[31 Days of Horror Part VII: The New Blood] Day 28 – [Happy 15th Birthday!] Saw II (2005)

Director: Darren Lynn Bousman
Cast: Donnie Wahlberg, Franky G, Glenn Plummer, Beverley Mitchell, Dina Meyer, Emmanuelle Vaugier, Erik Knudsen, Shawnee Smith, Tobin Bell
Screenplay: Leigh Whannell, Darren Lynn Bousman
93 mins. Rated R.

Saw was a horror phenomenon when it released in 2004. It surprised the hell out of me, as I didn’t expect to love it so much, to be rewatching it so regularly, trying to scope out clues and things I had missed before. It wasn’t for everyone, especially those unable to handle gore (even though the first actually didn’t contain as much as the franchise would be known for later on), but for me, there was another element that kept me entranced, and that was the story. I loved the mystery of the film, the clues, the references. I studied that film, and when the sequel came out, it didn’t arrive at my local theater and I was too young to drive to another town to see it, so I waited until the inevitable January DVD release, and I caught it. Now, looking back, let’s see how the first sequel to Saw holds up, and its influence on the direction of the series.

Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg, Ransom, Dreamcatcher) is a bad cop and a worse father. His life isn’t what he thought it was, and now he’s become the target of the villainous Jigsaw (Tobin Bell, Mississippi Burning, The Firm), a killer who likes to play games, set traps, and let his victims kill themselves in their struggle to survive. Eric and his former partner Kerry (Dina Meyer, Starship Troopers, Johnny Mnemonic) have discovered Jigsaw’s hideout, but they soon learn that catching Jigsaw will be tougher than they expected when Eric learns that his son Daniel (Erik Knudsen, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Scream 4) is also a part of Jigsaw’s next game. Now, Eric and Daniel are both playing for survival, and Jigsaw has a few surprises in store for both of them.

Saw II actually started as a completely different movie. Writer/director Darren Lynn Bousman (Repo! The Genetic Opera, Abattoir) had shopped around his script for a film called The Desperate and kept getting turned down, with most telling him that his movie was too similar to Saw. Eventually, the script found its way into the hands of Saw producers, who were looking to get a follow-up to the 2004 smash hit put together. Leigh Whannell, who scripted the original film, came in and adjusted the script into a Saw sequel, and the rest is horror history. In that way, Saw II is a bit of a unique flavor of the Saw films. It has most of Bousman’s writing stamps on it, and it has a look more in line with Bousman’s non-Saw films while still not straying away from the feel of the original. The screenplay, now adjusted to being a Saw sequel, is full of more of those clues and references to the connection with the original, and the way it ends up connecting is bonkers good. In fact, not even the cast was aware of the film’s ending and how it would play into the first film. Although, there are a few times when Jigsaw flat out lies to Eric, something he isn’t known for doing (he stretches the truth and leaves information out, but he never full-on lies to his victims and pawns), and that disappointed me a little.

Donnie Wahlberg is a standout here. His scenes with Tobin Bell as Jigsaw are amazing. The two have such different energies on display, and watching them collide is exhilarating while also highlighting their differences as characters and gives a lot of development to both. Remember, this film does a lot more heavy lifting of the Jigsaw mythos than the first film, in which [SPOILER ALERT!] Jigsaw spends most of the film lying in a bathroom covered in makeup and fake blood. Jigsaw gets to really flex his creed here and the reaction he gets from Eric works so well. Wahlberg’s work as Eric only highlights his own shortcomings as a cop, husband, and father.

Shawnee Smith (The Blob, Believe) also returns from the first film as Amanda, a character with limited but impactful screen time in the original (in fact, her scenes in the original were basically what the short film that inspired Saw were all about). Seeing her as someone who has survived Jigsaw’s game only to find herself back in it is horrifying, and we feel for her, but we also find a level of trust in her as she understands the game better than the others, and we cling to her for support. She also ends up in a fairly uncomfortable trap fighting for survival with the needle pit.

I also want to discuss the house trap, as it’s where most of the action of the film is. It’s a cool house with a lot of history and character to it, and seeing all these people trapped inside with slow-acting poison, looking for antidotes, it creates a larger set piece than the bathroom but doesn’t feel like it betrays the first film. It just has its own flavor, much like the rest of Saw II, probably carried over from Bousman’s earlier script. What I love about the way Bousman directs is that he tries to create a sense that the story never slows down by creating in-camera tricks in filming and editing that make scenes flow from one to the another without actually cutting. Look at the way Eric leaves his apartment early on and ends up at a crime scene. It’s a fascinating shot that emphasizes the best of Bousman’s ability to work low-budget and still create interesting and compelling cinema.

Saw II is still a step down from the first film, but it continues the story, elevates the characters, and develops the world-building of this franchise quite nicely while feeling like its own contained story. Yes, there are a few screenplay faults, there are more unlikable characters than likable ones, and the film maybe feels a bit too big at times, not allowing us to spend time with the cattle on their way to slaughter, but at least it highlights its most interesting characters like Jigsaw, Eric, Kerry, and Amanda, the ones who are developed enough to interest. I enjoyed the film immensely when I first saw it, and I still do, even if I’ve seen some of its faults on repeat viewings. I would still encourage fans of the original to see this one, and those who haven’t seen it in a while to consider revisiting it.

4/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

  • For my review of James Wan’s Saw, click here.
  • For my review of Darren Lynn Bousman’s Repo! The Genetic Opera, click here.
  • For my review of Darren Lynn Bousman’s The Devil’s Carnival, click here.
  • For my review of the anthology film Tales of Halloween, click here.
  • For my review of Darren Lynn Bousman’s Alleluia! The Devil’s Carnival, click here.

[31 Days of Horror Part V: A New Beginning] Day 22 – Alleluia! The Devil’s Carnival (2015)

Director: Darren Lynn Bousman

Cast: Emilie Autumn, Barry Bostwick, Chantal Claret, Dayton Callie, Briana Evigan, Brea Grant, David Hasselhoff, Kristina Klebe, J. LaRose, Mighty Mike Murga, Bill Moseley, Ted Neely, Adam Pascal, Tech N9ne, Nivek Ogre, Marc Senter, Lyndon Smith, Paul Sorvino, Jimmy Urine, Danny Worsnop, Terrance Zdunich

Screenplay: Terrance Zdunich

97 mins. Not Rated.

 

I was very on the fence about The Devil’s Carnival. I really enjoyed the collaboration between director Darren Lynn Bousman (Saw II, Abattoir) and Terrance Zdunich (Chain of Souls) on Repo! The Genetic Opera, and I was hoping to feel that same fire again. Sadly, I did not. Hoping that the first shorter piece was just a fluke, I ventured into the sequel, a feature-length follow-up with a grander story. I was unpleasantly disappointed.

Lucifer (Zdunich) is sending a train filled with condemned souls back to heaven. Meanwhile, in Heaven,  God (Paul Sorvino, GoodFellas, Abe & Phil’s Last Poker Game) is figuring out a plan with his top Agent (Adam Pascal, Rent, Punk’s Dead: SLC Punk 2). Back in Hell, Lucifer is telling one of his favorite stories about a woman named June (Emilie Autumn) and her time in Heaven.

There’s somehow even less of a story in this longer sequel to the original film. Many of the musical numbers toss around parables and information but most of it is far too convoluted for anyone to really connect with it. Zdunich clearly has a mind and eye for the fantastical, but it is just poorly executed here.

I liked some of the grander additions to the cast this time around. Emilie Autumn gets way more screentime and she is quite an interesting character. Barry Bostwick (The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Incredibles 2) appears as The Watchword, a sort of journalist of Heaven. David Hasselhoff (Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2, TV’s Baywatch) is quite fun as The Designer. Ted Neely (Jesus Christ Superstar, Django Unchained) appears as The Publicist in a fun song-and-dancey performance that was enjoyable to watch. None of these interesting new characters are afforded the time in the film to raise its quality, though.

Sadly, Alleluia! The Devil’s Carnival starts out promising and then makes the same mistakes that its predecessor did. Instead of the first film being a bad fluke, perhaps Repo! was just a good fluke.

 

2/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of Darren Lynn Bousman’s The Devil’s Carnival, click here.

For my review of the anthology film Tales of Halloween, click here.

[Early Review] Insidious: The Last Key (2018)

Director: Adam Robitel

Cast: Lin Shaye, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson, Josh Stewart, Caitlin Gerard

Screenplay: Leigh Whannell

103 mins. Rated PG-13 for disturbing thematic content, violence and terror, and brief strong language.

 

The Insidious franchise is now four films in, and the newest installment, The Last Key, had me a little concerned when it was bumped back to January, oftentimes the graveyard of shitty horror films. I happen to be a big fan of this franchise, and I want to see it continue with more well-received reception. So I entered the theater with some trepidation tonight.

Shortly after the events of Chapter 3, Elise (Lin Shaye, There’s Something About Mary, Abattoir) and her newly-formed team of Specs (Leigh Whannell, Saw, The Bye Bye Man) and Tucker (Angus Sampson, Mad Max: Fury Road, TV’s Shut Eye) are drawn into a new case set in Five Keys, New Mexico. Elise initially turns down the case when she discovers that the house being haunted is her childhood home, a place with horrific memories from Elise’s past, but she quickly realizes that she has a responsibility to help others, and her team sets off on a trip through Elise’s past, where she will encounter familiar entities and new horrors.

The great thing about the newest installment in this franchise is the focus on the character of Elise. It’s become quite clear after four films that the star of the series is Lin Shaye, and choosing to further develop her is a terrific idea, as much as I’m turned away by the prequel aspect of the recent two films. Shaye’s performance is a powerhouse of the genre, and we spend a lot of the film focused on her inner demons, particularly surrounding the relationship with her father, Gerald (Josh Stewart, Interstellar, War Machine).

The big feeling I felt leaving the theater was one of calmness, though, and the lack of true terror in the film is noticeable. The previous installments all kept me close to my seat, but The Last Key is missing a lot of that. While there are indeed some incredible moments in the film, there just isn’t enough to spur up any actual dread. Diehard horror fanatics may find themselves unfulfilled in this respect.

Thankfully, director Adam Robitel (The Taking of Deborah Logan) keeps the pace moving and the plot thread twisting and turning enough to make the movie interesting, but it just isn’t all that scary.

Insidious: The Last Key is a classic fourth installment, searching for a place of purpose and struggling to find a tone. The film is entertaining and I think it will please fans of the series looking to unravel the mystery, but the general public and hardcore horror hounds may not find this scary enough to please.

 

2.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of James Wan’s Insidious, click here.

For my review of Leigh Whannell’s Insidious: Chapter 3, click here.

 

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