In the age of torture porn, extreme gore, and fresh off the assembly line horror, it’s easy to become desensitized to the violence and brutality of horror movies. With the exception of the best modern horror (The Descent, Let the Right One In, American Psycho), audiences come in expecting personality-free, nubile youth to be murdered in increasingly “clever” and fresh ways to sate some primal blood lust. And while I love the original Scream as much as any body who grew up in the 90s, there’s something ethically repugnant about taking pleasure in the suffering of others, even if said others are obnoxious, fictional constructs. Austrian director Michael Haneke (Amour) shares those misgivings, and his 1997 psychological anti-horror masterpiece, Funny Games, is a scathing middle finger at anyone who thinks abuse can pass for entertainment.
With all of the dangers of Poe’s Law in full effect, Funny Games is satire played brutally, viscerally straight. When it made its premiere at Cannes, many critics mistook Haneke’s intentions and thought Funny Games was a vile, reprehensible extension of the increasingly raw horror films of the 90s. And it was all those things, but that was intentional. Funny Games is nothing short of Michael Haneke’s attempts to play the soul-crushing terror, violence, and cruelty of modern horror without any of the titillating entertainment/escapism/power fantasy that often seeps into the genre. And while the film may be unwatchable to many, that was what Haneke wanted and I suspect the way I watch horror from now on will be colored by my experience with this film.
Anna (Susanna Lothar) and Georg (Ulrich Mühe) are two upper-class Austrian vacationers on holiday with their son, Georg II (Stefan Clapczynski), at their large summer home. Before their world is turned upside down, Anna and Georg’s life is one of luxury and ease, and they entertain themselves by challenging the other to name increasingly obscure classical compositions. But as soon as they arrive at the lake where their summer home resides, things seem subtly off, and their usually friendly neighbors are oddly distant. But the real horror doesn’t arrive until Paul (Arno Frisch) and Peter (Frank Giering) show up on their doorstep.
Pretending to be friends of their neighbors (who they’ve already killed), Paul and Peter are grade-A psychopaths quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen in the cinema before. Although they attempt to appear to be nothing more than slightly rude youths at first, it doesn’t take long for Paul and Peter to reveal their true colors by murdering the family dog and breaking Georg’s leg with a golf club. And from there on, Paul and Peter submit the family to a series of increasingly cruel mind games, centered around a bet that the family won’t leave til 9 AM the next day. And, needless to say, the deck is stacked against Anna and Georg.
Funny Games utilizes a modernist disrespect for the fourth wall to help hammer in its points. On several different occasions, Paul turns directly towards the camera and addresses the viewer. He talks to the viewer like they’re a typical horror fan and they’re there to relish in the carnage that’s about to occur (which mostly happens off-screen which enhances the horror because you can’t even get off on the gorn of it all). If Paul’s little asides don’t make you feel like a prick, you’ll never understand what makes this film special. And when the movie has one moment where it seems maybe things may go the heroes’ way, well… let’s just say that Haneke isn’t afraid to remind viewers that this is a movie that he has control over.
And that leads into the most important part of Funny Games and what makes it such a powerful and important film. Funny Games is horror without any of the catharsis that comes with horror as entertainment. In most horror, the majority of the cast will die, but at least one person will live. That figure becomes the audience surrogate. For fear of spoiling the film, you don’t get that release in Funny Games. Some films (even the best like American Psycho) will turn the supreme violence into comedy. There are occasional moments of pitch-black comedy in Funny Games, but it is mostly “hands over your mouth” brutality. Some horror films allow you to get off on the violence by making the ones being killed insufferable pricks. Anna and her family may be minimally characterized, but you’re given no reason to dislike them. And you feel every stab of dread and pain that shoots into their lives.
Funny Games should have been the last word on home invasion horror films. But the litany of Scream sequels, The Strangers, and the two The Purge films show that Hollywood has failed to grasp this film’s message (that said, I actually think The Strangers is a surprisingly scary horror film). Haneke himself seems to have forgotten the point he made with the original Funny Games considering he would do a shot-for-shot remake 10 years later with American actors. If you make a film that is a harrowing condemnation of the kind of person who would watch this movie in the first place, why would you remake it and invite those who sat through the first one to see that same horrifying tale again? It comes off as vaguely hypocritical.
Funny Games isn’t easy to sit through. It’s as intentionally transgressive and challenging a film as I’ve watched for this blog, and it would have fit right in with the films of the French New Extremity of the early 2000s if they’d been half as philosophically challenging as Haneke’s masterwork. I feel comfortable calling Funny Games the best straight horror film I’ve ever seen (particularly if one counts American Psycho as more cultural satire than horror). But many of you will sit down and be either utterly disgusted by it (which you should) but not understand why, or you’ll find it to be an utter bore. For those that can appreciate the subtext and criticism Haneke lays out, you’re in for one of the most powerfully disturbing films of the 1990s.
Final Score: A+