When I exited my typical Saturday matinee, I knew the movie I’d seen, The Collection, would receive unfavorable comparisons to its predecessor, The Collector, which on top of giving the Saw franchise a run for its gore money, involves an unusually well-developed set of major characters and a surprisingly intense build to a satisfying conclusion. Although I’d hoped The Collection would do better than it has, I was not surprised to learn that it finished a dismal tenth at this weekend’s box office, earning a disappointing $3.4 million.
And now that the bad stuff is out of the way, let me tell you why I’m very happy that this film exists and that it has had at least one weekend to elicit the mainstream’s condemnation.
The film isn’t as intense as its predecessor, and the characterization isn’t as thorough, but visually and intellectually, it dwells on a higher plane. Anyone familiar with the horror genre will not be surprised that a movie called “The Collection” is a collection of many things beyond the main psycho-killer’s freakshow of traps and body parts: it’s a collection of set-pieces so grisly each one of them should have drawn an NC-17 (Unrated Cut, here I come!), and, of course, it’s a collection of other films. People who call it a Saw rip-off are choosing to ignore that it’s the same creative team behind the later entries in that franchise. Marcus Dunstan and the gang are merely continuing their work, acknowledging the earlier series passingly as they take its themes into new territory. Other references run the gamut from Clive Barker’s underappreciated Nightbreed to too-surreal-for-its-own-good Alien Resurrection (now more often cited as the mental offspring of Joss Whedon than of subversive French cineaste Jean-Pierre Jeunet).
The most compelling reference is, for me, to zombie films. As a horde of crazed people rush gun-wielding mercs who have raided The Collector’s lair in search of the young woman he has most recently acquired, the mercs indiscriminately open fire, saying the hordes are “like zombies.” The gunmen are unfazed by the leading man’s shouted explanations that these hordes are not zombies but are victims so drugged and tortured by their captor that they cannot control their own actions. Particularly since this sequence appears early in the film, it is able to frame The Collection in contrast to other charnel-house fare: here, the victims are adamantly human, so they suffer and die and pile up guilt for anyone tempted to say “Boo-YEAH!” like someone who has confused military weaponry with video game controllers.
As I argue in Gothic Realities, the Saw franchise subverts America’s self-contradictory rhetoric of moralizing violence in our many wars. The Collection puts this self-contradictory rhetoric on display in our own back yard, offering images of a drug-soaked youth underground, a woman whose dollish, objectifying make-up is more Real Housewives than Baby Jane, and a mad pseudo-scientist motivated not by Nazi ambitiousness like in The Human Centipede but by simple, mundane curiosity, a sense that he needs pits full of severed-limb salad just to escape his ennui. Zombies have become metaphorically exhausted because despite their versatile capacity as mirror-monsters showing us everything ugly in ourselves, they are still comfortingly unhuman, safely outside most conventional definitions of human life no matter how many times they pause to appreciate fireworks. The Collector’s motivation for mass murder lies uncomfortably in the human core that drives us to spectacles like this film or, more pressingly, to spectacles like the nightly news. Zombies’ inhumanity allows “us” to cling to our humanity. When The Collector adds us to his menagerie, he operates according to the inhumanity of everyone jaded enough by consumer culture to find entertainment in real suffering. If anything, the gore of the film’s spectacles is comforting because it’s so clearly offered as fictional play–it differentiates the proceedings from the false sobriety and sanitation of bleeds-it-leads journalism. But the comfort to be found in buckets of blood is, alas, of a limited, sticky sort, and if you’re not a little bit disturbed by the film’s spectacles, you’re missing something (on the inside).
More important than the reference to the “What is human” discourse evoked by zombies, however, are the references to art that precedes film history. In The Collector’s lair we find not only bits and pieces of films and bodies but also an awful lot of art on walls, art very much in the styles of Hieronymous Bosch, Francisco Goya, and Francis Bacon (the 20th-century one).
Inclusion of this type of art in the many-tiered Collection suggests that the leather-masked collector has been chasing his existential voidiness back through the centuries, not just to the Grand Guignol theater that his elaborate killings directly reinstate but through centuries of grotesque artistic attempts to cope with human ickiness. I mean, why is “gore,” the spectacle of bodies being torn apart and turned inside out, gross? Pain and suffering are gross, sure-the experience of being torn apart explodes subjectivity. But outside of subjective experience, the human body is supposed to be intrinsically beautiful and noble, transcending the mere animality of flesh. Seeing it rent and scattered reminds us that no, actually, there’s nothing transcendent about these mortal coils: they’re beastly when we wear them, and they’re beastly when we don’t. We are, in a word, meat, and The Collection is a meat parade that confronts us with our choppable chunkiness while enveloping a history of like-minded confrontations.
Naturally I would not be as inclined to read The Collection as a succession of image-rich set-pieces that evoke longstanding problems of art, politics, and philosophy were the film’s grand allusion not so very apt: The Collection resides in The Hotel Argento. What name but the maestro‘s would rightly label a structure (structure within the film, structure of the film) that stands as a kind of compendium for the problems of sublime and abject aesthetics?
(If you don’t know what I’m talking about but are interested in such stuff, my book Dario Argento will fill in many blanks for you. Check it out on my Amazon author page: amazon.com/author/landrewcooper
Bottom line: The Collection gives us horrors we can use to think productively about being human, being animal, and being in the world. That’s art, folks. No coincidence that we eventually learn that The Collector’s daddy used to own a museum.This particular installation is well worth seeing before it gets banished to box office oblivion.