And we’ve finally gotten there! My Top 10! Some of these films are bona fide classics while others are just personal favorites. Some of them are widely considered as greats, some of them I’ll need to defend. There are new films here, and there are old, but all of them have earned a place in my heart as true favorites.
And so, without further ado, let’s get this Top 10 started!
When it came out, the original Saw was hailed as the genesis of a new generation of horror. Six sequels later, it was derided as a tired, repetitive formula, and the horror community as a whole almost seemed to turn their back on it. In time though, I think it will gain the respect it deserves and will be held up in a similar light as the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm St. franchises, because it did what so many horror films over the past 20 years have attempted and failed at miserably: it created a new horror icon. Furthermore, they created a series that plays out as one great, giant plot instead of a bunch of standalone movies that constantly reinvent the villain's mythos with each film (i.e. Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street), and though it gets muddled the further it goes, it's a fun, creepy story. I’ll even go so far as to call it my favorite horror franchise of all time, which almost feels blasphemous to type considering how great a Friday the 13th fan I was in the beginning, but there it is.
I don’t think anyone expected the first one to be as successful as it was, nor do I think they really knew how they wanted to go about making that first sequel. When designing the first sequel to a successful film, there are so many routes to go, so much pressure to succeed, and so many ways you can fail. You have to ask yourself, do we want to go the same route? Follow the path of the first one and just hope for the best? Or do we do something different, take the same basic ideas and see how far we can go with them? It’s a tough spot to be in, and in principle I understand entirely why so many sequels are effectively copies of the original. It’s safe. It’s what people enjoy. It’ll probably be profitable. But every so often you get sequels that take risks. They try to be bigger, and ballsier, and they often turn into something classic. I think of films like Dawn of the Dead or Aliens or Terminator 2 and yes, even Saw II.
Instead of following the exact same path as the original Saw and following another couple guys chained to some pipes in a bathroom, Saw II follows the Aliens approach of bigger being better. They start out with a dedicated team of homicide detectives led by Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg) capturing and cornering Jigsaw at gunpoint. They think they have won, until they see a set of TV monitors showing another game taking place. Jigsaw has captured a group of people, including Det. Matthews’ teenaged son, and barricaded them inside of a house that is slowly filling with Sarin nerve gas. There are antidotes hidden throughout the house inside of a series of traps, and unless they and Matthews play Jigsaw’s game, there will be blood.
By changing this from a small, personal movie into a large, over-the-top ensemble piece, Saw II separates itself from the first film so much that it is not forced to live within its shadow. It stands on its own, which is a nearly impossible task for any sequel in this day and age. As well, one of the greatest things about this one is how restrained it is, from a violence standpoint at least. While it would have been so easy for them to look at the first film and think, “Hey, people seem to love this torture thing, let’s have more of that and have gallons of blood pouring down the halls!”, they hold back. There are still traps, but they are more nefarious and painful than anything else. They are not designed to titillate us, but to make us legitimately feel bad for the people who have been thrust into them, no matter how horrible they may be (as the infamous Needle Pit scene proves). This movie, more than any that followed, subscribes to Jigsaw’s philosophy that people are actually meant to survive these traps, and when they do not it’s more from their own stupidity than any desire for them to actually die on the killer’s part.
Perhaps the greatest asset this film carries with it is a very intelligent script. Films that try to pull off plot twists this day and age usually suffer from an overly complex setup that makes the big reveal ultimately unsatisfying, or a twist that comes out of nowhere that just pisses its audience off. Saw II slowly adds layers of plot, building a twisted, jigsaw puzzle of a film (pardon the pun), that keeps its audience as confused as the people trapped in the house, without insulting anyone. By the time the requisite twist ending comes around, it hits like a truck in all the best ways.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t say Tobin Bell’s performance of Jigsaw in this film is one of the best in recent horror. Relegated to a few seconds of screentime in the first Saw, he demands center stage in this film. He is intelligent and soft-spoken, yet menacing to a point where you often forget he is a wheelchair-bound invalid. So much of the movie features him sitting in his chair with no less than a dozen guns pointed at him, yet he maintains this calm, almost amused demeanor. He is effectively under arrest, yet maintains complete control over his surroundings, and that makes him creepy as hell.
I make no bones about how much I love the Saw franchise, despite all its flaws, and Saw II is easily my favorite of the bunch. Twisted, scary and well-plotted, it’s the bigger, ballsier sort of sequel that the first film needed.
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-- Matt Carter
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