Monday, July 26, 2010

The Collector (2009)

"Torture Porn" is now so clichéd that it has become a sub-genre of horror. Depressingly enough, the sub-genre has also fallen into most of the same traps that the beloved slasher film has. The irony of this metaphor will be revealed later in the review.

You can use the Saw franchise as a roadmap and litmus test of the torture horror genre much in the same way that you can use the Friday the 13th films to note the de-evolution of slasher films.

The first installation of the Saw franchise was a devilishly clever film full of mythology and malice. As the franchise wore on, the Saw films finally collapsed under their own weight as the murder devices themselves stole the spotlight from the enigmatic serial killer, Jigsaw.

Soon, the Saw films seemed to become less interested in telling Jigsaw's story and more interested in the exploration of the numerous ways the human body can be mangled beyond recognition. After that, to paraphrase Jigsaw's catchphrase, it was game over.

Just as it did in slasher films did before them, the "kill" became the star of the show in torture horror. The paradoxical disconnect with that line of logic is that the whole point of torture is that the subject is alive and suffering.

Oh well...

Mark Dunstan, the man who wrote many of the screenplays for the Saw films, came up with a script that he hoped would be the prequel treatment for Saw, but many of Saw's producers were against such a direction. Dunstan decided to turn the prequel into its own entity and now we have The Collector.

Here is where we determine whether or not that is a blessing or a curse.

The film prefaces the main body of the storyline with a bizarre abduction at the hands of the mysterious titular antagonist.

The film then shifts to the home of Michael and Victoria Chase (Michael Reilly Burke, Andrea Roth). Michael Chase is a gem broker overseeing renovations to his home and preparing to go on a family trip with his wife and their two daughters, Jill (Madeleine Zima) and Hannah (Karley Scott Collins).

Unbeknownst to Mr. Chase, his house is being cased by Arkin (Josh Stewart), a struggling locksmith who supports his income with the occasional house burglary. Arkin is a likeable chap stuck in a dire situation concerning his incredibly ungrateful wife and a loan shark. Over the course of the renovations to the Chase home, Arkin has discovered that Michael Chase is trying to negotiate the sale of a large ruby kept in a safe in the master bedroom.

Desperation forces Arkin to try to steal the gem earlier than he expected to. However in the course of breaking into the Chase's home that evening, Arkin soon learns that he wasn't the only one interested in what the Chase family had to offer.

Arkin then becomes the unwilling hero in a game of cat and mouse. Does he try to save himself and his own family, or does he stick out his neck for strangers by matching wits with a cold blooded madman?

There are parts of The Collector that are very frightening but most of this sentiment is undermined by the absolutely hilarious figure that is the Collector himself. I'm sure that Mark Dunstan thought, "Ooooo, CREEPY!" the first time he got a gander of the trademark mask, but I personally found it to be so funny and out of place that it served to be a distraction.

How can you take a killer that wears a mask like that seriously? I think I am going to mail Dunstan copies of Halloween and Nightbreed so that he can see what scary masked killers are supposed to look like.

I know that the shining eyes and weird mask were suppose to give the Collector an inhuman quality much as the iconic Halloween mask did for Michael Myers, but the mask really does fall flat as a signature item.

The other things I found chuckle worthy were the whole idea of the traps that the Collector used and the time it took to deploy them. Most of the traps and gadgets were downright ingenious but there are some plot issues that rob me of my appreciation of their viciousness.

First of all, just about every one of the Collector's traps is potentially lethal in nature. For a killer whose modus operandi is abduction, his weapons of choice weren't exactly built with live capture in mind.

Secondly, the Collector apparently has time to litter the entire Chase home with mean-spirited little devices and turn ordinary rooms into killing zones in mere minutes. One minute Arkin is navigating the Chase home with no problem and the next, he is avoiding every peril imaginable from floors covered by pools of acid to foyers criss-crossed with ultra-thin razor wire.

It is the torture horror version of the television show, Wipeout, but without the charm. Either the Collector is a master planner or Mr. Dunstan has no sense of timing or pacing.

My guess would be the latter.

The one area where The Collector does show some sign of brilliance is in the characters.

It's pretty obvious that most of the members of the Chase family (smoking hot Madeline Zima included) are there to be torn to shreds. What is a torture horror movie without victims?

The shining light of this otherwise lackluster production is the tragic figure of Arkin. His life is a sad series of events that culminate in a life and death struggle against a vile maniac who has complete control of the playing field.

Arkin really has no say in the matter of burglarizing the Chase's home because the alternative could mean the death of his wife and possibly his child. As if this weren't bad enough, Murphy's Law kicks into overdrive as Arkin finds himself not only fighting for his survival, but struggling with his own sense of humanity.

Arkin has enough problems with the dark cloud hanging over his family. Now Arkin finds himself weighing the merits of either escaping and living with the shameful cowardice associated with allowing innocent people to die versus squaring off against a sadistic intruder and fighting for the lives of the very people he intended to steal from.

Talk about awkward.

The really sad thing is that most horror audiences know that one of the timeless morals of the genre is that "no good deed goes unpunished." As signs in the film point towards sequel, you can only lament the dark destiny that Arkin inevitably has waiting for him despite his desperate acts of selfless heroism.

Alice survived the first Friday the 13th film only to get an ice pick shoved into her brain in the second film. We can only hope that poor Arkin doesn't suffer a similar fate.

I know it is an old and shopworn criticism, but there are tons of movies that do what The Collector does much better than The Collector. If you are a fan of torture horror, then The Collector does represent one more title for the catalogue and that is something to be thankful for.

Also, as a torture horror fan you can find comfort in the idea that even the most disrespected torture horror film is probably head and shoulders better in quality than the worst slasher movie. As taxing and somewhat droll as I found The Collector to be, I can name dozens of slasher films that are a thousand times more lame than this film.

There are certainly worse ways to burn ninety minutes and I have experienced quite a few.

I think with a bit more polish, The Collector might've had a real shot at being the proverbial instant classic. For now, we'll have to wait for the sequel to arrive later on this year and hope that it is an improvement.

If the Collector is still wearing that goofy mask, I doubt it.


Emily said...

Good point about the better quality of torture porn to slashers. I'm not a huge fan of the genre, but I do find myself rolling my eyes when people talk about the slasher dynasty as if it were gold. It generally has less skill than almost anything released today.

Still, I wasn't a fan of The Collector. It's well-made and there are a few points you make that I certainly agree with, but I just felt such an overwhelming feeling of 'meh' throughout this film.

J.T. said...

Yeah, I wasn't terribly impressed with The Collector. There are certainly more suspenseful set pieces out there.

As far as comparing this movie with the heavyweight of torture porn, Saw had the benefit of a charismatic anti-hero turned villain complete with a compelling backstory.

The Collector is a guy in a silly mask and the novelty of the traps wears off in the first half-hour of the film.

Emily said...

Exactly. Something I always liked about the Saw series is that despite its increasingly ridiculous villains, the baddies have a motive for their actions. In The Collector, it's just an exterminator with sometimes yellow eyes and a penchant for bear traps. Bleh.

Doug Tilley said...

I think it's really interesting that you mentioned the sort of snobby reaction that most fans have when comparing the "torture" genre to the multitude of awful slasher films in the 80s. I'll admit that i'm way behind in my horror watching - i've yet to see Saw or Hostel or Wolf Creek or really any of the second tier torture films - but I don't get personally offended that these movies exist. I just want them to be good, and offer something interesting. Some of them seem to do that, while some - like this film - appear to fall flat.

Frankly, i'm much more bothered by the recent remakes of 80s slasher films which are almost uniformly terribly. At least these films try to do *something* different - even if this different thing is derivative.