Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Funny Games (1997) - A Review

A Nightmare. 

There’s something innately terrifying about home invasion films. Someone coming into the place that you consider the most sacred, the place that you feel safest, and stripping you of all those comforts. The psychological toll, along with the physical, is enough to take the energy out of the audience and leave them on the edge of their seats in silent anticipation of what will happen next. I mean, isn’t that the point of a good horror film? 

I almost sympathize more with the victims of a home invasion horror film, but then again, this is one of my favorite sub-genres of horror. While there are tons of these types of films, it’s always special when you find an exceptionally good one, and Michael Haneke’s Funny Games is just that type of film. Intelligently written and beautifully acted, it’s another film that I regret having waited so long to see. 

Title: Funny Games
Director(s): Michael Haneke
Writer(s): Michael Haneke
Producer(s): Veit Heiduschka
Starring: Susanne Lothar, Ulrich Muhe, Arno Frisch, Frank Giering, Stefan Clapczynski
Studio: Wega Film
Release: May 14, 1997


The film opens with a wealthy and loving German family, Georg, Anna, their young son Georgie and their dog Rolfi, arriving at their vacation house situated on a lake in Austria. As they are settling in, a young man named Peter (who claims to be staying with the neighbors) comes calling for eggs as his host is cooking and has run out of her own. After destroying several eggs, their only phone and the impromptu arrival of Peter’s friend Paul, Anna begins to worry and asks them to leave. When they refuse, even after the insistence of Georg, they break Georg’s leg with a golf club and place a bet with the family: can they survive until 9 o’clock in the morning? Paul and Peter think not. 

The first thing that comes to my mind about this film is how Michael Haneke managed to create a wonderfully suspenseful and thrilling film without the use of gratuitous violence, bloodshed and mayhem. It’s brilliant in its own right, especially when you come to expect foreign horror films to contain some of the most graphic violence you’ve ever seen on screen.
This film relied entirely on its story, and thankfully, the story was enthralling and engaging. It was well written, clever and managed to sneak in a few twists and turns that you would never expect. 

When the film opens, we are introduced to the family of protagonists, George, Anna and young Georgie. From the get-go you begin to feel this sense of connection with these three people, you know that bad things are going to come their way and you are already beginning to inch towards the edge of your seat in a sickly form of anticipation. I found myself hoping that everything would turn out okay for them, even before the antagonists began their sick little game. 

The cast was small, an ensemble cast of five, but each actor wonderfully captured the role that they were playing and never once did I feel like I was simply watching a film. This is a problem with a lot of smaller horror films (every stereotype has its basis in truth), and thankfully a great group of actors were cast. Even the young Stefan Clapczynski, who played Georgie, gave a convincing portrayal unlike most child actors who are thrust into a horror film. Susanne Lothar, our Anna, played one of the most convincing victims of an attack that I have ever seen. The pain and anguish that she has had to endure is clearly etched across her face with such sincerity that your heart breaks for the things that she's had to experience. When she dissolves into a barely conscious zombie of sorts, you understand and empathize with her, almost happy that she seems to be so out of it that nothing else can phase her.

While Susanne was amazing, the true star of the film for me was Arno Frisch in his performance of Paul. He had one of the most interesting dynamics of the film, by far, (SPOILER) in a recurring theme of breaking the fourth wall and directly addressing the audience. Paul is aware that he is in a film, and he is intent on bringing the most entertainment value to the audience as possible. He does not, however, let this conflict with his own interest as it is made evident when Anna uses a shotgun to kill Peter, and Paul uses a magical remote control to “rewind” time and prevent her from doing so. 

This leads to a conversation between Paul and Peter where they discuss the difference between fiction and reality, Paul believing that fiction that is observed as reality is just as valid while Peter disagrees. The film seems to have no real message up until this point.  Haneke has stated that this film was made in response to the issue of violence in media, and has gone on to write essays and conduct several interviews on the topic. 

On the surface, it’s a fairly typical horror film with a clever ending and a good cast, but underneath it’s so much more and that is what makes it such a brilliant film. He was able to create an extremely violent film that comments on the use of violence in media without actually showing much violence. In this way, he pays homage to the classics like Hancock by using suspense and psychological fear to scare his audiences, not gratuitous amounts of bloodshed. 

1. The Script.
As mentioned, the script is clever. It is both terrifying, and at times funny, but it is always smart and will keep you on the edge of your seat. The antagonists are not stupid, they are smart and they know what they are doing, which is what makes them so absolutely terrifying. You never see them lose their cool, they are in complete control of the situation.
2. The Cinematography. There are some absolutely beautiful shots in this film, merely the way that it was constructed is breathtaking at times. Long drawn out shots of our protagonists, wailing in agony and pain. No music, for long amounts of time there is not even a sound. We go from sweeping shots of the beautiful lake on which their house is located to shots of the three of them sitting in silent fear, awaiting the next move of Peter and Paul. Haneke has really mastered the art of building these scene in a way that is so incredibly effective and powerful that the imagery will not leave your mind for many days after watching. 

1. Typical Horror Flaws.
While Haneke has said that he never intended for this film to be a horror film, there are the typical horror flaws that make you say “What the hell,” but they are in no way deal-breakers. The constant wonder of why Anna hasn’t retrieved a knife, a baseball bat, anything at all when she’s in this house and they have yet to tie her up are things that were beyond me. 

Overall, it’s a film that has made its way into the upper echelon of my favorites and one that I am sure I will continue to enjoy for many years to come. It’s a perfect home invasion film, especially for those who are a bit squeamish when it comes to the gore. For those gorehounds out there as well, not to fear. I am quite the gorehound myself yet I still found that I was able to get behind this film and ride it out to a happy and satisfying ending. It was refreshing to see a film so effectively deliver on the scares without needing to show anything aside from a blood soaked wall and a blood stained t-shirt. 


- Rg Lovecraft

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