Clarky started season three off on Thursday with 'Funny Games', the widely acclaimed Austrian horror film. Michael Haneke's film was released in 1997 and since then has been widely praised. The initial set-up is about as classic horror as you can get: a wealthy family leave for a relaxing weekend in the country, but are instead the victims of a night of sheer terror. However, this is the extent to which Haneke follows the norms of horror cinema and in the course of an hour and forty-five minutes he crafts one of the most uncomfortable, provocative and challenging films I have ever sat through.
I have thought about this film a lot in the days since I watched it; I have not been more conflicted by any film I have watched at Horror Club. Four days after watching, I'm still not entirely sure what I think of it. There are aspects of this film in which Haneke is operating at the level of masterpiece, but other aspects - often taking place during these same sections - that left me cold.
It is very hard to review this film in the way you would an average horror, for the simple fact that there is a lot more going on here than in most horror films. Michael Haneke is a controversial and political director and it is important to note he is not a horror director. In fact, Haneke is not a fan of the genre (to put it mildly) and it is this attitude that makes Funny Games such an uncomfortable watch for the viewer, particularly if the viewer happens to be a huge horror fan.
Haneke has in the past attacked modern American cinema as being no better than pornography, in that it seeks to make the 'visceral, horrific, transgressive elements of life consumable', and there is perhaps no genre to which this attack applies more than horror. In denouncing modern cinema, Haneke also criticises the audience and seeks to put the audience in the role of accomplice to what they are witnessing on screen. This is, ironically, an approach that has led to Haneke's work being branded obscene.
Whether Funny Games is obscene our not is open to debate, but what is not up for debate is the almost physical difficulty of watching it. This is where I think you could argue that Haneke is, if not a genius, then certainly a visionary. As a means of attacking the entire horror genre - and those who enjoy it - Haneke creates a visceral, intense and at times phenomenal horror film as a vehicle for doing so. It is therefore very difficult to separate the film itself from the intent with which Haneke made the film and as a result is hard to review. Despite his aversion to the genre, Haneke crafts a film which a number of less-intelligent horror directors could only dream of being able to make.
Funny Games is a tense, painful and truly horrific psychological horror. From the moment the film opens with a slow-panning shot of the victims' car driving to the countryside, while inside the parents discuss classical music, we know that this film is going to be different. One of the most interesting aspects of the film, and a technique which is hugely successful, is shooting the film in the same way a director would shoot a family drama or comedy film. It is this technique that helps make this a film so uncomfortable to watch, as our expectations of what a horror film should look like are not matched by what is happening on screen (at least at the start of the film), creating a tense and really psychologically difficult atmosphere for the viewer.
When the family initially come into contact with the two villains of the piece, the result is truly unsettling as we don't know whether to laugh or scream in a scene that is both comedic and terrifying. These are perhaps the most hateful villains I have ever seen in a horror film and also two of the most frightening. With their extreme politeness, false, obnoxious friendliness and child-like natures, they are truly otherworldly, but at the same time they are like playground bullies that have grown up but never left that stage of their life behind, only now instead of torturing small animals, they torture people.
When the truly awful violence does begin, it is shot in an interesting way, in that it is never shown fully on screen. We hear it - which is actually worse - but the physical act is always just off screen, out of view. What we see instead is the reaction of the wife while her husband, who is sitting beside her on the couch but out of shot, is stabbed. This is both awful and unsettling, and it is at this point that Haneke does something that no other horror director does: he shows the results of the violence.
In perhaps the hardest scene to watch, which is saying something when the film in question is Funny Games, we witness a father's and mother's reaction to the death of their son in single shot over a twenty minute period. The emotional breakdown of the parents is shattering. It is a startlingly uncomfortable scene and Haneke intends it to be. He is asking the viewer, very clearly, "What the hell are you doing watching this stuff?". Surely watching the suffering of people, even if it is in a film, is, if not wrong, then bizarre and unhealthy?
Haneke, by extending the scene to the length that he does, goes one step further, suggesting that not only is it bizarre to watch this film and by extension other horror films, but also if we do then we are complicit in the violence on screen and no better than the physical perpetrators. Indeed, it is perhaps for this reason that the villains are so so hateful, because unlike Leatherface or Freddy Kruger their very normalcy means they represent us, the viewer.
On a more superficial level, it should not be forgotten that there are many facets of this film that would grace any horror film: the acting, lighting and directing are all excellent and the sound is something to behold; whether it is eery silence or the background hum of motor racing, the sound is perfect.
Having said that, Funny Games is not without its faults and some of these faults are significant. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, this film is in no way enjoyable. This is not to question its quality - it is a film that was made with the aim of creating a truly awful experience and questioning the viewer, and as a result if you enjoy it in the traditional sense you are slightly strange.
I have said that Hanake is a visionary and possibly a genius, both statements I believe. However, I have also said he is not a horror director and this is an important point. He attacks the genre and does so very effectively, but by not being a horror director or even a fan of the genre he uses a very broad brush. The horror genre, like any other, is a wide one and contains a range of films with different approaches and points of view. I would argue that Hanake does not engage with this, instead attacking horror in the same way and using the same arguments that its critics have always used.
Nevertheless, Funny Games is a truly different and unique film and one any horror fan should try to engage with. It will not be comfortable or enjoyable, but if nothing else it will definitely make you think.