If we’re going on track records alone, I’m not the kind of person who should be cheerleading THE COLLECTOR. I’m rather indifferent to the first FEAST, but don’t care for the sequels. I stopped being interested in the SAW franchise after part two, which admittedly is before Dunstan and Melton took over subsequent sequels, leaving that less to do with them and more to do with SAW, by act of inheritance, being a fluke worm that behaves the same no matter how many parts you cut up into. Yet it is still impossible to overlook the fact that Dunstan and Melton wrote parts 4 through 7, so the idea of another similarly themed Dunstan/Melton torture team up initially seems capable of being little more than an untrademarked SAW sequel.
It isn’t. THE COLLECTOR may be a lot of things and may feature a house full of traps, but a SAW franchisee it ain’t. Not by a long shot. Dunstan’s directorial debut is a response to needs I’m so accustomed to being disappointed by that I think I’d subconsciously given up hope on finding a film that packages them all together. Finally an American horror movie that is brutal without being a freak show. An American horror movie that is a legitimate throw back to an era gone by without having to yuck it up. An American horror movie that tortures people without devolving into torture porn. An American horror movie made outside of a major studio umbrella that doesn’t give a shit how small its budget may be, that doesn’t have to shortcut tough logistics with insert shots and cutaways.
Yes, THE COLLECTOR is a good horror movie no matter what country it comes from, but that it’s an American horror movie made with a budget that might barely cover craft services on Platinum Dunes production is a great thing to me.
The pitch is simple. A thief breaks into a house the same night a serial killer sets up shop inside. The execution isn’t. The killer’s MO is to layer the house with traps with the intent of ‘collecting’ whoever proves to be the most formidable opponent. It’s a very SAW-ey plot device, but there are three keystones that distinguish it from Twisted Picture’s popular phenom. First, the traps, which are not absurdly complex devices it would take the Army Core of Engineers led by Data from THE GOONIES to conceive and build. There are a few levers and winches involved, but for the most part the threats are as rudimentary as a dark room full of things that shouldn’t be touched even with a spotlight on them. Think of it as HOME ALONE with a blood lust. If a chandelier with kitchen knives attached to it is introduced in act one, it’s gonna fall on someone by the end of the show.
Second, THE COLLECTOR’s tight grab for morality. Arkin, the main character, is a criminal because he has to be to support his family. The basic conflict inherent to a reluctant thief who faces the choice of helping the very people he was trying to violate is by itself an interesting dynamic, but once the blood starts flowing and the bones start crunching, Arkin could be anyone. It no longer matters that he’s a thief, it only matters whether he decides to find a way out and save himself or help the family still trapped inside. After all the crap that gets thrown at him, you start to root for Arkin, to pull for him to just make it out alive, parents and little girl be damned. It’s a great arch for a character captured perfectly by Josh Stewart and despite other considerable strong points, it is the best thing about the film.
The third savior is Marcus Dunstan. With his debut Dunstan has proven to be a better director than a writer. He keeps his camera on a tight leash when following the action, completely abandoning every aspect of the SAW films that I hate. No spinning camera, no editing room seizures, no set direction grungier than a NYC sewer pipe. It’s a very measured take on the extreme events that ratchets tension with a build up instead of trying to snatch your attention with a sudden onslaught of gore. There is nothing in THE COLLECTOR that comes off as rushed. Arkin never panics and neither does Dunstan’s camera. He lets the great pounding of the score do the panicking, which is something I wish more horror movies remembered to do these days.
Maybe it’s because the film ended up being the opposite of what I was expecting. Maybe I liked it so much because of the things it could have been but wasn’t. I’m not sure that’s the best way to approach it, but when so often you see the same thing over and over in a horror movie it is a welcome respite to cross a title that doesn’t blend in with the sea of horror. THE COLLECTOR stands out as a film that resists compromise on the page and on the screen. My only outstanding problem with the film are a few snags in the script, most notably the ending. There’s no shock-of-all-shocks twist to it (as well there shouldn’t be) that muddys things, but it is the only element of the movie that seems incongruous with the calm insanity of what came before, as if it is playing to an audience instead of playing to the story. It’s not a bad conclusion, I’m just a greedy fan and want things to end the way I would have ended them.
Other than that selfish complaint, I’m happy to finally have a Marcus Dunstan/Patrick Melton movie I can stand behind. I’m glad the Project Greenlight fellas have found great success with SAW and FEAST, but I hope they keep striking out on their own like this. THE COLLECTOR is easily the best American horror film so far this year and, looking at what ’09 still has left to offer us, I’ll be shocked if it doesn’t stay that way.