Indie Horror-thon: Funny Games (2007)

Sadism is the name of the titular “game” in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, a shot-for-shot remake of an Austrian film of the same name, also directed by Haneke. Serving as social commentary about our fascination with violence in the media, this home-invasion horror-thriller follows a couple and their son as they try to survive assaults from two intruders who both openly acknowledge that they’re characters in a movie.

Alright, so we’re cheating a little on this entry– for a couple reasons. While the original 1997 Austrian Funny Games was an indie production, the remake was given a $15 million budget and was distributed by Warner Independent Pictures, a specialty division of film studio Warner Bros. Entertainment.  But we’re still going to focus on the remake with this review.

Additionally, few in the film industry seem to refer to Funny Games as a horror movie; it’s widely regarded as a thriller. Haneke states that the entire film was not intended to be a horror film. He says he wanted to make a message about violence in the media by making an incredibly violent, but otherwise pointless movie. But as the film is essentially a home invasion with some slasher horror elements, I consider it a psychological horror film. Even the antagonists in the film seem to suggest this.

The film made its British premiere at the London Film Festival in October 2007. Its United States premiere was at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival on in January 2008. It began a limited release in the United States and Canada in March 2008.

Despite opening with a scene of the happy family’s drive to their vacation home, Funny Games mostly centers around the two antagonists, Peter and Paul, who are dressed in all white– polo, shorts and gloves. They come to the lake house to borrow some eggs, but when a series of peculiar events transpire (Peter keeps dropping the eggs and returning for more, the family dog goes missing and the neighbors are behaving strangely), the happy family realizes that their unwelcomed guests are here to stay.

The purpose of the family is simply to suffer as the film’s victims. They’re mostly archetypal wealthy, civil folks who let their guard down to enjoy their vacation only to have their worst nightmares become a reality. But they’re also easy to relate to, making the audience feel like both victims and accomplices to their anguish. Tim Roth, who played the father, has said making this film abused him and that he’ll never watch it. He said he was particularly disturbed because Devon Gearhart, his on-set son, resembled his own son.

Paul and Peter spend much of the film chatting with each other. The two play unique roles in tormenting both the family and the audience. Paul frequently breaks the fourth wall, addressing the audience to ask them how they see the rest of the moving playing out. Peter anxiously references the formulaic suspense rules of traditional cinema and how Funny Games must abide by them. The duo establishs rules for the “game,” and (notably in the infamous remote control scene) breaks those rules shamelessly.

Funny Games is effective because it acknowledges our expectations as an audience– it must be feature length, it must allow the family the opportunity to survive in the final act and we must root for the family to triumph. It sets up opportunities for traditional horror-thriller motifs to play out, then gleefully defies its audiences desire for justice and closure by allowing its villains to direct the movie. It’s a fascinating showcase of titillation and torture. If you expect to find any enjoyment from watching Funny Games, you’re already missing the point.

Michael Pitt (Boardwalk Empire) and Brady Corbet play the nonchalant manipulators appropriately. Pitt’s devilish glances at the camera are often more sinister than the fatalities. And Corbet’s unease at the film’s pacing and misaligned plot devices add seriousness to the duo’s mostly casual relationship.

When an exasperated mother Anne asks why the villainous duo doesn’t just kill them, Peter slyly replies, “You shouldn’t forget the importance of entertainment.” Dialog like this serves as commentary about what modern cinema tries to provide for its audience. And it all unravels in a thoroughly unnecessary remake, which is already a statement in itself. Why remake a film shot-for-shot with essentially the same set, dialog and plot, only in English? Haneke may be commenting on Americans’ collective laziness when it comes to watching films with subtitles, thus insulting Funny Games viewers further.

“When I first envisioned Funny Games in the middle of the ’90s, it was my intention to have an American audience watch the movie,” said writer-director Haneke. “It is a reaction to a certain American cinema, its violence, its naïvete, the way American cinema toys with human beings. In many American films, violence is made consumable.”

And in that sense, Funny Games accomplishes everything it sets out to be– deeply unsettling, ironically unfunny and meticulously pointless. It won’t be the movie you want or expect; watching Funny Games might outright ruin your day. But it might also force you to rethink your expectations of cinematic narratives.

 

You can stream Funny Games right here.