'Saw II': Bad Blood, By Kurt Loder

Also: A New York Doll returns to rock and roll heaven.

This sequel to last year's hardcore gore hit has one of the twistiest scripts of any recent horror movie I've seen — it's fun to re-run the clever plot fake-outs in your head after leaving the theatre. Unfortunately, in the squalid manner of its predecessor, the picture looks like crap. This is strange, because the original "Saw," made for $1.2-million, reportedly grossed more than $71 million worldwide, so you'd think the filmmakers (new director Darren Lynn Bousman reworking his own script with the help of "Saw" creators Leigh Whannell and James Wan, who now executive-produce) would've plowed some of those profits back into upgrading the visuals a bit. But no, apparently they wanted to maintain a kind of crud continuity. And so the dismal interiors in this one still look as if they were shot in a rented warehouse, and still appear to be illuminated by truck headlights.

If the story is bloodier this time around, it's because there are more characters to exsanguinate. In the original, you'll recall, two kidnapped men woke up in a room with their legs shackled to the floor and a pair of hacksaws placed suggestively close at hand. The grisly choice they faced had been posed by the Jigsaw Killer, who turned out to be a disgruntled old man named John (Tobin Bell). John had terminal cancer and was embarked on a murderous crusade: He wanted people who he thought were squandering their lives to start appreciating the beauty of human existence, or die trying.

"Saw II" opens with John's latest victim being menaced by the killer's creepy alter ego, the Jigsaw puppet, which is murmuring away on a video monitor. This captive, too, is being presented with a difficult choice. Unfortunately, he's a dawdler. He fails in a halting attempt to gouge out a small key that's been inserted behind his eyeball, and thus fails to escape from a spike-filled, spring-loaded helmet thingy that's locked around his neck, which therefore suddenly snaps shut around his head, ventilating his cranium in a predictably messy way.

Soon, a police S.W.A.T. team, led by hard-boiled Detective Eric Mathews (a rumpled Donnie Wahlberg), arrives on the scene, and with suspicious ease is quickly able to track John down to his latest lair. The malevolent geezer is confined to a wheelchair now, with an IV drip in his arm and an oxygen mask close at hand, but he exhibits neither fear nor remorse. In fact, he has a surprise for the cops: a bank of monitors that show a group of eight new victims trapped in a room somewhere. With a jolt, Mathews realizes that one of them is his own son, Daniel (Erik Knudsen). This room, John says, suppressing a chuckle, is slowly filling up with nerve gas. There are syringes containing an antidote hidden hither and thither, and John has left cryptic clues as to their whereabouts on a pocket tape recorder placed within the room. He's not saying where the room is, though, which quickly puts Mathews in beat-down mode — to no avail. What to do? And where to do it?

It's all a game, of course. This time the gooey, flesh-shredding fun is prompted by the victims' desperate search for the syringes, which have been hidden by their host in the kind of places where razor-sharp blades are unavoidably poised to shear off your hands. Our sympathy for these people is not unqualified. Most of them are garden-variety lowlifes, and one of them, named Amanda (Shawnee Smith), is a recidivist — she did time in the first movie, too. At least two of them deserve to die, if only for the awfulness of their acting.

The slaughter in "Saw II" is pretty much non-stop, but you always see it coming. The movie's not really that scary, it's just gross, in what by now, after decades of slasher flicks, is a fairly routine way. There's a great twist at the end, but whether you'll want to stick around to see it could be a decision as difficult to make as anything the bloody-minded killer comes up with. Of course, there's another choice you might opt for that would spare you this torment altogether.

"New York Doll": The Lord Was His Shepherd

The Mormons, and their Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, have developed a dodgy rep over the years from their association with such dubious characters as President Richard Nixon and the nutball billionaire Howard Hughes. Lately, though, the light of this American-born faith has begun to shine out from movie screens, of all places. Last year's "Napoleon Dynamite," which was made by graduates of the Mormons' Brigham Young University, in Provo, Utah, was distinguished by the warm, unquestioning acceptance that it accorded its eccentric characters, and by its total lack of wiseass attitude.

Now comes this very unusual rock and roll documentary about Arthur "Killer" Kane, one-time bassist for the New York Dolls, a proto-punk band of ever-growing retrospective renown. It's a first film by director Greg Whiteley, another BYU grad, and it offers that same bottomlessly tolerant embrace to a man whose life might otherwise have been written off as a complete, wretched failure. In a distinctively quiet and unpretentious way, it's a stirring film.

The New York Dolls were a sort of street-level glam-rock band that started playing around Manhattan in the early 1970s. Despite their lipsticked puckers and jokey cross-dressing, though, they were essentially a loud rock & roll act with some great original songs (mostly written by singer David Johansen and machine-gun guitarist Johnny Thunders) and a line in obscure covers that reached deep back into the music's roots. They recorded two albums for Mercury Records, in 1973 and '74. Both stiffed. They began to flounder, and for a while toward the end were briefly mismanaged by a pre-Sex Pistols Malcolm McLaren. What was left of the group finally clattered to a complete halt in 1977 — just as an army of new punk bands the Dolls had partly inspired was on the rise.

By the time the original group fell apart, Arthur Kane was an alcoholic basket case. He put together some new bands, like Killer Kane and the Corpse Grinders, but they went nowhere. He relocated to Los Angeles, and grew embittered about his lost fame and the gnawing poverty in which he was sunk. His marriage foundered in a sea of booze. ("He started beating me with the cat furniture," his wife Barbara says, in one of the film's more striking sound bites.) During a final bender, he fell out of a third-story window, hitting his head and shattering a kneecap and an elbow. "In A.A.," he says in the film, "this is called being at rock bottom."

One day, during his long recuperation, he came across an ad in "TV Guide" about the Book of Mormon. He decided to order a copy, and to his surprise, two young Mormon missionaries showed up at his apartment to deliver it. Kane became interested, and started praying. "I received an answer pretty much right away," he says. "The only thing I can liken it to ... it was like a trip — an LSD trip from the Lord." In 1989, he joined the Latter Day Saints, and was offered a job working in the library at their L.A. church. Director Whiteley is one of the people who befriended him there, and it's there that we first meet him in the movie — now in his mid-fifties, balding and a little shaky, dressed in white shirt and tie and smiling sweetly as he makes his office rounds.

"New York Doll" really doesn't feel like it was made as a commercial for Mormonism — although it could certainly serve as one. Whiteley has an obvious affection for Kane, and he's expended considerable effort in piecing together his story from what little live footage of the Dolls still exists, and from interviews with such high-profile Dolls fans as Bob Geldof, Chrissie Hynde, Iggy Pop and Mick Jones of the Clash.

In this perspective, the movie really begins to take shape in the spring of 2004, with an announcement that the English singer Morrissey will be booking that year's Meltdown Festival — an annual series of London concerts spotlighting all manner of offbeat artists, cult performers and lost legends. Morrissey has been a major fan of the Dolls since he first heard them, way back in the day, and he decides to reunite the band to play the festival, even though only three of the group's five members are still alive.

When Kane hears about this, he is stunned — and very excited. It appears that the Dolls were the only family he ever really had, and as he says, "It's hard to put those memories away." With his Mormon colleagues' encouragement, he is flown to New York to rehearse with singer Johansen and guitarist Syl Sylvain, who are touchingly happy to see him. They soon regroup in London, where Kane — who in L.A. is living mainly on Social Security disability payments and taking the bus to work — marvels at the luxury hotel in which he's being put up. On June 16, the band — augmented by guest players like Libertines drummer Gary Powell — performs at the Royal Festival Hall. It could have been a limp exercise in punk nostalgia, but the Dolls actually sound great, and their reception is ecstatic. It's almost a fairytale moment, and your heart swells for Kane, back in the spotlight again after 30 years in the wilderness, and dazzled by what he clearly sees as this latest example of the Lord's mysterious workings.

Anyone familiar with the history of the New York Dolls will know how this movie has to end. I'll leave it at that. What Whiteley's remarkable film does, however, is to provide a radiant context for that conclusion, and to turn Arthur Kane's largely heartbreaking rock and roll life into a small, unassuming monument to the power of friendship and the wonders of the spirit.

—Kurt Loder

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