Horror films of today seem to believe that in order to be truly terrifying, they must be as gruesomely violent as possible. For example, moviegoers who wish to take in a good bit of chilling fantasy have had to endure such schlock as Rob Zombie’s disastrous “Halloween” remake, the “Saw” sequels and Eli Roth’s “Hostel” films. These “torture porn” films have defined what the horror film is today, a blood-spattered mess of carnage devoid of any really scary moments. Does endless graphic violence make something scary? No, actually, it serves to make the film seem much more comical. In the end, the mainstream horror film has become laughable, lacking the intellectual brevity to truly manifest horror.
However, there is hope in the form of Michael Haneke and his film “Funny Games,” a remake of his1997 Austrian film of the same name. “Funny Games” is a masterful piece of terror and unrelenting horror that does not rely on gallons of fake blood and intestine in order to be scary. Haneke succeeds in capturing realistic horror by having much of the violence occur just slightly off-screen, using the audience’s imagination to decide the level of brutality. He also is able to capture the tension of the situation through the atmosphere instead of through the utilization of a score. Starring Tim Roth, Naomi Watts, Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet, “Funny Games” is an interesting twist on a tired genre and works in creating fear and tension without the use of unnecessary levels of violence. Through Haneke’s direction and storytelling, “Funny Games” succeeds on a level that may never be achieved by today’s mainstream horror films.
“Funny Games” tells the story of an upper-class family on vacation in an upscale boating community. The three members of the family, George (Roth), Anna (Watts), and Georgie (Devon Gearhart), arrive in the early afternoon and begin settling in. They then meet up with their neighbor and Paul (Pitt), a boy who claims to be staying with them. While the neighbor and Paul help George and Georgie launch a boat, Anna meets Peter (Corbet) another boy who claims to be staying with the neighbors.
After a brief altercation between Peter, Paul and the family, Peter smacks George in the leg with one of George’s golf clubs, breaking his leg. Peter and Paul then take the family hostage, with Paul offering them a bet; the bet is that the family will not be alive by 9 the next morning. A series of torturous games begin as the family attempts to stay alive.
At first glance, “Funny Games” may appear to be another film in a long line of “torture porn” films, and, indeed, torture is the central element of the film. However, “Funny Games” is as much of an art film as it is a horror film. It contains scary moments, which, for the first time in a long while, are actually terrifying. At the same time, it uses masterful camera techniques and smart dialogue to create a great sense of fear.
The film also presents a series of ghoulish jokes which serve to make it that much more terrifying. For example, the torture games played in the film have such seemingly harmless titles as “Cat in the bag” and “The Faithful Wife.”
Haneke presents the two antagonists as fresh-faced, upper-class preppies who act as if they are the victims of rude behavior on the part of the family. Peter and Paul flaunt the ideas of entitlement, which leads to provoked protest followed by rage. The boys stand as the ultimate mockery of WASP values by punishing the family for not living up to the same values.
The cast of “Funny Games” is perfect, with Pitt and Corbet playing pitch-perfect psychotic villains devoid of any moral remorse. Corbet is truly terrifying with his quiet demeanor and awkwardness. Pitt, while being very good, is slightly more traditional in his approach. The two work well together, with the master/servant mentality on full display as Pitt mocks Corbet relentlessly and Corbet sits and takes it.
Pitt also serves as the puppet-master over the whole operation, pulling the strings on who lives and dies. The family is also well cast and has a great deal of chemistry. Watts and Roth give great performances as two individuals who are completely helpless and wrought with fear for their lives.
Haneke utilizes an interesting method for displaying horror, by having all the violent actions occur just off screen. This creates a great deal of terror in that it places what happens in the audience members’ heads. Any blood that is seen on screen is only in the aftermath, with virtually no scenes of the usual “slice-and-dice” fair occurring in the film.
The scenes that create true tension are those in which no violence occurs. For example, in one scene, Paul is seen emerging from the shadows of a nearby lake as he stalks Georgie who has escaped. Paul is dressed entirely in white and as he emerges from the shadows, it is this image with a still shot that marks true terror. Furthermore, as the boys stalk their prey, they do it with such manners and politeness that it seems completely out of place and devoid of motivation. It is this lack of a motive that also serves to enhance the terror of the film.
While Haneke succeeds greatly in capturing horror in a way not seen since John Carpenter’s 1978 masterpiece, “Halloween,” he does do some things that break the tension. There are scenes in which Pitt will break-the-fourth wall, addressing the audience. Also, there is a scene where he rewinds the previous action thus undoing the events of the previous scene. While the tension is unrelenting, these scenes bog down the tension progression that Haneke has established and are completely unnecessary.
In the end, “Funny Games” is a brilliant, unconventional horror film which succeeds in ways that today’s mainstream horror films may never do. It is a worthwhile experience for anyone looking for something different and terrifying.
Chris Bashore is a fourth-year student majoring in political science. He can be reached at CB588901@wcupa.edu.