Somebody has finally got the Saw (2004) concept right, though I find it ironic it’d be Marcus Dunstan, who, along with Patrick Melton, penned some of the worst entries in the series. Mind you, the bad taste Saw IV (2007) through, uh, Saw 3D (2010) left in the back of my mind may have less to do with the screenwriters’ warped sensibilities than the studio’s. After all, their treatment for The Collector was initially conceived as a prequel to the original, but the producers rejected the idea, perhaps because of the way it repackages the most ingenious elements of the franchise, ridding them of the tiresome nihilism that’s permeated the horror genre for the past decade.
Instead of a bunch of confused low-lives in need of punishment, The Collector features as its protagonist a smart and proactive cat burglar coerced into one last score to pay off his wife’s (Daniella Alonso) debt to a loan shark before midnight. Much to my delight, Arkin is played by Josh Stewart, who has a knack for conveying complex thought processes with just a sideways glance. This comes in handy when his character realizes another intruder has turned the house he’s robbing into a deadly maze, forcing him to sneak around and analyse each challenge in complete silence. I love the detail of our hero skipping over a creaking step every time he takes the stairs so as not to alert the killer, who, by the way, also keeps quiet.
Instead of a would-be moral figure rambling on and on about the woes of wasting one’s life, the titular collector (Juan Fernández) is presented as an unequivocal monster, a psychopathic fetishist who never takes off his mask or utters a word. Also, he’s got weird shiny eyes for some reason. His modus operandi consists of breaking into a home, filling every room with gruesome traps like spiked boards or acid-drenched carpets, and watching the panicked owners run around in the dark like chickens with their heads cut off. I mean that figuratively, of course. Gone are the rusty, convoluted contraptions that invite victims to dig into their own oesophagus to prove they can stop and smell the roses.
Instead of integrating perfunctory choices into its Rube Goldberg set pieces, The Collector keeps the traps simple and poses a genuine dilemma to its hero: leave with the loot or risk his life to save the Chase family, in particular Hannah (Karley Scott Collins), a clever ten-year-old not unlike his own daughter (Haley Alexis Pullos). Arkin takes the moral path, but every subsequent decision weighs heavily on him. “I told you to stay on my back!” he whispers upon hearing a woman he’s failed to rescue get tortured to death. This single emotional outburst hints at more humanity than in every torture porn thriller combined.
Instead of intercutting between stationary close-ups of gears grinding and people screaming, Dunstan keeps the camera fluid, focusing not on gory suffering (violence) but on a pulse-pounding game of cat and mouse (suspense). Take, for example, the scene in which Arkin times his way in and out of different rooms to keep his presence hidden from the killer, the way the camera swerves overhead so we can keep track of both characters. Whereas Saw pertains to a sadistic mastermind toying with lost souls, The Collector consists of a battle of wits between two equally sharp minds.
For this reason, I was a bit disappointed with the ending, which leaves the hero’s subplots unresolved in favour of setting up a typical monster franchise. Granted, this shouldn’t come as a surprise, seeing as the flick is specifically named after the villain, but then the producers changed the title from “The Midnight Man” at the same time they imposed the new conclusion. Fortunately, Dunstan and Melton understand which of the two characters proves the most compelling even as they bend to a formula that doesn’t. Consider the post-credit Easter egg, whose personality it showcases and what that promises for the sequel.
More to the point, the filmmakers bypass the nihilism so prevalent in recent horror thrillers by concluding Arkin’s quest in the Chase estate before the extra “gotcha” scene. As I explained in my review of Dark Ride (2006), the best scary movies don’t tell of unsuspecting victims getting butchered. They tell of resilient heroes outwitting the butcher. Owing to its origins, many will perceive The Collector as a shameless knock-off of James Wan’s torture porn pioneer, but, on closer inspection, they might find it’s really the anti-Saw.