During her press conference for “Jennifer’s Body,” director Karyn Kasuma commented that horror and comedy are special genres because they cause the audience to have a physical reaction; each viewer is interacting with the film on a very personal level. In this spirit, Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan (Feast 1-3, Saw 4-7) have crafted a film with the sole intention of violating its audience. My review is after the jump:
“The Collector” is the American answer to “Inside,” “Frontier(S), and “Martyrs.” It is every bit as shocking and boundary pushing as the new wave of French horror. How it got an R-rating instead of an NC-17 is simply beyond comprehension. There is a plethora of on-screen kills that are unlike anything I have ever seen. There is no throat slashing. No fatal stabbings. No gory gunshots. No pickaxes, nor chainsaws nor machetes. Instead, “The Collector” features skin-melting acid, fishhooks in the eyelid, electrocution, nails in through the temple and out through the nose, tongue removal, dog maulings, and bear traps to the face*. Needless to say, it’s not for the weak of spirit or for the faint of heart.
The film, which co-writer and director Dunstan describes as what might happen if James Caan’s character from “Thief” broke into the Tooth Fairy’s house from “Manhunter,” tells the story of a safecracker-cum-handyman who is forced to steal a valuable gem from his employers in order to pay off his ex-wife’s hefty debt. Unfortunately for the thief, a mysterious serial killer has already broken into the house on the night of his caper and taken his employer’s entire family hostage. The house becomes a spider web of traps designed to kill each victim with deadly precision and maximum sadism.
I started writing film criticism for the web about five years ago. In that time I can count on one hand the number of instances where I have been left speechless by a movie. Marcus Duntstan and Patrick Melton’s “The Collector” adds one more to that short list. I don’t think I have ever seen a more brutal, vile, and patently offensive movie in a theater. And I mean that as a compliment. What’s more, the film achieves this goal without ever resorting to the cheap rape fantasies of which Rob Zombie seems to be so fond.
Very rarely do films actually feel dangerous. In most cases, even the hardest-R feels sanitized. The audience might see some blood and guts, but the camera will inevitably cut away to something else. Not so with “The Collector.” This film leaves the audience trapped in some of the most unpleasant positions imaginable. When “The Collector” does avoid showing something grisly it is only because what happens next is even more challenging to the viewer’s stamina. “The Evil Dead” billed itself as grueling, that film is kids’ stuff compared to this. Each scene is more gruesome than the last, and things never let up. The end result is nothing short of panic attack inducing.
I mean this when I say it; you’re simply not prepared for what this film has to offer. It sets a new standard for sadism in American cinema. It’s more violent than “Passion of the Christ.” I’ve never felt ill from a movie, but here, I was almost sick to my stomach, twice.
But the film doesn’t rest upon the dumb shock of extreme gore. Instead it manages to ratchet up the tension by leaving the camera to sit and stew in the Giallo. You think the camera is just about to take you away from the horror show on screen, but it doesn’t. Ironically enough, the ultimate effect of this sanguine covered nastiness is similar to the intended goal of Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” films. There is a point where cruelty of it all forces the viewer to reflect on his or her conception of entertainment and consider the peculiar circumstances that lead half the world to fight and kill for basic necessities while the other half has indulges in films like this as a pastime. No doubt there will be many reviews that focus on how “The Collector” represents a new low of depravity in filmmaking, but I have the feeling that only a precious few will stop to think about the fact that the film clearly places the camera as a third main character, a self-reflexive choice that implies a much more nuanced intention than the derogatory title of “torture porn” would seem to permit.
And unlike many films within the “Gorno” subgenre, “The Collector” is equally visual in the scenes that don’t involve blood loss. In fact, there is a 25-minute section of this 85-minute feature that has no dialogue whatsoever while the killer and the protagonist play a deadly game of cat and mouse. The camera angles are consistently impressive, and the sound-design creates a great sense of space and geography within the house. Clever tricks like a squeaky step here and an air vent there link together all the rooms so that even when there are five different characters in four different areas on three different floors, there is never any question as to anyone’s location.
Anchoring all the madness is a surprisingly solid performance from lead actor Josh Stewart. What might have felt generic in lesser hands becomes a fully formed persona as Stewart uses his panicked, mad dog eyes to display all the details and motivations of his mostly mute character. Conversely, the titular villain (Credited to Juan Fernández but played by 6 or 7 different cast members) is not a character at all, but rather a force of nature, prowling through the shadows like a creature of the night always out for blood.
There are some slight pacing problems during the third act and fairly significant logic issues throughout. There is a dark realism to the film, but also a sense of absurdity that comes part and parcel with this type of villain. The heroes get their eyelids caught in fishhooks, but the killer, and later the killer’s dog, walk through the same rooms completely unscathed. I can understand how the killer is able to avoid most of his tricks, but there were also times when he seemed to be magical, though the film never makes any reference to anything otherworldly.
And this issue of tonal shift from realism to exploitation and back plagues the movie. The tones battle throughout the film but never find a satisfactory balance. Too, I’m not sure I believed the feasibility of all of the traps. I understand in theory how most of them work, but some of the more Rube Goldberg style elements seemed a touch too stylized and gimmicky.
Part of the problem is the decision to completely exclude any type of explanation of the killer. We are given no reason for his actions. He captures the family off screen and we don’t know how or why. We are also never given any clue as to why the house is filled with traps. There is a motif of bugs throughout the film, which seems to suggest that the killer is playing with his victims like a spider, but I couldn’t explain anything solid about him**. It’s like watching the first “Saw” film without any of the exposition found within the flashbacks or tape recorders.
All the same, the movie is relentlessly effective as a horror show. If you’re going to see this movie, you owe it to yourself to see it in a theater. The DVD experience will not do justice to the soundscapes, and a TV screen simply cannot reproduce the shock effect of seeing such brutality on a 40-foot screen.
I don’t for a second doubt that this film will lose effectiveness upon repeat viewing. As with Sam Raimi’s recent “Drag Me to Hell” the film is reliant upon the impact of a scene’s unexpected turns, but if you get a chance, and you’re up for the challenge, “The Collector” is like a rite of passage. It will beat you up, tie you down, and make you beg for mercy. And for a select few, that constitutes a pretty good time.
*I assume this is an allusion to “Straw Dogs,” another grueling, dangerous film that held back from greatness by an unfortunate and deeply misogynistic rape scene.
** I assume he is a camping enthusiast based upon many of his choices of traps. Perhaps he is the world’s most evil Eagle Scout.