The Collector (2009)

Genres - Horror  |   Sub-Genres - Slasher Film, Sadistic Horror  |   Release Date - Jul 31, 2009 (USA)  |   Run Time - 89 min.  |   Countries - Brazil, Turkey, United States  |   MPAA Rating - R
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Review by Jason Buchanan

Imagine that Macaulay Culkin's character from Home Alone was so traumatized by his childhood misadventures that he became a sadistic serial killer. Chances are he would operate in a similar manner to "The Collector," a vicious, masked master of traps who likes to toy with his prey by rigging their homes with lethal, Rube Goldberg-style contraptions. From an opening credit sequence that resembles the intro to a television series ("This week on 'The Collector'...") to the fact that the eponymous psycho's motivations are still unclear by the time the credits roll, Saw IV, V, VI, and VII screenwriters Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan's first attempt at flying solo is a blatant franchise grab that will have most viewers squirming in their seats -- as long as they don't make the mistake of playing plausibility police.

Arkin (Josh Stewart) is a down-on-his-luck contractor whose baby mama owes a sizable debt to some very bad men. Recognizing the threat to both his woman and his daughter, he schemes to swipe a priceless gem from the wealthy jewelry broker whose home he just finished fortifying by fitting steel bars on all the windows. Now the family is leaving on vacation, providing Arkin with the perfect opportunity to make a clean grab for the rock. But just as Arkin creeps into their darkened house and begins cracking the safe, he realizes that he is not alone. Making his way down to the basement, the desperate burglar discovers that the family who was about to take a vacation never got as far as the front door; mom and dad are currently bound and bloody, while their teenage daughter and her younger sister are nowhere to be found. Faced with the choice of saving his own neck or rescuing the very people he came to rob, Arkin decides to eschew his role as the thief and assume the role of savior. But rescuing this family isn't going to be easy, because the Collector has set up a series of elaborate traps around the sprawling country home, meaning that every move Arkin makes could be his last.

Essentially the merging of a heist film and a standard serial-killer horror flick, The Collector takes an inspired idea and milks it for every last drop. As with some of the most effective horror films, the concept is deliciously simple: a thief breaks into a house that has already been claimed by a serial killer and tries to rescue his victims while surviving the night. The problem is that while first-time director Dunstan can certainly set up a shot well enough, he hasn't yet developed the skills needed to maintain the level of suspense that could have made the movie a genre mash-up classic. In The Collector, Dunstan wears his influences on his sleeve; from the visual aesthetic of the film right down to the killer's perpetually wet, black leather gloves, it's obvious that he's a fan of the Italian giallo films that proliferated during the 1970s and '80s, but aspiring to become the next Dario Argento takes a lot more than some carefully crafted homage shots and knowing musical stings. Though his direction shows promise, Dunstan hasn't yet mastered the art of spatial relations, which is so crucial in creating tension, and he repeatedly falls back on gory, convoluted murder sequences that, while admittedly shocking, fail to set The Collector apart from any number of direct-to-video home-invasion horrors.

For years, prudish moviegoers have claimed that a movie doesn't have to be gory to be scary, and with The Collector Dunstan and Melton seem poised to prove them wrong. And why not? It's a noble goal for a genre filmmaker to try and shake us up both psychologically and viscerally, and with unapologetically gruesome shockers like High Tension and Inside, contemporary French filmmakers like Alexandre Aja, Alexandre Bustillo, and Julien Maury have proven that gore and tension are not, in fact, mutually exclusive. So what makes those films more effective than a movie like The Collector? Perhaps it's a combination of factors (director, script, performances, cultural context), but whereas Dunstan aspires to craft a thriller in the mold of something from the golden age of Italian horror, his Hollywood sensibilities repeatedly sabotage his good intentions. In terms of gore, nudity, and violence, The Collector really does resemble the films it aspires to emulate, but hard as it may try to stand apart, it can't help but come off feeling like a low-budget Saw prequel (which it was planned to become at one point) due to its fetishistic overemphasis on ridiculously elaborate death scenes.

Dunstan and Melton, best known for their appearance on Project Greenlight and for helping to establish the controversial "torture porn" horror subgenre, are the ultimate horror gag guys -- a pair of genre hounds who never let a lackluster screenplay get in the way of an inventive kill. If you're just looking for a movie where people get tripped up in bear traps while running through dark rooms, The Collector is sure to tide you over until the Saw juggernaut returns to splatter the screen red; if you're the kind of horror fan who gets irritated by the fact that the Saw franchise has virtually redefined your beloved genre for an entire generation of moviegoers, skip this and look to France for a real lesson in how to shake up an audience.