JULY 30, 2009
As an avid fan of Project Greenlight, nothing makes me happier than the continued success of Season 3’s screenwriting team of Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton. While the folks from the other seasons have gone on to do... nothing, as far as I know, these guys are everywhere in horror. From writing the Feast trilogy (with PGL winner John Gulager at the helm - another success. Why did they cancel the show when they finally got it right?), to taking over writing duties on Saws 4-7, and constantly being attached to in development movies such as the Hellraiser remake, they have certainly shed their “contest winner” stigma and carved out successful screenwriting careers (quick - name another writer or writers with six produced films in the past two years to their name). And now they’ve taken it up a notch, with Marcus directing their script for The Collector, a film they have been wanting to make before they even wrote the first Feast.
While it was at one time considered to be molded into a Saw prequel, and the use of “traps” certainly bringing some familiarity to the piece, this is NOT a Saw-type film. If I had to compare it to a pair of films in the time-honored Hollywood tradition (“It’s ____ meets ____ !”), I would say it was a cross between The Strangers and the final 20 minutes of Home Alone. The traps here are not like the ones in Saw, they are fairly basic (some are even identical to those from Home Alone, such as nails on the stairs) and avoidable. What they lack in complication, though, they make up for in sheer quantity - the goddamn things are everywhere. How the Collector had time to set them all up, I don’t know, but suffice to say they lead to a constant sense of dread. A Jigsaw kidnapee is usually free to run around the dungeons and warehouses without having to worry about literally falling into a trap - they either wake up inside of one or have to put themselves willingly into one in order to get a key or whatever. Here, our hero, Arkin (Josh Stewart) has to constantly watch his step, lest he set off a trip wire or run face-first into razor wire stretched across the room at face level. There is something incredibly nerve-wracking about a guy who constantly has to be escaping a pursuer but unable to really haul ass.
And in a bold move that pays off, Dunstan doesn’t leave too many of the traps to surprise - a sweeping shot throughout the entire house pretty much shows every single one of them. At first I was a bit disappointed that I knew where they all were and more or less what they would do, but as the film progresses, I realized this was actually to the film’s benefit. If we HADN’T seen them all, it would become kind of laughable when they appear; “Oh, yeah there’s a room with bear traps too”. But knowing that they are all there allows Dunstan to get them out of the way and focus on people screwing up and activating them. We KNOW those bear traps are there, it’s just a matter of knowing who will set them off and when.
More on Dunstan’s directing - working with Bousman and Gulager has not been an influence on his editing/shooting style. There is no hyper-editing or super-close-up “what the hell am I looking at?” type camerawork here, which works fine for those films but would have been annoying here. He uses a lot of long takes, and stays far back enough to allow you to see the characters and their surrounding dangers. He also avoids the first time director habit of being flashy - there are a couple of off-kilter POV shots, and close-ups of how the booby traps work, but otherwise it’s directed like an old school horror film. The opening shot, for example, is a slow tracking shot of a house (not the main house) from across the street as a couple arrives home, perfectly setting up the creepy/suspenseful tone of the film. Hopefully this won't be a one-off directorial gig.
Another thing that works quite well is that our hero is essentially a criminal. He’s there to rob the family, only to more or less get forced into being their savior (mainly because he is unable to escape the house anyway). This sort of setup always appeals to me, and the guy’s intentions (to pay off a loan shark that is after his wife) are honorable. He is never really confronted by a family member as to why he’s there in the first place (they ask, but he never answers), which could have been a nicely uncomfortable touch, but on the flipside, such things would allow you a breather that the film never offers.
You might think a movie that takes place entirely in a house, with only 3 or 4 possible victims, would be kind of slow paced, but that is not the case here. Arkin is constantly on the move, attempting to dodge the Collector and rescue family members (this would make an excellent XBL marketplace game). I don’t think it’s spoiling much to say that he’s not always successful in his rescue attempts, and even though the victims are nice innocent people (as opposed to our thief hero), the death scenes are insanely over the top and applause worthy. They aren’t played for laughs (nothing about the movie is, actually), but knowing the team’s sick sense of humor from the Feast films, you can almost sense the morbid glee they must have felt when staging some of the deaths (again: ROOM FULL OF BEAR TRAPS!). And there’s always a little darkly humorous touch in the deaths, such as when a guy is electrocuted thanks to a toppled TV and fish tank combination. As the guy wriggles and fries, we see a hapless fish trying to swim its way to safety. I love shit like that - not only is it a funny sight gag, but it also answers a question some audience members are bound to have (“Are the fish OK?”).
I should note part of my enjoyment may have stemmed by seeing so many actors from my favorite shows in it. Supporting actors from Lost, Prison Break (RIP) and Friday Night Lights all turn in small roles, and that is fine by me. Also, the patriarch of the family is played by Michael Reilly Burke, aka the Bundy that got his ass kicked by Tiffany Shepis in Ted Bundy. But the real draw is Josh Stewart, who carries the film easily. I’ve never seen the guy before, but I am sure that will change after this - I can’t recall the last time I saw a relative unknown take the lead (he’s pretty much in every frame of the movie) in a wide theatrical release, especially without a big star in a smaller role to anchor it, but it’s a gamble that paid off. Character development can be a bit slim (we never know why his wife had to deal with a loan shark to begin with) but you still care about this guy, thanks to Stewart’s appealing performance.
My only issue with the film is the score by Nine Inch Nails drummer Jerome Dillon. Some of it works fine, such as during the battle between Arkin and the Collector, but often times it just sounds like leftover NIN music (of which I’m not a fan), and gives the film a Saw feel that it otherwise doesn’t have. It’s also incredibly loud at times, though that might have been the fault of the theater’s surround system. A minimalist score, something like Carpenter’s for Halloween, would have been a better choice, in my opinion.
The fact that this movie has gotten a wide summer release from an independent studio should be enough to tell you that it’s worth a look. It’s up against heavy competition (I still wish people were seeing Orphan, actually), but this could be a major boon for independent horror productions if the film were to open well. So please guys - if the Saw films (which also have no major stars) can make 60-80 million a piece, there is no reason why this film can’t make at least half that. I’m tired of repeating myself: if you don’t want an endless stream of remakes and PG-13 teen horror films, then for the love of Christ, go see an original R rated film when you get one. Thanks to Haunting In CT and the MBV/F13 remakes, horror’s been doing OK this year (compared to last year), but you all dropped the ball with the best ones: Drag Me To Hell (PG-13, yes, but not designed as one) and Orphan. You have to take a chance on unproven commodities so that the money men continue to do the same. And unlike Hatchet or Midnight Meat Train, this is a WIDE release: 1400 screens. There’s no way you can claim “it’s not playing near me” on this one, so get your ass in the theater.
What say you?