Pop quiz: Which is scarier?
No. 1, Danny Bonaduce.
No. 2, rustling behind a door.
Or No. 3, a man forced to gouge out his own eyeball with a straight razor because there is a key behind the eyeball that opens the steel Venus flytrap fitted to his head, which is about to shut.
Saw II - the sole horror movie opening this weekend to take advantage of your Halloween dollar, Doom being not scary at all, the remake of The Fog being totally lame - picks door No. 3.
Of course it does.
Lots of horror pictures peek behind door No. 3 these days. I won't bore you with a lecture on the nature of suspense, or how much scarier a locked door is than anything that could slither behind it, or how the black-and-white frights from the 1940s are so much creepier than anything thrown at us today. Not that those things aren't relevant, but I don't entirely believe all that. And it's not exactly news. After all, what is scary to one generation is not necessarily what is scary to the next. Couldn't we just talk about how scary this movie is?
Problem is, tension is tension, and suspense is suspense, and that's what scary is founded on. (Just like a novel without words strains the definition of a novel.)
By those standards, Saw II, the sequel to last year's low-budget surprise Saw, is not a scary movie. And let's not call it a horror movie, either. It's something of a new breed. Torture flick? Sick fantasy? "Shocker" is the generic term, and yet there were shockers in the '70s and as raw and repellent as they were, they at least carried the fingerprints of their filmmakers. The other problem with applying "shocker" to Saw II is that shock implies you feel something more than revulsion.
Shock, for one thing.
Even that wave of slasher films in the early '80s often played at least with the pretense of suspense - or some cheap tension.
Contemporary horror, on the other hand, takes two forms: The first is admirable, J-horror and its disciples, also known as those eerie, chilling suggestion-based Japanese flicks and their remakes, like The Ring and The Grudge.
The other kind is on the order of Saw II, stripped of so much personality and the usual elements that make scary movies scary, that not even the bad guy is the focus anymore. His elaborate, improbable machinery for killing people is the draw.
Frankly, movies like Saw II make me feel like a prude, when they aren't boring me, but we might want to get used to them. At the screening I attended, three movie trailers were shown, and two were for films just like Saw II - torture itself was the bad guy.
The Saw franchise takes this to natural extremes. Within the first few minutes of Saw II, Det. Eric Mason (Donnie Wahlberg, the former New Kid on the Block) corners the Jigsaw Killer who caused all that mayhem in the first film. He's easily unmasked and identified as John (Tobin Bell), and he gets to explain why he is doing what he is doing.
In the first film, he placed two men in a large tiled public bathroom chained to opposite ends and gave them a gun and a hack saw and a problem: If one man doesn't shoot the other, his family will be killed, or they could both saw their own legs out of the manacles and escape.
In Saw II, following the mathematics of the cheap studio sequel, everything is multiplied: Those two guys become eight people kidnapped and left in a booby-trapped house, where they proceed to freak out and ignore the killer's rules. Detective Mason watches the gore on TV monitors in Jigsaw's supervillain lair, between rounds of shouting "OK, now tell me where they are, and I mean it this time!"
Meanwhile, apparently having never seen Fear Factor, the captives fret and scream and threaten each other and kill themselves as they try to beat the clock - and the intricate booby-traps, and nerve gas seeping into the room.
As someone says, "We've got to start thinking out of the box or we are going to end up in one!"
There is a mystery: Why these people? How are they connected? But that is easily solved by any viewer familiar with the Rule of Unaccounted For Story Points - a sort of cousin to the Rule of Unaccounted For Characters, which says there are only as many characters in a mystery as there are whodunit possibilities. In the case of Saw II, any moment of humanity, any plot point that involves characterization, directs you to the answers.
One last point:
John is a frail, bitter crank who is dying of cancer ("the Jigsaw Killer," he says, is a media concoction). He specializes in twisted conundrums because he thinks certain people (his victims) don't appreciate their bodies and should get a taste of death to better appreciate life.
If his aim is more poetic than the aim of the typical movie lunatic, he's still the worst movie bad guy in years. In the first Saw, he wore a cape - a cape! In this one he drones on and on about human nature in that jaundiced, cackling way familiar to anyone who used to watch Superfriends.
A horror movie is only as good as its horror, and though Jigsaw is insane, he's lucid enough to make you wonder when he has the time to design booby traps, and what he thinks he's getting out of his experiments: When a woman gets thrown into an open pit full of syringes (as happens here), is she learning to appreciate life, her abused body, or is she lost in simple franticness?
I pick door No. 3.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org