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DVD Reviews for 5/19: You Wanna See Something Really Scary?

by Peter Sobczynski

In which your faithful reviewer humbly that everyone perusing this week's list of releases--including a couple of buried treasure, a couple of pointless remakes and a couple of titles featuring Katherine Heigl bouncing around--first go outside and have a hissy fit that culminates in the hurling of some patio furniture into the nearest swimming pool in tribute to the late Marissa Cooper, the skinniest and whiniest girl ever to not quite make it out of the O.C. (Long Live Summer!)

In the past, I have been frequently asked by people to tell them what I think is the scariest movie ever made. Generally, my immediate response is to say “Runaway Bride,” an answer that almost inevitably results in a long and decidedly uncomfortable silence as the person who has, after all, asked a perfectly legitimate question looks at me as if I am a bigger idiot than usual. (And yes, I was once asked this question while in the same room as one of the stars of “Runaway Bride”–in that case, I bravely and boldly substituted “The Mirror Has Two Faces.”) Once that unpleasantness is over with, I offer a more sensible answer by citing such titles as “Halloween,” the original “Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” “The Stepfather,” or “Lost Highway.” I will usually mention the first time I saw “The Blair Witch Project” at a special midnight screening about four months before it opened at one of those brew-n-view theaters–it was a packed house and the film held everyone so spellbound that when a bartender in the back called out an order too loud, he was actually shushed by half the audience. I will also offer the opinion that Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” is the greatest horror film ever made–it is, after all, a film about the terror of writer’s block, something that I can relate to more easily than idiots with machetes–even though it isn’t technically that scary. Then, and only then, do I reveal the title of what I feel may be the most legitimately frightening film ever made–a title that creeps me out today just as much as it did when I saw it nearly a decade ago.

The film is 1997's “Funny Games,” a brutal work from Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke, a man who has become one of the most renowned filmmakers in the world today thanks to such works as “The Piano Teacher” and the recent art-house hit “Cache.” Although his films have never exactly been light and frothy walks in the park–he makes the kind of cold, cruel and coldly analytical films that make Peter Greenaway look like Garry Marshall by comparison–they have always been thoughtful and intriguing dramas that train a steady eye on the contemporary world that force viewers to grapple with the issues he raises without ever giving them easy answers or a cop-out ending that returns things to the status quo. In a Haneke film, things that are shattered stay decidedly shattered and no one–not the characters on the screen or the viewers watching them–are the same for the experience. As great as his other films have been (and I persist in my belief that “Cache” had more profound things to say about the subjects of racism and vengeance than “Crash” and “Munich” combined), none of them have had the simple and direct power of “Funny Games” and none of them have been as hard to shake afterwards.

The film opens as a pleasant and prosperous family unit–husband, wife, adorable young son and lovable pet dog–arrive at their isolated lakeside vacation home for a brief retreat from the drudgery of the world. After they have settled in, there is a knock at the door–a pleasant-looking young man is there who says he is from next door and would it be too much trouble to bum a couple of eggs? They give him some eggs but he clumsily drops them on the floor. While cleaning them up, the stranger’s equally clean-cut pal comes along and exchanges some pleasant banter as well. Before long, the newcomers start to act a little bit odd and they are politely asked to leave. Their response is to brutally assault the father with his golf club and announce that they will now be playing a few “funny games” with the family with their lives, of course, being the ultimate prize.

At this point, you may suspect that “Funny Games” is yet another brutal home-invasion melodrama in which an innocent family is forced to fight violent fire in kind in order to survive. This is a scenario that you have seen dozens of times in the past and Haneke knows that you have and that, we slowly begin to discover, is the real subject of the film. In Haneke’s mind, someone who views a film of this kind, which revels in watching people suffer at the hands of cruel individuals before the requisite happy ending, is essentially on the same plane as the characters who are inflicting the suffering in the first place. Therefore, he has chosen to turn the film into a sort of meta-movie meditation on screen violence that cleverly begins to implicate the viewer in direct and unexpected ways–characters begin to speak to those of us in the audience and there are discussions about the need for a “plausible explanation.” He also begins to sadistically toy with us in the same way as his torturers by consistently dangling the possibility of salvation, only to cruelly snatch it away (once in a manner so audacious that even the most open-minded viewer is liable to be stunned by the sheer perverse nerve of it). Most crucially, he more or less refuses to show viewers what they have presumably come to see–scenes of gory carnage. Instead, nearly all of the violent acts on display are seen only in their grisly aftermath and we are forced to piece together what happened though the splatters of blood and the anguished reactions of the survivors (which go on for an agonizingly long time). In other words, this is a horror film where you can’t simply say “It’s Only A Movie!”

For most people, “Funny Games” will no doubt prove to be too intense of a filmgoing experience–I say that not as a boast but as a simple statement of fact. In fact, there were times when I first saw (in an empty screening room on video, which only served to multiply the ironies) it where I even questioned sticking around for the finale, especially since it became clear that every time you thought the worst was over, Haneke would indeed top himself. However, I am glad that I did make it to the end because the result is one of the most powerful films–regardless of genre–that I have ever seen. I would especially recommend it to the kids out there who eagerly gobbled up such mindless exercises in brutality as “Hostel,” “Wolf Creek” and the “Saw” films–unlike those films, which reveled in presenting gross special effects and little else, “Funny Games” taps into something deeper and darker and the result is a film that no one who sees it, whether they love it or hate it, will ever forget.

(Kino Video is also releasing several other Michael Haneke films on DVD this week–“71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance,” “Benny’s Video” and “The Seventh Continent.” Though “Funny Games” is by far the best of the bunch, the others are all well-made and deeply troubling works that also deserve to be seen.)

Written and directed by Michael Haneke. Starring Susanne Lothar, Ulrich Muhe, Arno Frisch, Frank Geiring and Stefan Clapczynski. 1997. 103 minutes. Unrated. A Kino Video release. $29.95


CRIMSON TIDE-UNRATED EXTENDED EDITION/ENEMY OF THE STATE-UNRATED EXTENDED EDITION (Touchstone Home Entertainment. $19.99 each): Apparently operating under the delusion that the anticipated success of “Domino” would create renewed interest in seeing new and “unrated” versions of the earlier works of Tony Scott, Touchstone offers us new discs of his 1995 riff on “Run Silent, Run Deep” and his 1998 take on “The Conversation” (complete with Gene Hackman in a key role). There may be a market for this but I have to admit that if someone was going to put out an unrated version of a Tony Scott film, why in hell couldn’t it have been “The Hunger” instead?

DOOGAL (Genius Products. $29.98): A recut and redubbed version of a British animated film that was meant to be the Weinstein Company’s follow-up to their surprise animated hit “Hoodwinked”–the fact that this may be the first time that many of you have actually heard of it should serve as a barometer as to how successful it was.

DUMA (Warner Home Video. $19.98): Although this family film did just as poorly at the box-office as “Doogal,” Carroll Ballard’s visually extraordinary drama about a boy and his cheetah making their way through the South African desert deserved much better than the shoddy distribution it received from Warner Brothers. Although it may not be on the same level as Ballard’s “The Black Stallion”–few films are–this is a wonderful work that I guarantee your children will continue to come back to long after the latest CGI flash-in-the-pan fades from interest like an overhyped toy.

MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000-VOLUME 9 (Rhino Home Video. $59.95): Four more episodes from one of the greatest television shows of all time hit DVD to the delight of MiSTies everywhere. This compilation includes the first season curiosity “Women of the Prehistoric Planet” (source of the legendary quip “Hi-keeba!”), the silly biker film “Wild Rebels,” the hilarious Ed Wood-directed smut expose “The Sinister Urge” and the legendary “The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies,” a title that I presume needs no further lucubration on my end.

NAPOLEON DYNAMITE -LIKE, THE BEST SPECIAL EDITION, EVER! (Fox Home Entertainment. $26.98): I would just like to take this opportunity to once again state that I hate ever single smug, self-amused, stupid, condescending, hateful and idiotic moment of this inexplicably popular cult favorite, a film that shows what a Wes Anderson film would be like if Wes Anderson was a moron, and unless the new features on this double-dip edition include footage of everyone responsible being slowly lowered into boiling oil for perpetrating this monstrosity on a populace stupid enough to gobble it (not to mention those damned “Vote for Pedro” shirts) up as the second coming of film comedy.

THE PRODUCERS (Universal Home Video. $29.98): Yes, this adaptation of the Broadway musical is a fairly clunky and stagebound affair and no, there isn’t a single scene here that wasn’t done funnier in Mel Brooks’s original 1968 version. However, once Uma Thurman comes on to strut herself as the sexy Swedish secretary Ulla, I suspect than many of you will be too distracted by her to pick up on its various shortcomings.

THE RINGER (Fox Home Entertainment. $29.99): Yeah, the basic premise–Johnny Knoxville poses as a mentally challenged person in order to rig the Special Olympics–sounds both astonishingly tasteless and resoundingly unfunny but this was actually a reasonably inspired comedy with quite a few big laughs as well as more than its fair share of decent-sized ones. And if you still somehow feel guilty about the idea of watching it, the bonus features include a message from the head of the Special Olympics offering their endorsement.

SIDE EFFECTS ($24.99): In the mood for a not-especially-biting satire of the sleazier aspects of the pharmaceutical industry? No? Okay, how about a not-especially-biting satire of the sleazier aspects of the pharmaceutical industry that also happens to feature a lot of scenes involving Katherine Heigl prancing around in her underwear? Thought so.

SOMETHING NEW (Universal Home Entertainment. $29.98): Although this interracial romantic comedy (in which ambitious buppie Sanaa Lathan finds herself falling for white gardener Simon Baker) was a little too predictable and innocuous to make much of an impression during its brief theatrical run this spring, it probably deserved a better box-office response than it received–especially when compared to the truly awful (and far more successful) “Madea’s Family Reunion.”

WHEN A STRANGER CALLS (Sony Home Entertainment. $27.95): Not even the presence of the gifted young actress Camilla Belle (not to mention her fabulous eyebrows) is enough to save this utterly useless remake of the opening 20 minutes of the 1979 semi-classic from going down as one of the weakest horror films to come along in recent memory.

THE WRITER OF O (Zeitgeist Video. $29.99): For those who prefer their erotic entertainment to be cloaked in some kind of literary or artistic pretensions, this film–an exploration of the history of the famous S&M-flavored novel “The Story of O” that includes information on the woman who actually wrote the book under a pen name as well as recreations of some of its key passages–should prove to a fascinating look at the worlds of sex and art.

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originally posted: 05/19/06 14:01:23
last updated: 05/31/06 06:23:14
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