Michael Haneke’s 1997 film, Funny Games, was one of the best horror films of the 1990s. At a time when the Scream effect was in full force, delivering watered down shocks to audiences who’d come to expect safety, fun and little else in the dark recesses of the multiplex, Funny Games came along to remind us that horror movies still had the power to terrify. An intense story that mined its premise for maximum suspense, Haneke’s film also took sadistic pleasure in thrusting the viewer into the grisly proceedings in the most subversive way possible. And it was all the more unsettling because of it.
And now it’s back.
Ten years later, director Michael Haneke revisits familiar territory, delivering an almost shot-for-shot remake of his Austrian-language production, this time for US Audiences. Those who feared that Haneke’s source material would loose something in its translation need not fear. Unlike Ole Bornedal’s Nigthwatch, or George Sluizer’s The Vanishing (instances where a foreign director helmed their own, less effective, US remake), Funny Games arrives with its nihilism entirely intact and equally powerful. In fact, the biggest challenge in reviewing Michael Haneke’s 2007 version of Funny Games is trying to justify its existence—as it’s exactly the same film.
Set in a non-descript, upper class community, we’re introduced to Anna (Naomi Watts) and George (Tim Roth), a married couple who’ve just arrived at their summer home with their ten year old son, Georgie (Devon Gearhart). When two well-dressed young men (Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet) arrive on their doorstep with seemingly innocent intentions, the family is quickly plunged into an evening of unrelenting mental and physical torture, none of which looses its impact in this American update.
This may sound like the next installment in the ever-enduring series of torture films the genre has seen of late, but it isn’t. Haneke’s Funny Games isn’t very graphic in its depiction of sadism, and with the exception of one brief explosion of violence, keeps the physical stuff off camera entirely, relying instead on his actors and their reactions to such brutality to get the point across. Naomi Watts, in particular, excels at this. Her reactions to the malicious behavior of the attackers are far more unsettling and memorable than any amount of brutality the screen can throw at us. In short, she reminds us that we’re watching a human being suffer through a truly horrific situation. It may not be particularly fun, but you came to see a horror film, right?
And therein lies the point. Without spoiling the film for anyone, a large part of what happens examines not only the culture of cinematic violence, but also the audience that enjoys watching it. As viewers, we serve as witnesses to an innocent family’s torment and as such, Haneke implies that we’re just as responsible as his villains. It’s an interesting angle to bring into this sort of film as it challenges the viewer by asking what it is they’re looking for when they come to a horror movie. How Funny Games proceeds to then toy with those expectations will undoubtedly divide viewers: charming some while outraging others.
But it’s not all arthouse claptrap. Far from it, really. If there’s one thing that many of today’s horror films fail to provide, it’s suspense. This is where this one really excels. The tension is wound so tightly that it becomes unbearable at times, and Haneke’s camera is often sedentary for such extended periods that the viewer begins to fear the danger may be lurking just out of frame. The characters can’t see it and neither can we. It can be maddening, but only because we’ve become so engrossed in the fates of these people that we genuinely care about what happens to them.
Of course, the acting has a lot of do with that. Naomi Watts continues to remind audiences why she’s one of the most intense actresses working today. And while her penchant for remakes is beginning to boarder on the bizarre, it’s refreshing to see an actress who chooses roles with such little regard for the mainstream spotlight. Her performance in this is nothing short of astonishing, particularly in the later, more depressing moments. As her husband, Tim Roth works off her nicely and brings a lot of vulnerability to his character. While there’s nothing terribly heroic about these characters (they’re very much real people), the actors enhance every scene with their presences. There isn’t a false moment between either of them, which makes watching Funny Games all the more difficult. As the lead psychopath, Michael Pitt is equally memorable. It’s great to see a screen villain who isn’t compelled to go over-the-top with his wickedness. We’re never certain what this character is capable of and Pitt is careful not to tip his hat too early. The end result is a performance that keeps us in a constant state of unease.
It should be noted that Haneke’s motivations for bringing Funny Games back for a second go ‘round stemmed from the poor box office of the original in the US. This newer version is essentially his “gift” to us, in the hopes that his film will gain a wider audience the second time around. It’s likely that the film will likely find a somewhat wider appreciation in this new version, but mainstream success will probably continue to elude Haneke…if that’s what he’s really after with this. It’s a bit too ‘abstract’ for the multiplexes, and probably too unsettling and downbeat for many folks even on the independent circuit. Hopefully genre fans will give it the attention it deserves, as it has been too long since we’ve had a horror film of this power.
A remake, no less!
There’s no question that this new version of Funny Games is an exceptionally well-made film. Hell, it’s not even terribly difficult to recommend to viewers who’ve seen the original. It makes a few small improvements upon the 1997 version by jettisoning some of the more obvious lines of dialogue pertaining to the film’s ‘message’, but evens things out with an unfortunate moment of obvious CGI that temporarily detracts from the story.
Still, Funny Games deserves to be seen on the big screen. Whether or not you’ve seen the original, take the trip out for this. It packs a wallop, makes you think and is guaranteed to stay under your skin long after the movie has ended. All the marks of a really great horror film.