6 September 2011

Clarky's Review: Funny Games

Last Thursday was the 2011/12 season opener, I was up at the plate and the pressure was on. My first choice last year was The Thing. A great film no doubt, but a very safe choice. I wanted to get back to the best of Horror Club and bring something new to the table that my fellow members hadn't seen before, and something that they maybe wouldn't watch on their own accord. With this in mind I selected Funny Games.

I stumbled across the US remake (Funny Games US) on TV a few weeks ago and instantly felt the need to show this to my fellow horror club members. However, in order to keep things fresh for myself I decided to bring the original Austrian version to the table. As a result, my review will also look at the comparison between the two films, and it should be noted contains major SPOILERS, so if you've not seen them, read no further!

Funny Games opens with a gorgeous aerial shot of a 4x4 driving to the country to the sound of operatic music as a husband and wife play a game guessing the composer and the name of the track. The camera then moves to an external shot of the car on the bonnet looking in on the husband, wife and their young son. At this point thrash metal starts to play, yet the action on screen is just as beforehand. This is the only time in the film that music, other than what has emanated from the scene, is used, yet it perfectly sets the tone for what is about to come. It is at once unexpected, banal and most of all unsettling.

Unsettling is probably the most apt word to describe this film. Whilst it is not necessarily a horror film in the conventional sense, in fact it is more like an anti-horror, it does use a well know horror set up. And whilst at first there is nothing necessarily untoward about "Peter and Paul" (or is it "Tom and Jerry" or "Beavis and Butthead") the sense of foreboding is unreal. Haneke fills every scene with unease and tension. So much so that the film is almost unbearable at times.

The use of the various names could have any number of meanings and as with many things in this film, demands further inspection (especially the chat on the boat at the end with regard to reality and non-reality - we have just watched a movie, but does that make it any less real?). Are these simply just random double acts, or is "Peter and Paul" a biblical reference? Many people have mentioned the story of Job when discussing this film. As the viewer we are God, we are all seeing and omnipotent yet we do not / cannot get involved. Yet we are fully aware of what is going on, it is for our benefit. 

Are they actually "Tom and Jerry"and their names a reference to the cartoon violence normally seen in horror films? Or are the "Beavis and Butthead", two disenfranchised youths with too much spare time trying to fill their boredom by playing these games? We never really find out, and we never get a motive. In one scene Haneke plays with our expectations, and the families, by providing various reasons as to why they do what they do. Is this a bluff or a double bluff, who knows, and that is all the scarier that there may be no motive or reasoning for their actions other than boredom.

It's worth noting that the US remake is almost a shot for shot remake by Haneke - the only scene that I could think that was different was the scene with the dog in the 4x4, which was more effective and chilling in the US remake. The dialogue is almost exactly the same, with the exception of one of "Peter's" monologues to the camera where he states that they have to draw it out as we the audience expect more plot development. This scene is expanded slightly in the US version, where he provides more details as to the "rules" of a film. Other than that the films are almost identical, even the sets were made to the same specification of the original!

However, all in all I think the US version is a superior film. That's not to say that I didn't think the original was a good film. If anything, I was shocked and surprised at how hard hitting the film still was, even though I knew what was going to happen. But this is a film that was designed to question the American fascination with horror and as a result I think it works better playing to that audience. Not only this but, as noted above, Haneke also made some minor changes that overall improved on the original, and whilst I think Ulrich Muhe gave a better performance than Tim Roth, it is the casting of Naomi Watts that really tips the balance. Not only in terms of her performance, but also in achieving Haneke's goal of making you implicit within the film, and question your own beliefs and motivation for watching a horror film.

Whilst, the scene where the two intruders force Anna / Anne to strip is undeniably gruesome and horrible to watch. There is something about having an actress as attractive as Naomi Watts on screen that, on a base level, had me almost wishing that the camera would pan back so we could get their point of view. This feeling was what stuck with me more than anything. I could barely watch the screen yet couldn't stop at the same time. I felt thrilled and disgusted at the same time. It was in this scene that Haneke best captures the sense of driving past a car accident - you know you shouldn't look, but you can't help but slow down and have a look. It is a morbid curiosity that is within everyone of us, a feeling that to a certain extent makes us human, yet it also dehumanises those which we observe.

This is at the very core of Haneke's film. It makes us question our reasons for watching horror movies. Playing against convention, Haneke doesn't show us any of the acts of violence (save for one, but more on that later) and for me this had the impact of making the violence all the more terrifying as my imagination is always going to be worse than what is shown on screen. Here we only see the emotional effects of the violence, which in turn also worsens the effect as it appears "real".

In a normal "Hollywood horror" your bloodlust is quenched and everything is packaged in a certain manner that the violence is almost like a "Tom and Jerry" cartoon - you know its not real and it is entertaining. The reality is that if you were to genuinely see some of the acts of violence that are carried out within these films then you would be scarred for life. By not showing us, Haneke is at one time saving us this anguish, yet on another level heightening the effects of the violence - How bad is it that he won't show it? 

In the case of the most shocking scene in the film I don't know if I could have coped if Haneke had shown George Jnr's death. It may have been too much. As it is, the scene is still an incredibly tough watch, and was genuinely shocking - Haneke smashes another rule of horror movies that whilst children can be in peril they are in no real danger. But it is the incredibly long single take that sticks in the mind. Simply having the courage to have a static camera and capture the breakdown of the mother and father with barely a single word uttered is a brave decision, that not many directors / actors would be assured enough to be able to pull this off. As David Lynch says, this is the eye of the duck of this movie.

Haneke also makes us, the viewer, implicit with the action, but again not by following normal horror tropes and conventions. In many horror films the director shows us a point of view shot from the killer as he stalks his pray, putting you in the killers shoes, often getting you to will the killer to take one of the supporting characters down. Normally, this character is an annoying side note, a 2 dimensional character that you don't care about and whom everyone knows is just there as fodder - just look at any of the Friday the 13th films for the annoying character that you are literally cheering for the killer to dispatch!

In Funny Games "Paul" addresses the camera directly, acknowledging the fact that what they are doing to this family, the torture that they are putting them through, is ultimately for our benefit. Whilst this was, at first viewing, off putting, I think it is an incredibly bold move, and one that ultimately pays off. By making us confront the reasons that we watch horror, we hold a mirror up to ourselves and question our own morality - is it really acceptable to watch films like this? 

With regards to empathising with "Peter and Paul" I don't feel that this is the case. "Peter", especially in the US version, is quite charismatic but the characters are just too off putting. Having said that, at times the father is a truly unlikeable character who doesn't stand up for his family when needed. I know for certain that my fellow horror club members were not enjoying his chat, and whilst they maybe weren't glad that he was being inflicted with pain, they certainly didn't feel sorry for him.

Ultimately though, it is "Peter and Paul" that you want to receive comeuppance, and you are normally provided with this in a horror movie in some shape or form. In this case Anne / Anna grabs a shotgun at an opportune moment and shoots "Peter" square in the chest. It is the only time we see blood shed on screen. It is a monumental moment that was greeted with a cheer on Thursday night. However, Haneke doesn't allow us to enjoy this for long, swiftly rewinding the movie, snatching away from us the moment we desired and reminding us that in this case, this is not a typical movie. He was simply showing us what we desired and expected a movie to do, and as such he has the power to rewind this and show us what would actually happen if two psychos invaded your house. It's a divisive moment that may lose some viewers, but on reflection I think it proves to be Haneke's masterstroke.

Thereafter, we are provided with one last chance. Maybe Haneke has been playing with us all this time, but surely Anna / Anne will get away in the good old fashioned horror tradition of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween, Friday the 13th et al. We suddenly remember the knife on the boat from the opening 5 minutes and think she may finally escape. Obviously Haneke isn't that kind. The killers notice this and nonchalantly throw her overboard. This lack of any emotion at all is one of the most chilling things about the film. After all this, the killers show no remorse, and move onto another family to use as their playthings. How many times have they done this before, how many times will they do it again? Who knows, like the rest of Haneke's film it doesn't give you any answers and certainly doesn't leave you with any hope. This is a film that will stay with you for days, if not weeks after viewing, and there are not many films that I can say that about. Especially two seasons deep into Horror Club!


  1. This is a thorough review! I'm definitely curious about the US version now… but I think I'll leave it for a while. Can't imagine how the acting can match the Austrian version though.

  2. It's a strange remake, given that it is almost shot for shot, line for line the same. I think if you've seen one version you have probably seen enough!


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