Written by: Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan
Directed by: Marcus Dunstan
Featuring: Josh Stewart, Emma Fitzpatrick, Christopher McDonald, Lee Tergesen, Johanna Reddy, Randall Archer
Hey, wait a sec. People were demanding a sequel to The Collector? The Saw prequel-turned-original-horror film from Saw IV-VII writers Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan wasn't a huge bomb; it made just under $8 million at the box office and seemed to have little buzz behind it. Even Melton expressed surprise during an interview that it had been greenlit. But it was cheap to make and had a life on video and cable, where I caught it. And here we are again, with a rarity in the world of horror: a sequel featuring the original creative team and star, Josh Stewart.
The Collector is a serial killer who stages a home invasion, knocks out the occupants and then litters the home with Rube Goldberg-ian (or Kevin McAllister-ian) traps, sealing off all exits and letting the occupants kill themselves in incredibly gruesome ways. He then takes the sole survivors and packs them in his trunk for…The Collection.
The Collector, at first glance, didn't seem to have a lot going for it even though I'm a fan of the work that Melton and Dunstan have done with the later Saw movies. Dunstan's directing style — all nasty close-ups and eye-murdering color filters — wasn't too pleasing and torture porn was looking a bit tired by 2009. However, it did have one thing going for it that most torture porn films didn't: a protagonist that wasn't completely a victim...or a saint. Arkin (Josh Stewart, best known as The Guy That Wasn't Bosco on Third Watch or That Creepy Serbian Guy Who Hung Out With Bane in The Dark Knight Rises) was a down-on-his-luck ex-con that worked as a handy man for the Chase family, the Collector's latest target. To save his ex-wife from loan sharks, Arkin snuck back into the house to steal a diamond at the same time as the Collector was afoot, and was able to escape the villain's clutches, but found himself unable to abandon the family to their fate. His "reward" was being Collected at film's end.
The Collection picks up an unspecified amount of time later, as the police are on a citywide manhunt for the Collector and it's estimated at least 50 people, including Arkin, are missing. That's not on the mind of our teenage protagonist Elena Peters (Emma Fitzpatrick), who sneaks out of her house with some friends to check out a hot underground club. Unfortunately, while she's wandering around the club, she finds a trunk that's familiar and when she tries to open it, out pops a bloodied Arkin (this would have made a great shock reveal if the trailers hadn't spoiled it). Turns out the entire club is another of the Collector's crazy death traps, and everyone in the club winds up dead except for Elena, who is collected, and Arkin, who escapes.
Arkin winds up in the hospital, and fans of Melton and Dunstan's other OTHER horror franchise, Feast, will appreciate a surprise guest star in this sequence. In the hospital, Arkin is visited by Elena's bodyguard, Lucello (Oz's Lee Tergesen, making the most of a severely underwritten role). Lucello's employer, Elena's father (Christopher McDonald, also making the most of a severely underwritten role), has tasked Lucello and a team of mercenaries with locating Elena in the Collector's hideout before time runs out, and they offer Arkin a deal: take them to the Collector's lair, and help them get in, and Arkin gets to walk (because Mr. Peters is rich, and rich people can get people off grand larceny charges, just like that). Arkin reluctantly agrees.
Now, here the film runs headlong into an obstacle it can't quite hurdle: that Arkin would agree to this at all. He says, "I told the cops everything I know," and one of the things he knows is how to find the Collector's hideout (one of the film's better gruesome surprises is how, exactly, Arkin knows how to get there). So, if you had been tortured for weeks on end by a brilliant psychopath, who would you rely on? A bunch of highly trained mercenaries who have high-tech weapons and vague promise of clemency, or the local police force, who have SWAT tanks and riot gear, and certainly would consider going easy on the only man who knows the location of a mass murderer who has been terrorizing the city for weeks? The film tries to lampshade this by having Lucello say something like "we can go where the police can't" (in fact, Lucello makes a point of remarking that the Collector's hideout is a place in the city so horrible the cops ignore it, but that statement is proved comically incorrect later on). It's not just that these plot holes are glaring; it's that they could have been easily fixed — if Lucello and his men can get past Arkin's police protection, why don't they just kidnap him?
However, once Arkin and Lucello's team makes it to the hotel where the Collector is holed up (and where Elena escapes her trunk), The Collection snaps into a laser-like focus, as Arkin and Elena make their way through the Collector's various traps and tricks in an attempt to find each other, and a way out. The movie shakes off the flab of its setup and starts becoming watchable, much like the last film.
In fact, The Collection at times feels like not so much a sequel as, strangely enough, a third act. The movie barely clocks in at 80 minutes before the credits roll (more on that later) and much of that running time is, of course, devoted to battling the Collector inside his lair. It resembles the big finish of any classic slasher flick, where the hero gets to turn the tables on the bad guy. Taken like that, this flick delivers the goods.
The Collection also doesn't have quite the relationship as that at the center of the previous film, though it gives it the old college try. Some time is devoted to Elena's rudimentary backstory — dead mother, nearly killed in a car wreck not long after, the same car wreck that crippled her father and caused a hearing loss (which doesn't figure into the plot nearly as much as these things tend to do). Like Hannah Chase in the last film, she's a girl Arkin feels protective of (since in this case he abandoned her), though in a refreshing turn of events, Elena is pretty proactive as protagonists in these films go. Having said that, Emma Fitzpatrick doesn't get to DO much besides running around, escaping traps and looking determined (and quite well, it should be said). Johanna Braddy, who shows up briefly as one of Elena's red shirt friends, made more of an impression on me.
Josh Stewart is this would-be franchise's beating heart, and the arc of Arkin was what made the first film stand out. Stewart plays Arkin as a man barely functioning, his time in the Collector's torture chambers seemingly aging him an extra decade. Here's a guy who's genuinely terrified, but his tamped-down thirst for revenge is what enables him to survive what the Collector is throwing at him. He may have been part of the Collection, but he didn't allow it to break him. Stewart's not a spectacular actor, but he has a real, soulful sadness within him that's extremely charismatic. Arkin doesn't have much of an arc in this film other than "Save Elena, confront the Collector," but he does a decent job with it. There's a particularly heartbreaking scene near the end where Arkin looks like he's doomed, and Stewart simply slumps his shoulders and stares at the floor, as if he just wants it to be over and death is as good a way out as any other.
Dunstan's direction is much tighter and more assured this time around, with the help of what I presume is a bigger budget, and with that bigger budget comes even crazier and cleverer traps for our heroes to avoid. The color filters from the first film are used sparingly, mostly for flashbacks, and the cinematography by Sam McCurdy is first-rate. The gore is over the top, but the nastiest scene, and one that made the audience in the theater cringe all at once, involves a bone being broken and no blood at all. There are some strange edits here and there, which I suspect were for ratings reasons, but The Collection is slickly paced once the action gets going. This time around, the Collector is played by Randall Archer, who's much more physically imposing than Juan Fernandez, which leads to a lot of Friday the 13th comparisons, and there's a particularly brutal fight at the end where every punch thrown is felt. If The Collection is less a self-contained story than a third act, it's a third act that makes sure the audience gets its money's worth. The end credits frame all the characters in comic book panels, which is a neat touch.
In the end, I did feel like I got my money's worth. Despite the plot's massive flaws and some of the characters, once The Collection kicked into gear, it won me over — at least enough so for me to give it a cautious recommendation. Dunstan's evolution as a director is very positive. The film's best scene was a slow tracking shot of an individual walking around a seemingly empty house that had me on the edge of my seat, and there was no gore involved there. The film ends in a way that wraps up the story, but also suggests an interesting direction for the franchise. I suspect this won't be the last we see of...ah, but that would be telling too much...