The Collector (2009) – Marcus Dunstan

The Collector movie poster

Sometimes, it’s hard to tell what you like about a movie. Using all the normal criteria, you could look at a movie and say “this should suck.” But sometimes there’s something else going on that makes you like it. Marcus Dunstan’s 2009 flick The Collector is one of these movies. It feels mediocre, but when you watch it, you really enjoy it. There’s noting terribly novel about it. It seems like Dunstan just took Home Alone, and added some choice pieces of the Saw movies but for some reason, it works. First of all, the casting is great. I like the backstory and the way we’re set up to empathize with Arkin, the main character. He’s likable, though flawed. I think it brings a sort of realism to a fantastic and unlikely situation. And even though he’s not perfect, you root for him because he’s a good guy.

Let me back up before I get too sappy. This is essentially a torture porn flick with a little more charm. Arkin is a semi-reformed convict who gets a job as a handyman for a rich jeweler. Jeweler and family are about to go on vacation for a few weeks and homeboy is setting up the house with better locks, bars on windows etc. Soon we find out that Arkin’s wife owes some unsavory characters a bunch of money and there’s going to be big trouble if he doesn’t scrounge up the green by midnight. So he decides to break into the jeweler’s house to steal some rocks to pay the debt.

When he gets to the house, it becomes clear that the family never made it on vacation and that there’s somebody else there with a creepy mask and more sinister motives than robbery. Dad and mom are bound and gagged in the basement and the little daughter is missing. It seems like older daughter is out of the house on a date. Arkin decides to be a good guy and abandon his robbery mission to try and save the family and find the lost daughter. There are booby-traps all over the house-razor blades, acid, knives, bear traps, nails, fish hooks…the works. I know what you’re thinking- It sounds like there are not enough characters to rack up a good head count, but the older sister and her boyfriend show up and there’s a mysterious stranger trapped in a box as well as some law enforcement personnel so we’re still able to stack up some bodies. The killer has rigged the house so that it’s just about impossible to get out. So now Arkin is trapped in the house, trying to save everyone, and we’re not sure if the killer even knows he’s there.

The collector shotgun

Throughout the movie, the suspense slowly builds and everything gets more and more intense. It’s all paced really well and the timeframe of the movie works great with the suspense.  As things are getting worse and worse in the house, you know that he’s on a deadline to get out of the house and back to his wife with the rock by midnight or she’s in trouble. Though the camera work isn’t the best I’ve ever seen there are some shots that help add to the tension and suspense. One of the best is a great overhead shot where the killer is 6 inches away from Arkin who’s hiding behind a door. Where will he go? It’s dead silent for these types of scenes and you’re just dying waiting to see what will happen.

Everything in the movie sounds perfect too. Arkin hears creeks and footsteps from elsewhere in the house. Is that the missing daughter, or the killer? Someone is whimpering and screaming from the basement through the air vent. The sound effects are crisp and really let you hear every little detail. Sometimes those details are pretty gross and hard to listen too. But it’s visceral and it really grounds you as if you’re there in the house with them.

The house in this film is wired with some pretty wicked and fucked up traps. At a certain point, it almost feels gratuitous, but they they reign it in just in time.  Dunstan has found the line between too much gore/torture vs. not enough plot/substance to back it up. He’s teetering on this line for most of the movie, but I never really got the feeling that he was relying on the gore/torture to progress the plot. And that’s the only reason I can follow him.

Collector box

Like I said, on paper, the movie is mediocre at best. Maybe it’s the way the plot is paced and the fact that it keeps you guessing that really did it for me. Who is the killer? Why is he doing this? There’s a decent amount of jump scares but it doesn’t feel too gimmicky. The majority of the scares come from the suspense. He’s practically beating you over the head with suspense by the end (which, by the way, I had some issues with the end-logical potholes and things that didn’t quite make sense, but I’ll let them slide because I really liked this movie.) There’s a sequel in development now and I’m looking forward to it.

  1. Is it scary: 6- Like I said, it’s vicious and suspenseful. And based in reality so that adds some scare-factor too.
  2. Originality: 4- Not really anything new here. I guess it’s a new spin on the genre, but he didn’t really invent anything new.
  3. Blood: 7- For what it was, there could have been more blood, but I think Dunstan did a good job treading the line and not taking this too far over the top.
  4. Believability: 6- Overall, I guess I bought it but there were some pretty big red flags. Without giving too much away, I will say that if you’re in the basement of a house, you’re going to hear it if someone is screaming at the top of their lungs upstairs. There was too much of this kind of thing.
  5. Setting/Cinematography: 7- The setting is great. It’s dark, its dangerous and you can’t escape.  There were a couple of cool camera shots that added to the effect, but I would have liked to see more. 

Final Score: 30/50

THe Collector blood

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Saw (2004) – James Wan

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If it wasn’t for the fact that James Wan’s 2004 ‘torture porn’ flick Saw had spawned a series of increasingly shitty sequels, I’d say I really like it (which I actually do). The plot is fairly simple (in broad strokes at least) but still clever and original. I’ve never been a fan of those ‘torture porn’ movies like Hostel and Saw 3 through 7 or whatever. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for slashers and even over-the top goriness is fine with me, but I don’t really enjoy watching a movie that revolves around people getting slowly tortured and killed without some good reason. It’s like hot sauce. I’ll dump a gallon of the hottest toxic, nuclear waste you can find on my food, but it’s got to have good taste too. If all you can taste is hot, what’s the point?

Anyway, this movie is not what I just described. It’s definitely hot, but it’s got the flavor to back it up, if you will. It’s directed well and the cast is (for the most part) right on. Wan has struck a great balance between creepy and downright terrifying. And to boot, there’s a full on murder mystery developing throughout the whole film. It’s smart, imaginative, original, and scary as hell. And though I’ve seen Saw at least twice before, I found myself still interested in what was happening in the story.

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The movie opens with two guys who wake up chained to pipes in a dilapidated old basement. One of the guys is Cary Elwes (the Dread Pirate Roberts from The Princess Bride). Oh, and there’s a dead guy with a gun in his hand laying in a pool of blood in the middle of the room. The two guys slowly put together some clues and figure out that someone has kidnapped them and put them there to teach them a twisted life lesson. They each find a little cassette tape and find out that if Elwes’ character doesn’t kill the other guy by 6am, that the kidnapper is going to kill his wife and kid. Among some other tools and weapons, the guys each have a hacksaw that doesn’t seem like it can cut through anything in the room except for possibly a human femur…

About half the story takes place in that room and the rest is basically flashbacks that slowly unveil the plot and let you know how the guys showed up here. One of the main side plots is that of the police detectives who are searching for the “Jigsaw Killer.” We soon find out that he’s the guy who locked up our heroes in this basement.  As the plot builds, so does the suspense and the horror. The flashbacks show you a bunch of other traps that Jigsaw has gotten people with. Finally the flashbacks catch up with the main story and there are a couple of big twists. First you’re like whaaaaat? And then you’re like WHAAAAAAAAAAT? The last half hour is super intense and exciting. And the ending just keeps getting better and better.

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The score and the sound effects are a big part of the feeling of the movie. Throughout the film, the sound effects are so real and unapologetic. It makes you feel like you’re really there in a condemned warehouse, soaked in blood (yours or somebody else’s). And the score is a mix of industrial/metal some dark, intense, and creepy instrumental that builds and crescendos with the plot. Just perfect.

The movie really is good but it sets the stage for a whole sub-genre that can’t match it. I know a lot of people like these movies but none of them live up to this standard for me. It’s dark, brooding, unsettling, disgusting, and at some points, hard to watch. But that was the point. It does all this without just leaning on the crutch of torture and blood. In a sense, it uses that stuff to augment the story, not the other way around. I think that all the sequels focused on the torture part and not on the story and that’s why they can’t live up to the original.

But how does Saw fare against the rating system:

  1. Is it Scary: 7- The whole feeling of the movie just scares you. It’s a chilling concept. And it’s not supernatural so it could happen to you in real life.
  2. Originality: 9- This movie was really the first of its kind and it spawned a long line of imitators.
  3. Blood: 7- Not the highest score, but it’s still pretty gross. It’s like watching the nightmares of one of those forensic doctors on CSI who autopsies murder victims.
  4. Believability: 7- other than a few lines of dialog and the logistics of some of the situations, it all felt fairly authentic to me.
  5. Setting/Cinematography: 9- Maybe the best part of the movie in terms of scariness and mood. The whole movie just feels and looks creepy and unsettling. You’re scared before anything even happens in a scene.

Final Score: 39/50

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