Unsettling, disturbing, harrowing.

Such words could be used to describe the plot of many a horror film that has seen the light of day recently. Given the nature of the stories and scenes in the Saw and Hostel franchises, Captivity, Waz and Timber Falls, to name a few, unsettling, disturbing and harrowing should certainly fit their bills. Indeed, horror’s now rather stale renaissance has seen a new sub-genre coined for them, the wonderfully withering ‘torture-porn’.

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For a second time Michael Haneke now asks, so this is our entertainment?

The Austrian auteur first made Funny Games in German in 1997, with Susanne Lothar (The Piano Teacher) and Ulrich Mühe (The Lives Of Others), and now ten years later gives us a US remake with Naomi Watts and Tim Roth. It’s almost shot for shot the same film so anyone who has seen the original will know exactly what to expect. If anything, though, in being English-speaking this version is more powerful than before.

Comfortably middle class Anna (Watts), husband George (Roth) and their young boy Georgie (Devon Gearhart) arrive at their lakeside retreat for a sailboat and golfing vacation. All is serene. As father and son set up the boat a diffident young man, introducing himself as Peter (Brady Corbet), calls in on Anna, asking to borrow eggs for her neighbour. When Peter drops the eggs his menacing reserve and insistent politeness leads to a curious confrontation. Soon Peter’s companion Paul (Michael Pitt) joins them, as do George and Georgie.

The two visitors start loading their well-spoken and courteous language with intimidation – and then a brutal act of violence is unleashed. So begin Peter and Paul’s funny games as they subject the family to a series of terrifying ordeals.

This is a truly harrowing watch at times. The set up becomes almost unbearable. The violence is acute, the fear realistic, the terror palpable. There are no fast and noisy edits here, no thunderous soundtrack or zinging digital effects and no graphic gore. Just Haneke’s trademark long shots, wide angles and static cameras capturing the action. The action we’re allowed to see, that is. It is enthralling on a visceral level, a rubbernecking experience both horrifying and gripping.

More importantly, Haneke sets out to disturb cerebrally as well. Deliberate cinematic contrivances punctuate the incremental tension and general nastiness of what’s going on. Conventions are flipped, a character speaks directly to us, the voyeur, and the fabric of the image and narrative is overtly manipulated. Haneke wants us to question what’s happening, especially when it breaks from the expected norms. He challenges us to watch and to ask ourselves why we do so. He draws clear, caustic comparisons to how violence is portrayed in other Western films. In a significant portion of Hollywood’s general output, not just horror films, violence receives glib handling. It can be treated as commonplace, almost customary, and with no thought of consequence. Over the years audiences have accepted more and more of it. Funny Games takes this observation and drives it right between your eyes.

Filming in English with the specifically chosen A-lister Watts brings Haneke’s remake bang up to date and far closer to the movies that he was always trying to critique. Using mostly the same shots and locations as before further enhances his themes – nothing’s changed in this film, a lot has changed in others. This feels like it has far more point and relevance to it than other near like-for-like remakes, such as Gus Van Sant’s Psycho.

Our antagonisers, Corbet and especially Pitt, deliver tremendously maintained performances in their preppy aristo-style leisurewear and unnerving white gloves. They are most enjoyable when they tease us with their motivations. Watts and Roth generally convince with their acting, or rather reacting, although sometimes they’re working with the barest of material. Still, together they are all a genuinely unsettling ensemble.

As far removed from popcorn-fodder as possible, Haneke once again delivers intellectual, challenging and bravura filmmaking.

Reviewed on: 16 Mar 2008
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English language remake of the ice-cold horror about a family held hostage by a pair of preppy youngsters. Plus read our with producer Chris Coen.
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Read more Funny Games reviews:

Tony Sullivan ***1/2
Chris **

Director: Michael Haneke

Writer: Michael Haneke

Starring: Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Michael Pitt, Brady Corbet, Siobhan Fallon, Arno Frisch, Boyd Gaines, Devon Gearhart, Robert LuPone, Linda Moran

Year: 2007

Runtime: 111 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: France, US, UK, Italy


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