If you had only a few seconds to decide, would you cut your own eyeball out with a razor to save your face from getting squished in by a head-mounted, time-sensitive, bear-trap contraption made up of a hundred rusty nails? Neither would the poor fella in the first frazzled minutes of Saw II, a sequel that delivers another round of the kind of elaborate Rube Goldberg shocks that made the first movie a surprise hit last year. The contest is close, but Saw II is just barely a better B flick than Saw. It wins by a hair wire thinner than the one that trips the blades that slice off a blindsided SWAT guy’s feet.
The killer of the series remains Jigsaw, a sicko with engineering capabilities limited only by how far the new set of screenwriters is willing to beggar belief. In the first film, he was mostly unseen, represented by a bulbous, papier-mâché-type puppet with red swirlies painted on its cheeks — that is, until a last-second reveal that felt like one of the biggest ”whatever!” gyps in surprise-ending cinema. This time the puppet cameos early on and then kindly takes a powder. As the droopy-lidded maniac in the flesh, Tobin Bell is, for all the film’s gewgaws, Saw II‘s sturdiest horror, a Terence Stamp look-alike who calls to mind a seedy General Zod lazily overseeing the universe from his evildoer’s lair. Jigsaw’s grand plan involves sticking eight people in a cavernous, dilapidated old house and having them kill, scream, and reason their way out of his booby traps as if this were a hard-edged sequel to The Goonies. In the meantime, Jig volleys face-to-face with a conflicted cop whose teen son is among those lost in the deadly fun house. The cop is played by Donnie Wahlberg, who’s overshadowed by Bell, but it’s Jigsaw’s franchise, so that’s probably the point.
Where Saw II lags behind in Saw‘s novelty, it takes the lead with its smoother landing, which is again primed to blow the movie wide open, but manages a more compelling job of it than the original’s cheat finish. Yet the nagging thing about both movies is that they’re more clever and revolting — first hitting on the nervy idea of an open grave of a thousand syringes, for example, and then chucking a character down into it so we can watch her writhe — than they are actually chilling.