The Collector (2009)
Directed by: Marcus Dunstan
Starring: Josh Stewart, Juan Fernandez, Madeline Zima, Andrea Roth, Daniella Alonso, Robert Wisdom, Michael Reilly Burke, Karley Scott Collins
1/2 (out of 4)
Warning: Slight spoilers ahead
I would personally trace the rise of the torture porn genre to 9/11 – it was the catalyst for our embrace of a certain nihilism that was destined to show up in the kind of entertainment we consume. It’s not that the “torture porn” scenario is new – go back to the 70s and early 80s and witness grindhouse fare like The Last House on the Left, Cannibal Holocaust, Cannibal Ferox, Maniac. But extreme bodily harm was never so mainstream as it was in this first decade of the 21st century – perhaps it serves its function as an important safety valve in a new terrifying world. That’s fine; it has its place, although my personal enjoyment of the genre hinges on the idea that there may be more going on in such a movie than simple torture-for-torture’s sake. The argument could be made that there is some subtext in Eli Roth’s Hostel, and I must admit a certain fascination with the puzzle pieces and moral decision-making that make up the Saw series. The Collector happens to be written by the same dudes responsible for Saw IV, V, and VI – Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan, who also directs. I was just barely aware of this going in – mostly, I only knew what the trailers told me, that the Edward Norton-looking Josh Stewart plays a jewel thief who breaks into a home only to discover that somebody worse is already inside. Thus results a cat-and-mouse game with some fair twists and turns. Well, the first half hour of The Collector at least gets that right.
After working on a house in the middle of the woods for a dysfunctional family headed by a jeweler (Michael Reilly Burke), his vain wife (Andrea Roth), nubile teen daughter (Madeline Zima), and cute-as-a-button little girl Hannah (Karley Scott Collins), Arkin (Stewart) decides to break in to their home the same night the family supposedly goes on vacation. The purpose of Arkin’s little expedition is to help out his wife (Daniella Alonso), who owes money to some loan sharks. Also thrown into the mix is Arkin’s own precious angel (Haley Pullos). (Hannah’s similarity to his own daughter will influence his decision making later in the film). As soon as he enters the home and makes for the safe, things head south quickly, as Arkin discovers that somebody else is inside the house, and that person is one mean motherfucker. Referred to by the movie as, simply, the “collector” (played by Juan Fernandez in a very bizarre getup, wearing contacts that make his eyes glow), this guy is a piece of work. Somehow, in the span of a few hours, he manages to kidnap and torture a family while laying booby traps of every kind in all rooms of the house. There’s five or six locks on the front door, a hanging chandelier with knives pointing downward, a dozen bear traps, windows with razor blades, hanging fishhooks, a wall with spikes, a phone receiver with a nail sticking out of it, and various other Rube Goldberg devices. To top it all off, there’s a vicious dog – you know, just in case.
To be fair to The Collector, it is shot with style and has some genuine shocks. There’s a weird pervading sense of dread in the daytime scenes at the beginning, including a nice little sequence involving a wasp nest. Scenes of Arkin interacting with the family members are given are infused with menace, as if the whole world is not quite right. Use of music is acceptable (industrial, mostly, and I see Dunstan couldn’t stop himself from using Bela Lugosi’s Dead). There is definitely some potential here, but by the end the whole thing has collapsed from a mixture of monotony, senseless plot developments, and a succession of increasingly preposterous situations.
Everyone has fallen into the spider’s web, as the movie is more than willing to show you in its depiction of bug metaphors. But there’s no rhyme or reason to the killer’s actions. One victim simply says that he likes to collect “people”. OK, so he’s a kidnapper, who has a nice trunk to throw people into. So why the booby traps? Why the torture? Seems like a waste of time if you’re just going to throw people into boxes. Unless of course there are other important aspects to the killer’s psychological makeup which explains why he torments his victims like a kid pulls wings off a fly. We’ll never find out – the killer’s one-sentence, one-dimensional description is a flimsy excuse just to set up a house of horrors and test the audience in their levels of tolerance for on-screen bloodletting. In this area, Dunstan tries hard – there are even two instances of animal violence sure to make you sit up and take notice. One scene has a cat melting in some kind of acidic substance on the floor (a room turned into a roach motel); Arkin “saves” him by peeling him off the floor and throwing him to the window, where cat is subsequently split in half by another trap. All nine lives, gone. Another scene sees a victim’s stomach cut open and insects forced into it. If that’s your cup of tea, dear reader, you’re going to love this flick.
I collect hugs!
While I admired The Collector for its ability to make me feel uncomfortable, I also found it underwhelming in its depiction of cat-and-mouse game between killer and thief. Its thrills are simply visceral and a bit ignoble, but hey – you’ll at least come out of it with an ample view of Madeline Zima’s fine assets. Take off a few points for the extremely predictable, “they’re not even trying” ending. The movie knows how to deliver the goods, it just has no idea how to deliver a good story. There’s no denying Dunstan’s potential as a filmmaker – I just think the Saw movies do this kind of thing better. In any case, it’s time for him (and us) to move on to a new premise.