Horror sequels are an odd breed. Rather than build on the story established in the first film, they tend to simply reenact it with a different cast of victims. Only the monster remains, which explains why entries in popular franchises such as A Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th are better known as “Freddy or Jason insert numeral here” and why an indie thriller titled The Midnight Man after its cat burglar hero was renamed The Collector in 2009 to put more emphasis on the killer, who sets booby traps in family homes and puts the last person standing in a trunk. Its follow-up, The Collection, manifests a lot of the symptoms of sequelitis but, like the original, eludes a key ailment that permeates the modern slasher genre: cynicism.
Consider its treatment of the previous film’s hero (Josh Stewart), who ended up in the monster’s trunk as part of a studio-mandated rewrite and now re-emerges with his quick wit intact when a new set of victims opens the container at a rave. Horror sequels don’t typically concern themselves with continuity minutia of this sort, and the few that do often just kill off the loose end in the first act or so. In fact, the Saw series, from which this franchise draws inspiration, is notorious for dispatching its one-time protagonists in throwaway bits of irony. As a result, I feared Arkin wouldn’t make it to the finish line this time around, and The Collection derives much of its suspense from that emotional investment.
Suffice it to say that director Marcus Dunstan and co-screenwriter Patrick Melton do the character justice, showcasing his resourcefulness and single-minded resilience at every turn, from the way he locates the Collector’s (Randall Archer) hideout with just a blade and the skin of his arm to his ingenious use of a gun and two bums as a means of escape. I also appreciate that they’ve kept his moral core a defining trait, such as when he convinces a mercenary to go rescue a captured teammate: “Don’t act like you don’t care!” Contemporary thrillers so often pertain to brutality and survival of the fittest. It’s nice to see one in which the hero has his heart in the right place.
My favourite moment, though, comes near the end of Arkin’s journey, when a cruel twist of fate prompts him to drop on his knees and give up at last. We understand his despair because we’ve spent two movies watching him battle the Collector, win, end up in a box anyway, suffer unspeakable torture, escape by way of a three-story fall, be coerced into storming the killer’s lair, get beaten by his teammates despite his broken bones, break the same bones again, and fight the villain some more without ever catching a break. By this point, it’d be easy to view our hero as a force of nature, but his sudden burst of frailty reminds us of his humanity and of the toll put on him, making his subsequent reward (filmed in slow motion, of course) all the more uplifting.
I’m grateful that the filmmakers understand their franchise’s main selling point, forgoing the usual cannon fodder simpletons in favour of clever, proactive protagonists like Elena (Emma Fitzpatrick), a hearing-impaired teen who establishes her temperament early on by punching her ex (Justin Mortelliti) in the face, and Lucello (Lee Tergesen), the leader of the mercenary squad hired to bring her home. Neither proves as compelling as Arkin, who got a full movie to flesh him out, but they give the Collector a run for his money, breaking genre conventions in a series of pulse-pounding reversals.
This is not to say The Collection avoids every pitfall associated with horror sequels. For one, I wish someone would explain what happened to Lisa’s (Navi Rawat) gambling debt from the first movie or how she changed race. More to the point, in an effort to up the ante, Dunstan depicts the Collector’s lair as the ultimate torture porn maze, plunging headfirst into idiocy with over-the-top concepts like tripwire mechanisms that turn rotten plaster walls into metallic death claws, giant vats of formaldehyde to hold sculptures made out of body parts (how does the guy afford this stuff?), and, weirdest of all, rabid human guard dogs (guard humans?) hopped up on meth.
I suppose these challenges to my suspension of disbelief would bother me more if I thought for a moment the point was to build a coherent mythology surrounding the villain. Whereas most horror sequels give the monster new victims to torment, this one aims to present its heroes with new traps to overcome. You see, the title doesn’t refer to the serial killer’s demented art pieces. As the epilogue makes clear, it means payback, and, in that respect, The Collection feels like the ultimate sequel, providing a genuine sense of catharsis for Arkin’s saga. That’s the Midnight Man for those of you keeping up, not the Collector.