The strangers-in-a-madman's-death-trap set up of Steven Hentges's 2009 film, Hunger, immediately calls to mind the standard-bearer franchise of the much maligned torture porn subgenre, Saw. One of the character's evens suggests that the trap they find themselves in is game and, in order to survive, they need to successfully play the trap out. Within the world-logic of the film, the character's suggestion makes no sense. The maker of the trap has left no instructions and there's never any clear condition the trapped characters can induce that would bring the game to satisfactory conclusion. For the characters, there's no reason to assume they're in a Jigsaw-like game. Rather, this odd assertion is a muffled sort of fourth wall breach; it's the director and writer indirectly communicating the viewer that, yes, they know, there's a seven-film large elephant in the room.
As it turns out, there's little of extreme body trauma and gore sadism that mark the torture porn subgenre here. If anything, the film's links to Saw (and to Saw's absurdist French cousin, Martyrs) come in the form of retroactively calling attention to Saw's curious place in the "mad scientist" strain of horror. Hunger is no torture porn film. Instead, the flick is poor man's No Exit, a slow burn psychological stress exercise that attempts to ground to tension in the decaying characterizations of its protagonists.
The first 10 minutes of Hunger are visually arresting. In keeping with the demands of the strangers-in-a-trap framework, Hentges opens by introducing us to the protag cluster one-by-one, each entering the scene in a way meant to instantly communicate who the leader is, who the traumatized one is, who the crazy dangerous one is, and so on. Though we're walking on narrative ground so well-tread it's got ruts dug through it, Hentges gives the scene some kick by filming it entirely in ill-lit extreme close-ups. The characters become pale face-splotches hanging in a seemingly endless expanse of inky blackness; the emotions the project are explicit to the point of actor-exercise overtness. The viewer hears action, see reaction shots, and loses any sense of the characters spatial relationship to one another. And this goes on for about a tenth of the movie's running time, well past the point where the viewer's wondering if the whole movie was shot in this bizarro horror take on Dreyer's Joan.
After that introductory scene, the film falls into a far more familiar visual template and viewers find themselves in the factory-standard squalor of your garden variety captivity cave. As our captives are watched ceaselessly by a both sipping, classical music lovin' (vinyl geek, natch) mad scientist, they quickly figure out that the plan is to starve them to death. It doesn't take to long for folks to figure out that people are, in fact, meat. Then it just becomes a game of waiting to see who freaks out first and who becomes long pig.
The emphasis in the flick is on the mounting tension between the protagonists and not the gore and violence of their inevitable regression into barbarism. This pays dividends for watchability: there's little in the way of the torn human form that remains to be innovated and the promise of watching a bunch of folks in a pit turning each other into sausage is not much of a promise at all. This comes at a cost. By replacing the mechanical progress of so many horror flicks with a plotline that amounts to a series of interlocked character studies, the film throws too much weight on the shoulders of its game, but not particular exceptional cast. There are some perfectly adequate performances, but nothing magnetic enough to justify that fact that a significant part of the film is simply these characters sitting around, doing little character building bits, biding time until the next plot point.
The motivation for our baddie is another awkward aspect of the film. The film is punctuated by a series of flashbacks that are meant to reveal the reason the host of this mini-holodomor goes through all this trouble - at least twice, as the characters find the remains of previous experiment subjects. However, his experiment bares to little relation to conditions that created him and the conclusion is so foregone that the whole think seems clumsy rather an illuminating. By the end of the movie, I was convinced that we weren't watching mad science as in "you are conducting science with a reckless disregard for the consequences and the cost in human life," but rather mad science in the sense of "you are crazy and believe that the crazy crap you're doing is somehow science, when it is really just you being crazy."
Despite its imperfections and too often clunky story elements, I found I was willing to cut Hunger some slack. With its emphasis on character over shock, Hunger stretches for something genuinely dramatic. Almost all its flaws are a product of overreach. This doesn't make the flick an less flawed, but one can afford to be generous about honest mistakes.
SPEAKING OF HONEST MISTAKES!
If you haven't thrown your two cents into the Great Slasher Research Project of '10, why not do so now? It's easy, it's not necessarily the opposite of fun, and it will not worsen any of the pressing and heart-wrenching geo-political humanitarian issues of the day! The project closes for comments on the 20th.