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If humankind is the most dangerous animal on the planet, then hunting man is the most dangerous game. That’s the basis for the longstanding entertainment trope known as the survivalist or human prey genre. Began by an infamous short story and extrapolated out across numerous categories both realistic (action, thriller) and silly (comedy???), the tracking and killing of other people have come to symbolize everything that’s wrong with society. From the desire to destroy to the acknowledgment of taboo, titles like the ones listed below always spark controversy. Only cannibalism and child sexualization are more scandalous in substance and subtext.
So it’s odd that a big screen adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ hugely popular young adult book series,
The Hunger Games, is viewed as the most mainstream of materials. With its kids killing kids core and rich vs.l poor patina, it should be garnering protests, not praise. And yet, right now, the film is poised to be a massive hit, marking the moment when a bestselling phenomenon on a touchy subject became the stuff of everyday praise. For our money, there are at least ten examples where the main narrative theme plays out better, and more bravely (for all its provocation, Games keeps much of its violence off-screen). As a result, here is our collection of cold-blooded sadism passing as social commentary, movies that make it very clear that, in the battle between individuals, surviving is the least important outcome, beginning with:
10. The Woman Hunt
A byproduct of the dying exploitation industry and rise in sleazoid ’70s drive-in fare, this Jack Hill/Eddie Romero romp features a batty premise (a rich man rounding up women as prostitutes and prey?), a sensational cast (Sig Haig, John Ashley) and enough bare breasts to keep the teen male target audience in check. More low budget action than social commentary horror, it represents the kind of purposeful pandering that made a trip to the local Me Decade passion pit a hot and steamy time. While sordid and too silly for words, it’s still a decent bit of human hunting.
Based loosely on the atrocities committed by Charles Whitman at the University of Texas (he climbed a tower and shot random people one by one), director Peter Bogdanovich took a Roger Corman mandate and crafted a clever meditation on madness and fading film stardom. Required to use Boris Karloff and clips from the film
The Terror, the untested filmmaker found a way to turn his rampaging killer into a critique of the counterculture, while simultaneously exploring the nature of fame and fandom. It got him noticed by the movie industry mainstream.
8. Hard Target
After a fantastic run which included
The Killer, Hard Boiled, and the Better Tomorrow titles, Hong Kong action master John Woo brought his talents to the USA and was immediately thrust into this starring vehicle for ancillary action hunk Jean-Claude Van Damme. The story centered on a rich eccentric (Lance Henriksen) who hunts the homeless in New Orleans. Our lead is the lug who discovers the truth and plans to stop it or die trying. Run of the mill narrative-wise, it featured enough of Woo’s directorial magic to prove his moviemaking mantle.
7. The Running Man
Fans of the Stephen King/Richard Bachman book must have bristled when they saw what Arnold Schwarzenegger and director Paul Michael Glazer (yes, Starsky of
Starsky and Hutch fame) did to this story of a dystopian society and the gory game show where citizens are pitted against hitmen in a battle to the death. Offering a more satiric take on the material, the movie gave Richard Dawson a chance to mock his Family Feud persona while providing fans of the Terminator a whole new slew of catchphrases (“You’ve been canceled!” “Now, just plain zero!”). It remains a half-serious hoot.
6. The Most Dangerous Game
Based on the 1924 story by Richard Connell and set within the questionable world of big game hunting (still a noble pursuit in the early half of the 20th century), this was the movie that started it all. While this adaptation modified much of the narrative and even added a few new characters, it remains true to the concepts Connell was trying to champion. Revolving around the “challenge,” or lack thereof, within the bloodthirsty sport, it’s the foundation for such modern reinterpretations as the movies discussed here.
5. Series 7: The Contenders
More an attack on the emergence of reality TV than a true dissertation on the man vs. man dynamic, this forgotten gem sees a group of randomly selected “participants” chosen by lottery and, gun in hand, told to kill the others for the amusement of a viewing audience. Naturally, each of the six contenders represents a thematic statement on the world in which we live (or lived, since the movie was made some 11 years ago). While the lo-fi documentary approach put some people off, the decline of civilization message came across loud and clear.
Considering that the prey in this version of the subgenre is kidnapped and rendered immobile, this may not be “hunting” in the most specific application of the term. Instead, what we wind up with is the ultimate example of the archetypes underpinning – meaning how far would you go to satisfy your need to torture and kill another human being? Using this simple idea, writer/director Eli Roth fashioned a modern horror classic, complete with all the button pushing brutality that launched a hundred grandiose ‘gorno’ critiques. It’s splatter as social comment.
Granted, the human hunting doesn’t happen until the latter part of the storyline, and the motivation is more revenge than pure sport, but that doesn’t mean that this amazing adaptation of the James Dickey classic is any less effective. A group of Georgia businessmen heads out into the wilderness for a little R&R. What they run into are a bunch of bloodthirsty rednecks and one cackling hillbilly rapist. As a result, the civilized become the cruel, caveman instincts of survival usurping their desire for calm and reason. It’s still as haunting today as it was four decades ago.
Okay, now we are stretching the boundaries of this concept, but it’s important to note that the serial killer featured in David Fincher’s brilliant true-life thriller used The Most Dangerous Game as a jumping off point for his human hunting crime spree. He even used quotes from the source in the coded manifesto he sent to San Francisco newspapers. The fiend who called himself Zodiac was doing what the original narrative suggested: use man as the ultimate prey and then suggest your superiority. Even with its procedural approach, the thrills are palpable.
1. Battle Royale
It’s hard to believe that Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins never heard of this Japanese cult classic. An overview of storylines shows stunning similarities, from the post-war set-up to the death sport as social retribution theme. Even if we grant out the lack of previous knowledge, it’s clear that human hunting offers up similarly styled approaches. For our money, this is the ultimate example of the type, a harsh and brutal denouncement of our addiction to violence as entertainment and cure all. Of the two, this foreign masterpiece trumps the attempts by Ms. Collins to mine the same source.