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Review: ‘The Collector’ is Streamlined, Solid Horror

By  · Published on July 28th, 2009

I love being scared. I have since I was little. But for some reason, attempting to keep up with horror films has been incredibly difficult because there seemed to be so much heart ache and disappointment involved. Most of the movies I saw were disappointments, either bloated for no reason or trying to rely too heavily on lame twists that never quite worked in the first place. I longed for something cleaner, a simple set up that worked at the core of human fear, a base to be used for the bloody, brutal, beautiful killing of many a human being. After wading through a sea of bad horror, The Collector delivers the goods.

A thief cases a wealthy family with a huge house in the middle of nowhere and breaks in only to find that a psychopathic serial killer who collects people is already hard at work inside the house.

Oh, thank God for simple premises. There’s nothing complicated about this film at all, and that’s a good thing. A family is in danger, and two men are pitted against each other in a house or horrors to see who can make it out alive – or at least make it out without being stuffed inside a truly disturbing red steamer trunk. Luckily, the filmmakers chose to build upon simplicity instead of maintaining a flat tone throughout the movie. It’s an easy concept, albeit a very cool one, but co-writers Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton took an extra five minutes of screen time at the beginning to make you care a bit more about the characters than you normally would. I’m not saying that there’s a ton of depth there, but you do get a sense of who the family is and who the thief is, especially considering what he’s fighting for.

The husband and wife seem to have their lives on track with problems bubbling underneath. Their teenage daughter is a bit rebellious but just wants love, and their youngest is right at the age to have tea parties and be a massive liability should a serial killer ever invade the home. As for Arkin, the main character and thief, it’s not all that groundbreaking, but he’s robbing the house in order to pay off his wife’s debts in an attempt to keep her and his young daughter out of harm’s way. They are all common tropes, but they aren’t played to be groundbreaking or anything. Since the filmmakers chose to build the characters more than most horror films, it seems like they could have chosen different characteristics to highlight, but it’s an ultimately forgivable sin.

As for tone, something seems off right from the beginning. Maybe it’s the way things are shot, maybe it’s the way that lead actor Josh Stewart’s face carries an intensity on it even when his character Arkin is simply fixing windows, maybe it’s the fact that the opening scene involves a couple coming home to find a creepy red box in their bedroom with a note that reads, “For the Collection.” I’ve never found myself wanting to shout anything out during a horror film, but seriously, why would you open that box? Why?

That tone carries incredibly well considering that it takes a while for the first real blood to spill. In fact, the first half or so of the film is almost devoid of the red stuff, a calculated move since the second half releases types A, B, and O by the gallons. It’s a calm-before-the-storm effect that works wonders. Especially since that blood is spilled in some fantastically gruesome ways. There’s a hint, considering that the both Dunstan (who also directed the film) and Melton wrote several Saw films, of a Rube Goldberg nature to some of the traps that are set in the house. Fortunately, there are only maybe two traps that really work that way, and they are definitely nowhere near as complex or frustrating as Jigsaw’s. Alongside trip wires that drop knife-accessorized chandeliers, there’s also the shocking simplicity of placing rusty bear traps all over a dining room floor. In as much, there’s a great blend of torture, slasher, and intelligent horror so none of the death scenes ever get too repetitive (and the film never devolves into torture porn).

As further departure from those Saw roots, the filmmakers create a killer in The Collector that we never get to know. We don’t have to hear his back story or why he does what he does. He just kills a shit ton of people and puts someone in a box. Does he feed them after he collects them? How do they go to the bathroom? Who cares? The lack of details makes him even more frightening a figure – you can’t reason with him, you can’t appeal to his emotional or rational side. In fact, the guy never even talks – just tortures and murders people.

What I found compelling about the movie, besides the effectively sparse jump scares and hauntingly tense tone, was the film’s ability to up the ante right at the correct moment. As soon as a wave of calm starts to build, a moment’s solace (or at least the semblance of one as you’re still trapped inside a house with a killer while screams come through the ventilation), the film works in new victims in really natural ways – and The Collector is more than happy to have more options to choose from. In a house full of people, he only plans on taking one alive, after all.

The acting is strong, the shots are actually quite beautiful, and the score is minimal but loud when it needs to be. But enough of that nonsense. On the usual horror scale, the film delivers a solid amount of bloody deaths and viscera as well as the overwhelming feeling that scorpions and moths are crawling around just below your skin. Speaking of which, the opportunity for bare skin is barely there, but The Collector manages even its fair share of bared breasts via “Californiacation” star Madeline Zima. Plus, the scene in question is perhaps one of the creepiest of the entire film. Nudity and a knife-wielding maniac? Always a great equation.

It never feels cheap, there’s always a sense of dread that pays off, and there are even a few extremely subtle nods to Argento. It’s not the mainstreamed horror or torture porn or heartless camp slasher that has stuffed theaters for too long. In it’s own way, it’s a throw-back to 1970s horror where the characters make sense. You care enough about them but still want them to get killed in really brutal, inventive ways. The color-palate and the title design are still a bit more Nine Inch Nails than Bava, but the soul is still there.

Lofty concepts aside, The Collector is an interesting, simple premise that delivers the goods. It’s easy to see that the filmmakers had a blast making it, setting up a basic scenario and toying with each character until they escape or get mangled to death by bear traps. What’s even better, the ending doesn’t leave a bad taste in your mouth or force you out of the theater laughing. There are a few loose ends that are left untied, but it’s an appropriately shocking ending with at least a decent moral victory.

Over all, the body count, the blood spilled, and the general feeling of dread make this the best horror film I’ve seen all year. Plain and simple.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.