Color, 1997, 108 mins.

Directed by Michael Haneke

Starring Susanne Lothar, Ulrich Mühe, Arno Frisch, Frank Giering / Cinematography by Jürgen Jürges / Produced by Veit Heiduschka

Format: DVD - Fox Lorber (MSRP $29.95)

Letterboxed (1.85:1) / Dolby Digital 4.0

The first hour of the German horror art film Funny Games is so close to being good that it's almost a tragedy when the whole thing goes off the rails near the end. Imagine Last House on the Left directed with the static psychological probing of Claude Chabrol, and that should give you some idea of what to expect from this bizarre, sometimes startling thrill-kill film festival hit, which kicks off with a roar but regrettably spirals downward into pretension and self-indulgent "winks" at the audience.

It all starts in the best backwoods terror tradition (I Spit onYour Grave, House by the Lake, or any other domestic seige movie from the '70s) as a husband (Ulrich Muhe) and wife (Susanne Lothar), their young son (Stefan Clapczynski), and their dog go for a quiet stay at a lakehouse. Two young men wearing white gloves (a big warning sign to any family whose collective I.Q. breaks the double digits) show up at their door and begin to play an elaborate game involving borrowing some eggs for a neighbor. Soon things get out of hand, and the lads find sport in cracking the husband's shins open with a golf club, wrapping a pillowcase over the son's head, and clubbing the family pooch to death and stuffing it in the station wagon. Having fun yet? As you can tell, this is not the most uplifting movie in the world, but it's quite slickly done; the acting is consistently effective, with the two preppy snot psychos making a solid impression and each family member eliciting enough sympathy to make you care about their participation in the "funny games." Unfortunately, the mounting suspense all comes to a screeching halt when the killers abruptly leave and the film indulges in a long (and I do mean long) 20 minute sequence in which two characters sit on the floor, cry, and walk around aimlessly. Apparently this is meant to invoke some sort of Ingmar Bergmanesque expression of emptiness and despair, but it only results in extreme audience boredom. The pace tries to pick back up with a rushed finale, but to no avail; by this point, the psychos have worn out their welcome, and the story limps along to an all-too-obvious "twist" ending. At various points during the film, the more "charming" of the villains (Arno Frisch) turns to the camera and offers knowing comments to the audience; these Brechtian distancing devices are fine at first, but Haneke apparently felt himself being painted into a corner and uses a lame deus ex machina narrative device in which Frisch actually takes control of the film via a VCR remote control to change the events happening onscreen. These cutesy "killer manipulating the movie" tactics were already tired in the French serial killer drama Man Bites Dog, and they're simply risible and insulting here. Even more strangely, the music score consists entirely of classical standards alternating with truly grating John Zorn thrash metal. Very odd. These shortcomings aside, though, Funny Games is still an unsettling experience; several moments do evoke some genuine heart in mouth terror, and at least the filmmakers consistently try to do something different and clearly display quite a bit of technical talent. If they gain more control of their narrative and drop several tons of pretension, this ensemble could be quite a team to watch.

Fox Lorber DVDs so far have tended to be very, very good (Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Emmanuelle 2) or absolutely terrible (L'Enfer). Fortunately, Funny Games is one of their best-looking looking titles, with rich, sharp color and details. Though the packaging makes no note of it, the film is in Dolby Surround, a very important and disorienting asset to the story. The clear, legible English subtitles are not optional, unfortunately. The disc also includes filmographies for the director and cast (who all apparently worked on the same films) and a very obtuse English trailer. Apparently this transfer was derived from a British source print, as the subtitles contain U.K. colloquialisms throughout. The hyperbolic liner notes warn consumers that this film contains scenes "some audiences may find shocking" and boasts, "See it if you dare!" Don't be misled, though; aside from one fleeting and very splashy gunshot death, there's no onscreen bloodshed and very little overt violence, with most of the brutality wisely contained to offscreen sound effects and facial reactions. If you're expecting a gorefest a la Reservoir Dogs (or, more to the point, Straw Dogs), this is going to be a letdown; but as far as stylish, assured, but undisciplined European shockers go, this is an adequate way to kill time.

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