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Monday, August 29, 2016

Film Land - The Collector (2009)

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Edited by Robert Beach

One of the big trends of 2016 is that horror, as a popular genre, is back with a vengeance. This particular shift has been building for a while now with a lot of recent horror output being new films or modern series. The Purge franchise has roared through three installments to wave the banner of political horror; The Conjuring and Insidious have become a dynamite double feature complete with spin-offs. What’s more, art house horror has been a major force lately with popular hits like Babadook, It Follows, The Invitation, and VVitch making a major splash. 

Home invasion horror reared its head as a major genre force this year, not having been present since the 2013 horror boom with You’re Next. 2016 gave us the Netflix original Hush, the tense indie thriller Green Room, and this week’s studio hit Don’t Breathe.  Now, I can’t stand the genre most of the time, and I didn’t like any of the three films I just mentioned. Instead, I’m focusing on my favorite home invasion horror flick of all time and one of the best horror films of the 2000s: The Collector. 

Directed and co-written by Marcus Dunstan, The Collector was a late 2000s horror film with an absolutely killer hook: what if a thief and a slasher showed up to the same house on the same night. The script originally came about as a prequel to Saw after Dunstan had taken over the series with the 4th installment, but don’t hold that against it.  

I know it’s become fashionable to dismiss the Saw films now. While I’m not going to stand up for all of them, there’s an admirable ambition about the later films that still shines through the series moving passed its original helmers. In that respect, you can see Saw’s influence on The Collector. Though the greater element the two share is in their conception of the villain. 

What made Saw 1, and especially Saw 2, unique among horror films was that its take on its villain was drawn less from the hulking slashers of the ‘80s or even the snarky masked killers of the ‘90s, but comic book super villains. Everything about Jigsaw from his elaborate death traps, his psychological ethos, to the way he brands all of his equipment with his logo makes him out as the guy who’d typically fight Batman. He just happens to exist in a universe with no superheroes to challenge him. That same set-up is applied to The Collector, the titular villain, and is pulled off expertly. 

To understand how the Collector mirrors a comic book villain, let’s look more closely at the set-up. The story revolved around Arkin, an ex-con and security contractor whose wife is in deep with some loan sharks. Desperate for money, Arkin elects to rob the home of a wealthy family he recently installed security at. Upon arriving at the home, Arkin realizes something is off only to realize the Collector, a viscous killer in a creepy mask, is at the home as well. From there, the film becomes a taut thriller as Arkin and the Collector stalk each other through the house. It’s a tense game of cat and mouse made all the tenser by the fact the Collector has booby-trapped the entire household. 

What works so well about this set-up is the way it allows the film to let the audience feel the Collector’s presence while rarely lingering on him. In fact, Arkin and the Collector never even share the same room till the 40-minute mark and don’t physically interact till about an hour into this 90-minute movie. It’s a lot like Jaws in that the tension comes from the implication of the Collector and the way his power and ingenuity have turned this ordinary home into a house of horrors. 

Combine that with the way he never speaks, merely grunting and panting like something out of a nightmare, and the audience is subtly wheeled into accepting him as something more than human.  Going back to the super villain analogy, it’s similar to the way Batman villain personas make them seem more horrifying and dangerous than they would be. I mean, The Mad Hatter is just a little geek from Hot Topic, but we genuinely believe he can give Batman a run for his money because of terrifyingly mythic weight we ascribe to the mentally unhinged in these stories. 

If that were all The Collector had going forward, a brilliant well-devised villain and a tense 90 minutes, it’d be solid. This movie goes beyond that. See, even though The Collector is framed as a legendary monster conjured from nightmares, his fallibility is baked directly into the narrative. From the word go, Arkin is constantly working to outmaneuver him, using his skills as a thief and burglar to constantly try and stay one step ahead of him. 

In recent years, there’s been a growing emphasis on “no stupid decisions in horror,” which is honestly reductive given we’re meant to be following people scared for their lives, not fearless supermen. Arkin passes that test, and the film is always keeping him on his toes. 

He’s constantly encountering new traps, working to get past them, and trying to find a way to escape the house, going after all the angles you’d think he would. The movie even affords him a good motive for staying at a few spots where he might otherwise have left as he discovers The Collector has kidnapped and is torturing the family of the house with plans to kill all but one of them. 

Even more, than the “no stupid decisions” thing, The Collector makes the even better choice of “no cheap decisions.” This is what always puts me off home invasion horror films: they tend to force some awkward contrivance to let the villain win at some key point.  This happens when outside help arrives, with the villain somehow getting insanely lucky or just knowing what the hero was planning by magic and totally screwing over any chance they have.  

Once that chord has been pulled, there’s no point in investing in the film anymore because logic has no more place here. The villain is just going to keep winning till they run out the clock. The Strangers did this; Hush did it; Green Room did it; it’s the mark of lazy cinema more interested in keeping the wheels spinning than anything else. 

The awkward contrivance benefiting the villain also misses the entire point of home invasion horror and the truth they’re built on tension. It forces the heroes of the story into the place of never securing a victory till the registered time limit. There’s no tension to the goings on because the hero literally cannot secure any success.  

In The Collector, Arkin has plenty of victories over the Collector as the two maneuver through the house as well as plenty of defeats. There’s give and take along with a lot of great callbacks to earlier moments you might’ve forgotten was established. 

Aside from just having the nuts and bolts of a great thriller, The Collector is dripping with atmosphere. Dunstan has a superb eye for geography and composition in the film, and the house is segmented amidst the main floor, upstairs, and the basement giving you a firm grasp of where everything is while also using elevation as code for power. 

It’s all stylish and speaks to being a passion project, especially in the way the movie has almost no dialogue. The Collector never speaks, and Arkin rarely has anyone to speak to. The people’s voices even being muted in some scenes to prolong the effect. 

Cards on the table, The Collector is a triumph of suspense, tension, and imaginative filmmaking. I feel the movie was ahead of its time. The way it incorporates comic book logic into the structure of the horror movie as a precursor to modern hits like The Purge, The Conjuring, or Insidious, which all rely heavily on ideas like super-heroic humans, super villain relationships with the protagonists, and creepy masks conveying undue power and ability.  

It’s a movie that gets you to suspend your disbelief because that makes things more interesting instead of more scripted and obvious. When the Collector can set-up traps with incredible speed, you just accept it because he already seems like a supernatural monster even if he’s just a guy. Just be warned that if you watch it, the conclusion is an open-ended “to be continued” picked up in the sequel The Collection, which is excellent in totally different way. That’s a story for another review. 

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