Ti West’s no-budget take on The Most Dangerous Game (1932) breaks things down to the most essential components: we never get to know the characters which the faux fly-on-the-wall, high-def documentary camera follows, and just watch as a group is picked off by an unknown sniper until it’s down to a duel in an old abandoned factory by the Brandywine river.
The skeletal script is more idle banter and guy-bonding than anything, although West does allow one character, Reggie (Reggie Cunningham), to have a quiet solo scene, promising over the phone to come home that night, and clear things up with his girlfriend.
That’s supposed to be the driving force that keeps Reggie searching for a way out of the forest, although that’s eventually superseded by determination to track down the shooter when a jogger and photographer are the killer’s next victims.
The impact of the sudden kills is heightened by some graphic gore, which is effective in providing a contrast when healthy, content innocents are suddenly reduced to blood-drenched cadavers, sprawled on the ground or river rocks with brain matter oozing from their shattered skulls.
The chief problem with the film, however, is that there just aren’t enough details to really care about anyone. There are two angles to view West’s lack of adding character backgrounds and fleshing out close relationships: an underdeveloped script that’s part of a dare to shoot a small character film over a weekend, or a decision to excise all the dramatic clichés inherent in a thriller, and just focus on physical realism – the locations, and the primal actions of the hunters and prey.
The film is only half-successful as a thriller because too much of what was regarded as tiresome conventions was junked, and West’s penchant for slow openings both pads and drags the film’s first act. West, who also cut the film, knows how to construct chases and shocks, but the overly placid first section meanders as much as the characters searching for deer (even though at times it’s clear the trio are walking on a well-trodden hiking trail which one feels most deer would steer away from due to ongoing human traffic).
West also served as cinematographer, and his decision to stick with a frenzied handycam style might work better on the small screen, but is brutal on the big screen because off all the jittery, hand-held movements, and unnecessary zooms into fuzzy actor faces. The camera style is supposed to evoke a fourth member of the hunting group, but the handycam affectations are often dramatically ridiculous. During a chase scene, the technique works, but there’s just no need to zoom in and out of Reggie’s face when he’s just sitting quietly and talking on a cellphone.
The forest locations are fine, as is the sometimes elegant compositions and natural lighting, and the abandoned factory provides an eerie locale that becomes an urban forest wherein X hunts his tormentor, and closes on an unambiguous but abrupt ending. One could argue more could’ve been done within the factory bowels instead of sticking to the exterior buildings, but that probably would’ve boosted the budget beyond its tight limits.
If taken as a classic human hunting story recomposed as minimalist seventies exploitation cheapie, it mostly works, but sometimes a bit of character conventions adds a bit of necessary meat to the drama.
West’s other films include The Roost (2005), House of the Devil (2009), and Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever (2009).
© 2009 Mark R. Hasan