detective Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg), who is the real subject of Jigsaw’s test. Though Matthews soon takes Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) into custody, he is forced to watch on a set of monitors while his son and Jigsaw’s other victims — their whereabouts unknown — match wits with the killer’s infernal machines, all while trying to “win” a vial of antidote to the nerve agent that has filled the house.

Like the original, “Saw II” is not for the squeamish. Therein, whilst coughing up nasty little bits of gore, the flawed victims — a drug dealer, a heroin addict, a rapist, and others — are done away with in a variety of particularly horrendous ways: fried alive in a slow-cook oven; forced to go digging through a pit of used hypodermic syringes; left dangling from the ceiling with their hands caught in a Bizarro-world version of a cheese slicer.

That, by anybody’s definition, is pretty friggin’ horrible. “Saw II” also topped the box office last week, with umpteen millions of Americans turning out to see the poor bastards on the celluloid get slaughtered.

Given that, there’s two ways you can look at “Saw II.” First, the Bill O’Reilly way, in which movies like “Saw” and its dad “Seven” and its great-grandpa “The (original) Texas Chainsaw Massacre” are the products of a sick society; proof that we’ve had our ticket punched on the express train to hell.

The other way to look at “Saw II,” even beyond the pseudo-philosophic mumbo-jumbo at its core (that Jigsaw, who turns out to be a terminal cancer patient, is testing people to make them face their own mortality) is that horror — that kissing cousin of Taboo — is and always will be about what scares us most. In 1814, it was a young woman’s tale of a scientist stitching together a Golem out of parts of the dead. In the 1880s, it was a London theater manager’s potboiler about an undead ghoul, risen from Eastern Europe and come to England to feast on the blood of lily-white virgins.

These days, however, what scares us most is the meat of “Saw II” — that we’re going to get in our car one night, the wet chloroform rag is going to be slapped over our mouth, and we’re going to wake up at the mercy of a killer. Or even worse: a madman who will take away all that we are — our safety, our dignity, our sense of self. In a society where we are often the sum of our labels and the ultimate symbol of privilege and security is to sleep every night inside high walls and behind a locked gate, what else could be our nightmare?

Granted, “Saw II” is not some great work of cinema that will last for all time. It does succeed, however, in having a message that is greater than “see the sequel!” (which puts it in a class above 99 percent of modern horror). That in itself is a feat.

— David Koon

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