Unlike the more trendy torture porn of the Hostel and Saw franchises that offers film viewers sadistic violence as entertainment, Austrian director Michael Haneke's cerebral horror offers more troubling sensations: confusion, repulsion and a sense of complicity in the violence that unfolds before our eyes. His films expose the true degradation and outcome of violence, the dark side to the fun, ironic, slick sadism of Quentin Tarantino or Eli Roth.
One of European art cinema's most celebrated names, Haneke's reputation rests on films such as Cache, Benny's Video, The Piano Teacher and Code Unknown. If Haneke could be said to have a reoccurring idea in his complex body of work, it is the brutal alienation that exists between people, often aided and abetted by technology. Despite the buffers of money, security gates and good neighborhoods, the well-heeled people in his films find the ugly real world seeping in. His point is a moral one: We may feel unaffected by the genocide, poverty, war and crime unfurling beyond our gates, captured on our TV screens, used to horrify or entertain us. But the repressed inevitably returns in Haneke's films.
Nowhere is this illustration of how violence creeps into even the most prosperous, well-oiled lives more apparent than in Haneke's creepy high-water mark, Funny Games. Anyone who saw this 1997 psychological skin-crawler has experienced the Haneke effect at its most visceral and disturbing.
In that harrowing chamber piece, two well-bred teenage psychopaths in tennis whites sadistically torture a family at its vacation home. Most of the violence unfolds off-screen, where a shotgun blast or the anguished cries of a mother and father convey the reality better than the torture-for-fun of most thrillers.
Haneke's desire to confound and toy with his audience's expectations has been called perverse.
And in what those same critics might see as the ultimate perverse gesture, Haneke has remade Funny Games virtually shot by shot for an American audience.
Though the location has been shifted from Austria to Long Island, fans of the original film will be astounded at how alike these two different locations appear on screen. The effect of the American Funny Games is virtually identical to the original, though without the sense of creepy surprise and cultural disorientation non-Austrian viewers may have felt watching the 1997 version. The addition of art-house bombshell Naomi Watts also gives this remake an erotic frisson not present in the original, which featured the more ordinary-looking German actress Susanne Lothar. Otherwise, there is the same growing sense of dread as the actions of the two exceedingly polite killers reveal the depths of their depravity.
Settling in for several weeks at their lake home, George (Tim Roth) and Anna (Watts) and their young son Georgie (Devon Gearhart) navigate their Range Rover deep into the country. In overhead helicopter shots recalling Stanley Kubrick's omniscient camera at the opening of The Shining, Haneke drops foreboding hints of trouble to come. The couple pops various CDs into the stereo, playing a game of "guess the classical composer." The game is interrupted by the screech of death-metal music (actually the avant-garde compositions of John Zorn). The unsuspecting family members smile, happy, heading for their holiday unaware of the trouble to come courtesy the sulky blond teenager Peter (Brady Corbet) and his partner, Paul (Michael Pitt).
Like the viewers, the paralyzed Ann and George sit back and watch in horror as the true intentions of the teenagers become clear.
Full of shocking "tricks" and surprises that play with our expectations, one of Haneke's most disturbing techniques is to directly address our anticipation of sex or violence. At several moments in the film, Paul looks directly at the camera, goading viewers about whether he should go further.
"Do you think they stand a chance?" Paul turns to the camera and asks, as the violence against the family mounts.
Haneke subverts the conventions of horror. For instance, the most grotesque violence tends to occur off-screen, rather than played out in bone-crunching detail – for our amusement. He then refuses to look away at other, more disturbing moments in excruciating long takes where we are confronted with his characters' painful reactions to violence.
At times, Haneke seems to offer relief from the cinema of unbearable cruelty, and dangles before his viewer's eyes the prospect of a happy ending – or, at the very least, the possibility that a sense of justice might somehow be restored. But Haneke has never been one to bow to convention, and in Funny Games he seems even more resistant to giving the audience what it wants ... or even what it has come to expect from the genre.
Haneke has said his original Austrian film was ultimately meant for Americans; he even envisioned the family's country house with its huge parcel of land and security gate as less an Austrian setting than an archetypally American one. But the intended audience for his original Funny Games probably never saw the film. His remake, he told Moviemaker magazine, is an effort to reach an American audience used to enjoying graphic spectacles of violence with a frightening ease and emotional distance. On the off chance that the right people see Funny Games, maybe Haneke's arrow will meet its mark.