Oct 29, 2014

October 2014 Horror Movie a Day - Day 28: FUNNY GAMES (1997)

A wealthy Austrian family drives through the country to their summer home in a gated, upper-class, Hamptons-like community listening to classical music. For two full minutes, we just see the car, hear the music and a polite game the parents are playing in trying to guess the name of the piece. This is the last peaceful game we are to see in a picture that will mess with not only the family but the viewer as well. When we finally do see Father, Mother and young Son, their peaceful ride - at least for us - is interrupted by loud, vile, disruptive punk rock music. This continues through the rest of the opening credits, and leaves the audience (well me at least) in a state of agitation. It is a blatant indication that the lives of this oblivious family are about to experience a massive disruption.

Thus begins Michael Haneke's 1997 picture Funny Games, a film about a bourgeois family taken hostage in their lavish, gated summer house by a pair of sadistic, emotionally detached 'game players.'   The real targets of this game are not the family, but the audience evidenced by the fact that one of the killers periodically breaks the fourth wall to wink and talk directly to the audience. Doing some reading on the film, Haneke did not intend this to be taken as a traditional thriller or horror, but a commentary on audiences and desensitization of human violence thanks to Hollywood movies. It does achieve this to some degree.

Might as well smile now, because they won't be for much longer.
Picking up after the jolt of punk music has given us a headache (it really overpowers the soundtrack and I bet was purposely 'in the red' in terms of audio levels), the family arrive at their home after stopping to talk to some neighbors who are accompanied by a pair of young men. One of the strangers arrives at their door asking for some eggs for the neighbors, but the there is something off about this man who we will later come to know as Peter (he is also referred to as 'Fatty' or 'Fatso'). Peter looks like an upper-class, educated young man, dressed in starch white tennis clothing, but we also notice he is strangely wearing a pair of white cotton gloves. The request for eggs turns into a comedy of errors and an irritation for the wife when Peter's friend Paul (how Biblical) arrives and she just wants them to leave. Paul also is dressed in tennis whites with white cotton gloves on, and has all the appearances of an educated, affluent upbringing. The two men don't leave and instead impose themselves violently on the family and engage them in a 'bet', asking them to wager on whether they will survive the next 12 hours. Paul turns to the camera knowingly, asking the audience if we think the family will survive. Obviously any sane person is hoping they will, and expects one - if not all of them - to make it. This family has done nothing except be wealthy and tried to prepare for a summer of relaxation and now they have to deal with this.

I know you're out there in the dark watching.
Peter and Paul are so callous and smug you take an instant disliking to them, even when the seemingly innocent Paul is asking for eggs. There is something about his clumsiness that indicates that he is up to something. They are so calm that when the violence does occur, it is extremely shocking. There are many times this family could have easily gotten rid of these two or made a run for it, but their non-suspicious nature opens the gate to their home for them to become victims. The intruders use the family's protection against them by bringing the violence to them in their own home using their own security measures that were meant to keep it all locked out - the front gate. This are definitely not the foul-mouthed, openly aggressive killers with a specific agenda from other home invasion pictures like in Panic Room or Trespass.

Sure we look like nice rich guys, but...not so much.
There is much sadistic teasing of the audience's expectations in this picture. A moment where it seems there is a light at the end of the tunnel is quickly diminished, followed by the most violent scene in the movie (it comes early!) that is heard off-screen. When it is finally revealed, Paul comments on how they have completely lost the family's willingness, but then you realize he is actually referring to us the viewers. The moment is shocking and uncomfortable - much like the opening music disruption - and Haneke follows it with a long period of a locked off camera shot with almost no movement from anyone that feels like an eternity. Unlike other horror pictures, he is allowing the characters - and the audience - to soak in the shock of what has just occurred. I've seen many movies where characters see close family members violently killed, then manage to keep going without ever digesting what has just happened. You could almost call this section the calm after the storm, but usually there is a calm before the storm. Will the storm come or not? The audience is left in anxious anticipation wondering and lulled into a sense that things are going to go in a much different direction. It is Haneke playing again playing with us.

I think you were playing a Slazenger 1 and this is a Slazenger 7.
There is a moment in the picture where we the audience are rewarded for having to watch such infuriating and shocking violence. It is a 'finally' moment, the one we have been hoping for since the violence began. I say infuriating because the detached nature and smugness of the two intruders makes you hate them more every time they open their mouths. That reward comes at a price. I, for one, yelled out in excitement when it is awarded, but then sat back down in shock as Haneke yanks it away from us. It is a slap in the face and demoralizing. There are also moments when you think things will go in another direction, but Haneke has Paul make it clear that this is not a picture where the audience is going to have anything handed to them easily, if at all.

Silly audience, they're like putty in our hands.
Viewing this it is easy to be thrown off yet still engaged by Haneke's toying of audience expectations. However whether or not his overall thesis of how violence in films is bad and we're complacent accomplices may not be so clear to everyone. The characters have a conversation that fictional violence is just as bad as real violence and should be treated as such. Then again by 1997, there had been many action and horror films released that showed much more callous acts of violence - on screen rather than off like this picture - than this movie does.

And you thought we were going to go easy on the kid...
The last movie I saw directed by Michael Haneke previous to this was his 2013 Best Foreign Film Oscar winner Amour which near the end, almost takes on some horror properties, albeit more heartbreaking and dramatic in nature. Haneke also directed a 2007 American Remake of Funny Games which I understand goes after the screen violence thesis much more than this picture.

The first act of violence also happens off-screen, broken eggs.
Whether you get the anti-movie violence message from this picture or not, it is still an effectively told story that will keep on on edge and uncomfortable while the director plays his nasty game of messing with your expectations. It will leave you feeling raw by the end, and you'll be happy when it's all over.