Dir: Darren Lynn Bousman. US. 2005. 97mins.

A rushed-through-production sequel to the scream hitof last Halloween, Saw II has thejoint benefit and millstone of lowered expectation. It would be easy for thishorror sequel to be nothing more than a series of goosing, contrived deathsequences - which it is for the bulk of its first two-thirds.

But Darren Lynn Bousman's feature benefits from the courageousness of someatypical story choices, and rallies to a passinglyrespectable, if still extremely middling, standing.

While its characterisations are muddled and its execution leaves alot to be desired, Saw II stilldeserves a modicum of credit for finding an imaginative way to servicebloodthirsty genre fans and remain faithful to the cat-and-mouse machinationsand villain of its predecessor. Accordingly, theatrical box office prospectsshould yield at least three-quarters of the returns of the original.

At home theoriginal Saw rode a wave of late-nightpromotional screenings and early word-of-mouth, bolstering its openingHalloween weekend to more than $18m. But it also proved that gore is atouchstone language, with its $102m global gross fairly evenly divided betweendomestic and international audiences.

Opening in the USon Oct 28 against a slate of genteel, much older-skewing films, Saw II should stand a good chance ofreplicating its opening weekend top spot, and while a steep drop-off after thatand a fairly limited demographic overall seem certain, ancillary income fromthe obligatory "unrated" DVD will doubtless further buoy profits.

The first Saw revealed as its villain acancer-stricken sociopath known as Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), a marionette master ofhuman dread who in his mind doesn't commit murder but merely puts people "whodon't fully appreciate life" (read: potentially everyone) in wildly contrivedcircumstances by which they make grotesque, often bloody choices that sealtheir own fate.

Saw II picks up after the events of this film, and charts another of Jigsaw'slabyrinthine games.

A discrete openingmurder is used to slate the bloodthirstiness of the film's base constituencyand taunt Eric Matthews (Donnie Wahlberg), anembittered and recently divorced police detective who has a rocky relationshipwith his teen son Daniel (Erik Knudsen), a budding delinquent.

In an interestingsubversion of expectation, though, Detective Matthews quickly ascertains thewhereabouts of Jigsaw, and the police raid his lair. It's then that Jigsawreveals his latest game, which involves Daniel and a group of seven otherseemingly random strangers (including Shawnee Smith - back from the original -Beverly Mitchell, Glenn Plummer, Franky G. andEmmanuelle Vaugier) locked in a booby-trapped housewith a debilitating, timed and eventually lethal saringas leak.

While horrorunfolds for those in the house, Detective Matthews is forced to sit, watch andtalk with Jigsaw, aka John Warner. Through this welearn a bit more about the mastermind's back story and motivations(interesting, though he's no Hannibal Lecter) as wellas the fact that the police department can't figure out the source of a closedcircuit video feed in an hour-plus, so instead sit around and inanely yap at eachother in lieu of taking action.

The script for Saw II, by Bousmanand Saw co-writer/star Leigh Whannell, is a reworkedmelding of the former's standalone horror spec scriptThe Desperate and the characterextrapolations of Jigsaw and the Frankensteinianstitching of this approach shows, especially early on.

Narratively, it doesn't quite pass muster thatJigsaw, a voyeur bent on "testing the fabric of human existence" (his amusingloquaciousness), would go to the elaborate lengths conceived and not assurehimself of an uninterrupted front row seat. By film's end, though, this detailis sorted out, if still rather flimsily in relation to Jigsaw's master plan.

As the killer,Bell gives the film a quietly malevolent centre, while FrankyG acquits himself as a brawny thug determined to go it on his own and not co-operatewith any of his fellow captives. None of the rest of the acting rises anywhereclose to this level though (it's actually frequently embarrassing), and Bousman furthermore gives credence to the cliches of musicvideo directors turned feature film-makers, indulging in driving rock music andscreaming jump-cuts accompanied by equally irksome sound effects. Granted, Saw II is not a film ofdelicate subtlety, but these stylistic gimmicks are tired and used to gratingabundance.

The accumulatedweight of these strikes, though, still doesn't fully sink the film. While somuch of Saw II is a messexecution-wise, the movie has the proper ingredients - gore, menace and twistsgalore - so that even if they don't quite completely add up genre fans won't betoo disappointed.

Lions Gate Films
Twisted Pictures

US distribution
Lions Gate Films

International sales
Lions Gate International

Peter Block
Jason Constantine
Stacy Testro
James Wan
Leigh Whannell

Mark Burg
Gregg Hoffman
Oren Koules

Darren Lynn Bousman
Leigh Whannell

David Armstrong

Production design
David Hackl

Kevin Greutert

Charlie Clouser

Main cast
Donnie Wahlberg
Shawnee Smith
Tobin Bell
Franky G
Glenn Plummer
Dina Meyer
Emmanuelle Vaugier
Beverly Mitchell
Erik Knudsen