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Breaking and Entering a Torture Chamber

The Collector (2009)

Liddell Entertainment

Any film that can turn a man's death – at the claws of multiple bear traps, skull punctured and crushed while knee-caps are split in halves – into an endearing moment is worthy of applause. By that point in "The Collector," a woman's eyes and mouth have already been sewn shut, and her husband's entrails previously emptied out onto a basement floor. The bear trap crushing the guy's head like a grape, though, proves that "The Collector" has no intention to take the foot off the pedal. Besides, there's still a hungry German shepherd lurking around, ready to chomp on the first human neck it gets within licking distance.

"The Collector" is being lumped into the dreaded "torture porn" category; but really, it's an old-school home invasion/serial-killer affair in the most extreme sense. First-time director Marcus Dunstan goes to such absurd lengths to satiate its target audience that it's virtually impossible for anybody with even the slightest contempt for horror to not want to toss his or her popcorn at the screen with Nolan-Ryan-in-his-heyday velocity. There's hardly a shred of tangible plot, and the acting ranges from mediocre to wooden. But, shot with a kinetic energy and a wild eye by Mr. Dunstan, "The Collector" is precisely the type of film that forgiving horror-hounds will gleefully devour. This is to say, all other filmgoers should steer clear – because, unless you're partial to cinema with a complete lack of decency, watching the film could be less pleasant than undergoing chainsaw surgery.

Approached as an intentionally-depraved slice of brutality, "The Collector" offers more imagination and stylistic risk-taking than any of its Hollywood peers. That's quite an accomplishment, considering the resume of its creative team. Mr. Dunstan is one-half of the screenwriting duo behind the last two "Saw" entries (the other half being "The Collector" co-writer Patrick Melton), so originality isn't a trait that he'd immediately be accredited. The "Saw" franchise has progressively devolved into a pointless succession of horrible script work and over-caffeinated editing, and Mr. Dunstan's name being attached to the latest installments places the blame largely on his shoulders.

Whereas their "Saw" writing feels stunted by studio demands and stifled innovation, the collective imagination of Messrs. Dunstan and Melton is at full mast here. "The Collector" was independently financed, from a concept that the pair had been developing since before "Saw III;" as a result, "The Collector" moves with the reckless abandon inherent to self-editing. The paper-thin plot is basically the final act of "Home Alone" remixed by Rube Goldberg's evil twin. A financially-strapped handyman (Josh Stewart) desperately needs cash to feed his daughter and bail his wife out of loan-shark-caused debt. His plan is to rob the home of the well-off family he's been working for, but his timing is horrible. Just as he's about to crack the safe in the parents' bedroom, he learns that he's not the only intruder – a masked maniac has littered the house with elaborate booby traps and is submitting the family to ritualistic homicide.

"The Collector," unsurprisingly, bears an on-the-surface resemblance to the "Saw" aesthetic, but the film is leagues better than what "Saw" has become. While not nearly as great, "The Collector" actually falls more in line with France's recent horror contributions, an onslaught of anarchist ferocity, a visually-daring director, booming scores and fearlessness in the face of over-the-top gore. Mr. Dunstan is surely a fan of 2003's "High Tension" and last year's "Inside," especially; the latter's pulsating electronic soundtrack is nearly replicated in "The Collector," giving the escalating and breathless violence a stark intensity.

Mr. Dunstan spent so much time and energy conceiving the killer's sadistic home-interior design that the quality of acting is sacrificed – a shame since strong performances would've given "The Collector" an undeniable heft. As the reluctant hero, Mr. Stewart carries the film, but he's merely an Edward Norton-lookalike who delivers dialogue and executes dramatic requirements with the vapidity of a Valium abuser. The relatively best acting comes Juan Fernandez as the titular killer, in a voiceless and faceless turn that demands only wide-eyed staring and the occasional howling sounds. Why he howls is anybody's guess, as is the point of coining him as "The Collector," since the notion that he stuffs victims into a large red chest is less significant to the film than what was on the craft service table during production. There's also a final-scene-reveal about his identity that's obviously tacked on in hopes of appearing clever, though it's far from it.

Reading "The Collector" script must be a grueling labor. Without Dunstan's use of '70s-grindhouse tinted coloring and Jerome Dillon's loud, muscular score, "The Collector" is a series of sick sight gags backed by flimsy intelligence. One death (the sudden end of a female character we're led to believe will be the "final girl" survivor) does pack a nifty jolt. Mostly, though, "The Collector" is a cold-hearted bloodbath that expects the audience to believe that hundreds of intricate traps and limb-carving contraptions could be set with the span of a few hours. But one presented with such balls-out verve that horror lovers won't even care. The amount of hands-over-your-eyes, squirm-in-your-seat moments goes well into the double digits, the most notable ones involving a window covered in razorblades, a jar full of hungry cockroaches, and an A.S.P.C.A.-defying, prolonged death of a poor black pussycat.

There was once a time when horror films operated on an unpredictably mean level, doing everything in their power to shock and awe before unhappy endings sent viewers off in shell-shocked paralysis. "The Collector" doesn't exactly recapture that power, but that's not for a lack of effort. It's a nasty little rollercoaster from a different era, packaged for the "Saw" generation and dumped into a crowded summer market where horror typically dies. Unfortunate, yet the perfect backstory for what should become a horror cult favorite in years to come.


Opened on July 31 in the United States and on June 25, 2010 in Britain.

Directed by Marcus Dunstan; written by Mr. Dunstan and Patrick Melton; director of photography, Brandon Cox; edited by Alex Luna and James Mastracco; music by Jerome Dillon; production designer, Ermanno Di Febo-Orsini; produced by Brett Forbes, Patrick Rizzotti and Julie Richardson; released by Liddell Entertainment and Freestyle Releasing (United States) and Icon (Britain). Running time: 1 hour 28 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 18 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Josh Stewart (Arkin), Michael Reilly Burke (Michael), Andrea Roth (Victoria), Madeline Zima (Jill), Karley Scott-Collins (Hannah) and Juan Fernandez (the Collector).


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