Thursday, June 9, 2016

THE INDEFENSIBLES, INSTALMENT #1: The Collection (2012, dir. Marcus Dunstan)

Ever since I finally signed up for Netflix, my attitude towards movies I don't necessarily expect to like has changed sharply; instead of waiting for them to present themselves in a form I can financially rationalize (second-hand, on sale, late-night TV), I can just search for them or stumble on them randomly, load them, press a button and hey presto: instant gratification. If I don't connect within ten minutes, I turn them off or drift away, leaving them on in the background while I do other things. I tell myself it's free (sort of) and it's research (more likely, but not always). The good part is that I've definitely found some gems this way, films I later “back up” by buying on DVD/BluRay, but the baddish part is that I've also added substantially to my roster of not-so-guilty pleasures.

I call these movies my Indefensibles, but are they really? (The obvious answer: No.) They tend to be films with a lot of grimy grindhouse flair or vaudeville creep, often low-budget yet very physically beautiful, at least for me—appealing mis-en-scene, well-integrated production design, fine and/or eccentric casts doing good work under pressure. They give me great repetitive pleasure, even as they otherwise violate some standards of objectively “good” horror. I often end up calling them “accidental gialli,” regardless of their country of origin, because you sure don't expect a giallo to be anything other than what it very palpably is, for God's sake, nor do you penalize it for performing that exact same function...or possibly “yarn monster” movies, cf. The Werewolf Ambulance horror film podcast, on which host Katie once gave that as her rating for Don Coscarelli's inter-dimensional ghoul vs. stoner fantasia Phantasm, perhaps the most heavy metal movie I've seen aside from the Canadian werewolf law enforcement comedy WolfCop (which would also go on this list).

Like most gialli, an Indefensible has to have the total courage of its convictions, however batshit—to operate by a very specific internal logic of the sort we usually call dream- or nightmare-, yet not ever break that logic in ways which kick us completely out of the viewing experience. For example, I am a big fan of Mirrors, the gothically crazy Alexandre Aja film with Kiefer Sutherland that mostly takes place inside the world's most gorgeous burnt-out department store, a movie that almost all critics and a lot of audiences consider completely ridiculous, given it contains all of the following: ghostly entities that pursue their victims from reflective surface to reflective surface, a woman wrenching her own jaw apart with both hands like she's doing the gore version of that body-modification scene in Beetlejuice, a back-story involving demonic possession and confrontative psychiatric therapy, a climax set in a flooded underground hallway during which Sutherland punches an elderly nun in the face.

But to me, Aja himself has already demonstrated the place where ridiculous slides into truly inept with his film Haute Tension (also known as Switchblade Romance), one of the cornerstones of the New French Extremity movement, in which...spoiler alert...a woman and the friend she wishes was her girlfriend visit the friend's family cabin, only to have a grimy, hulking serial killer descend on them, slaughter the family with delirious inventiveness and kidnap the friend. Our heroine takes off after him, eventually managing to run him down and “rescue” the object of her affection, at which point the sort of twist only two French dudes in their early twenties would think is cool kicks in: turns out, our heroine was the psycho all along! Thus forcing me to sit back and wonder, baffled: Okay, so you just chased yourself for miles through the French countryside, apparently while driving two separate vehicles, then had a fight with yourself in the middle of the road while wielding a concrete saw? Both the truck and the van have to exist, since your friend was tied up in the back of one of them as you were driving the other, but if they do then who was that masturbating with a severed head in the truck's cab while you and your friend drove by in the background in the other van, right at the beginning of the movie? Was that you just thinking about doing that, or what?

No, no,” Aja and his creative partner Gregory Levasseur want to assure me, mainly because they really don't want to go to the trouble of ret-conning all the unreliable narration they've already laid in thus far. “It looks so good, none of that matters! This twist will be the shit!” But as we all know, or should, the line between “the shit” and just “shit” is a very fine one indeed, subjective as all hell, hard to quantify except in hindsight...and crazy as they undeniably are, none of the Indefensibles actually manage to cross this line far enough to undercut themselves beyond salvaging, at least in my opinion.

So: Now all that's been established, I'm going to kick this series off with a film I would never have discovered if not for Netflix—The Collection, ostensibly a sequel to 2009's home invasion/spider-trap slasher extravaganza The Collector, directed by first-ever Project Greenlight winner Marcus Dunstan (the Feast trilogy, Saws 4 to 3D) and co-written with his own longstanding collaborator, Patrick Melton. Both films star the lugubriously handsome Josh Stewart, a career supporting/character actor probably best known for his role as Bane's right-hand man in The Dark Knight Rises, but for my money the original—much like The Purge vs. The Purge: Anarchy—plays more like a 90-minute thesis statement than a necessary adjunct, especially since everything established in it can be (and is) readily reduced to maybe three minutes' worth of newscaster exposition at the top of the opening credits sequence.

Said thesis is that there's this guy, see, known as the Collector, a buff dude in a gnarly looking plasticized skin-leather mask who turns up at people's houses or places of work, fits them out with Rube Goldberg death traps, then collects(!) one survivor at the end of the massacre, who he totes away in an antique banded trunk to some other place as yet unseen and torments them for a while. He will then commence this next massacre by dropping the latest survivor and their trunk in the middle of the scene, like a human warning system. By the end of The Collector, this last person not exactly standing was a thief, Arkin O'Brien (Stewart), who came to rob the house in question but ended up managing to save at least one person, sort of by accident, before becoming Collector-fodder himself.

The Collection, meanwhile, begins on a new protagonist entirely, deaf rich girl Elena (Emma Fitzpatrick), who visits an after-hours club with friends and finds Arkin's trunk in the bathroom. She frees him as the Collector makes literal mulch out of everyone else in the place with a ceiling-lowered thresher, then gets trunked herself after Arkin, having had enough of heroism for the nonce, jumps out the window using Elena's cheating boyfriend's not-quite-dead body as a human shield and breaks his arm badly on impact, but manages to limp away. He ends up at a hospital, where corporate mercenary Lucello (Lee Tergesen, playing a sort of good guy for once) tracks him down on behalf of Elena's dad and offers to make his legal problems go away if Arkin leads him and his team to wherever the Collector's been keeping him, so they can rescue Elena.

Arkin thinks this is an ass-stupid idea, but soon enough they're breaking into the old abandoned "Argento Hotel," which the Collector has obviously spent some time fitting out H.H. Holmes style, turning it into a triple-story murder palace that mimics the interior of his own overheated death-fetishist's brain. It's full of torture victims so drugged up they're like living zombies, starving attack dogs, a permanent girlfriend in sad Barbie doll clownface makeup whose Stockholm Syndrome makes her utterly untrustworthy (Erin Way, from the lamentably short-lived SyFy series Alphas) and the usual roster of death-traps, plus a whole wing full of crazy murder displays of a low-rent Hannibalian nature. The Collector has a thing for insects, so there are bugs made out of people, people full of bugs, and a whole elevator shaft full of random mutilated body parts that people fall down, twice.

What's great is that Elena manages to rescue herself several times over, holding her own until Lucello arrives, and that she and Arkin also manage to rescue each other during the final conflict. In a highly satisfying denouement, she shatters all the murder display cases to put out a fire Arkin's about to burn to death in, after which Arkin manages to track the Collector down on his own and stuffs him into his own personal trunk, swearing to do everything the Collector did to him a couple of times over before he finally lets him die. The Pack AD's "Haunt You" plays over the credits.

The whole film is inventively cruel and gruesome in a very Grand Guignol body horror way, with a great colour scheme and a hundred tiny twists. After three emotionally ambiguous seasons of Hannibal, meanwhile, I somewhat love what a sheer dick the Collector is allowed to be right from the get-go, all kill-crazy ego and theatrical emptiness—Dunstan and Melton refuse to empathize with him even a little bit, never dignifying him much beyond his obviously strong work ethic, characterizing him on their shared BluRay commentary track as “a thing that lives in the dark, just totally complacent about all the harm he does, like a shark: 'this is my function.'” There's this wonderful moment in the third act where he suddenly kicks open a door in a dark room and literally strikes a pose, dog on either side, brandishing a huge machine-gun, like: TA DAH!!! Pleased to meet you, hope you guessed my name...

And I love the utterly satisfying way that nobody else in the movie has any time for his bullshit, either—they make him pay for every wound, constantly spitting and kicking at him, giving at least as good as they get in a frantic, raging, feverish rush of refusal to end up on his walls or in one of those display cases. (It turns out he actually is an entymologist, and has a gruesome back story that's later reduced to a single line of news commentary as well, 'cause frankly, nobody gives a fuck. Screw your pain if you even have any, dude, and screw you!)

All too often in horror, the monsters get to triumph; it's become a bit of a cliche in itself, perhaps a knee-jerk reaction to the old Hollywood Code Universal horror restorative model, or a reminder that the trouble with “normal” is is always gets worse. But sometimes it's nice to see total bastards get laid on their asses, especially when the victory's particularly hard-won. The Collection delivers on that promise, and in spades.

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