31 Days of Halloween 2015: Day 21 – Funny Games
A great horror movie makes more of an impression on the psyche than any other kind of film. Hell, even a bad horror flick can scar you for life. There’s a phrase that every seasoned horror fan loves to hear: “Have you ever seen . . . ?”
For the next 31 days, John E. Meredith will unearth some of his personal favorites that fell through the cracks, that are not so obvious, the kind that might even sneak up on you while you’re trying to sleep.
Funny Games 1997, Austria. Written and directed by Michael Haneke. Starring Susanne Lothar, Ulrich Muhe, Arno Frisch, Frank Giering.
When I watch a movie for the first time, it’s like there are two of me sitting in the same theater seat. There’s the regular movie-going guy who doesn’t think too much about what he’s seeing. He likes blood and boobs and stuff that explodes, monsters, axe-maniacs, and the occasional lightsaber, only stopping now and then to deeply consider what’s actually happening on the screen. Long ago, that guy saw the Sylvester Stallone movie COBRA in a movie theater and really, really liked it. Believe me when I tell you that very few people really, really liked COBRA. But Sly was too cool with a shotgun slung over his shoulder, the bad guy was the kinda true creep you really want to see get it, and the car (a custom 1950 Mercury) was just plain bad-ass. I like to call the kind of movies that guy likes POPCORN MOVIES.
But there’s this other fellow who tends to tag along with him, usually uninvited, very rarely picking up the theater tab. This guy might like some of the same things as his friend, but he is a seeker and connoisseur of SERIOUS CINEMA. He has an eye for cinematography and thematic motifs and the clever subversion of tired old motion picture tropes. This guy is usually trying to examine plot structure and character development as images are flying past on the screen in front of him. He gets bored with clichés really fast and finds it hard to bear plot holes that you could drive a 1950 Mercury through. He sometimes tends to prefer foreign movies, ranking SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE and THE DOUBLE LIFE OF VERONIQUE among his favorite films ever. This guy doesn’t just want to see a movie, he wants it to change his very life. This guy did not like COBRA as much as his friend.
So it was a hoot to listen to these guys hashing it out after seeing Michael Haneke’s disturbing 1997 thriller FUNNY GAMES.
In the movie, a couple of decent-looking, seemingly well-educated young men (not unlike our two movie lovers) force their way into the summer cottage of Anna and Georg Schober and their young son Schorschi. They call themselves Paul and Peter, but sometimes also Beavis and Butt-head, or Tom and Jerry. Paul kills the family dog with a golf club. Then Peter strikes Georg with the same club, shattering his kneecap. In order to stop them from torturing her son, they force Anna to undress. With a big smile on his face, Paul suggests they all play a funny game. “You bet that you’ll be alive tomorrow at 9am, and we bet that you’ll be dead, okay?” What follows is an excruciating test of cinematic endurance, a horror film of sorts, in which the most disturbing image comes in a long shot of a bloodied television while an announcer’s voice narrates the rally race on the screen.
POPCORN: What the hell did I just watch?
CINEMA: I thought it was brilliant.
POPCORN: You would. What was up with all that talking-to-the-audience shit?
CINEMA: He was breaking the fourth wall, that imaginary boundary between the viewer and those being viewed. It was rather subversive, challenging even.
POPCORN: It was a challenge all right. I had a hard time getting through it once they started doing that crap. The scene would just start to get really good, all tensed up. Then some douche-bag would look at me and wink, like I’m supposed to be in on a joke or something . . .
CINEMA: Paul was the only douche-bag who ever broke the fourth wall. And all that winking was kind of the point. You ARE in on what’s going on. The director wants to show the viewer his or her own position in relation to violence and its portrayal in the movies.
POPCORN: What the hell are you talking about?
CINEMA: Haneke believes that the prevalence of modern movie brutality, especially in an age where we can create any gruesome thing we can imagine for the screen, has totally domesticated violence. It’s left us numb to the most unspeakably shocking images. By dragging you out of the moment, just as it starts to “get good,” is his way of making you think about . . . I mean, really think about . . . what you’re seeing.
POPCORN: Well, when that douche-bag grabbed the remote control and rewound that scene, all I could think about was that I really wanted to punch the director in the face.
CINEMA: But why was that your reaction?
POPCORN: Because one of the bad guys was finally gonna get it! That poor family suddenly had a chance. It felt really good to see that bastard get a big hole in the middle of his chest.
CINEMA: But why?
POPCORN: Dammit. Okay . . . you like John Carpenter, right? THE THING. CHRISTINE. And HALLOWEEN, you really got into that.
CINEMA: I appreciated the way it paid homage to PSYCHO. In the way that you remember so much blood, but when you see it again . . . there’s really very little. Having Janet Leigh’s daughter there was a nice touch too. And even though it’s all in this nice, safe suburban neighborhood, it’s almost chiaroscuro, light and shade, and . . .
POPCORN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, Carpenter was talking about how we’re a violent country, always have been. And the monsters, they are us. The dangerous part of us that wants to destroy, the part of us with a reptile brain. We put this stuff in our stories because it’s out there.
CINEMA: But isn’t that just contributing to a violent world, pouring more violent images into it?
POPCORN: It’s like giving us a safety valve, dude. Like, I really hate going to work and sometimes I just wish I could kill someone, but obviously I can’t, I won’t. But to go sit in a theater with all the lights off and see someone else do it . . .
CINEMA: So you work with a bunch of virgin babysitters?
POPCORN: No, man. But what about these guys in your favorite movie here? They tie this family up and force them to play these stupid games, like betting on whether they’ll still be alive the next morning. I mean, that’s just cruel.
CINEMA: But Haneke teases us. Other than that a few select moments, he never really shows that much violence. Cruelty and violence aren’t the same thing.
POPCORN: No, but a little violence might’ve relieved the stress of all that cruelty. What I got instead was a terrible case of horror movie blue-balls.
CINEMA: But all that frustration has you thinking.
POPCORN: I’m thinking that I don’t like this feeling.
CINEMA: So you’re saying that movie violence is a catharsis for you? It makes it easier for you to go to work after you’ve seen someone get shot or smacked in the skull with a machete.
POPCORN: Sometimes, yeah.
CINEMA: By this logic, then you should be addicted to CNN.
POPCORN: No way, man. Too violent. That stuff’ll give me nightmares. Look, dude, all this talking stuff is making my head hurt. You wanna watch HALLOWEEN?
POPCORN: Just so I got this right . . . you’re going on about all this violence, but it’s okay to sit here and watch Michael Myers hackin’ up some hotties?
CINEMA: Yeah, well, I’m a civilized beast.