The hunt is on

 

© 20th Century Fox / Silver Pictures

 

I don’t know which work of short fiction has impacted most on the cinema.  However, I’d bet that Richard Connell’s 8400-word opus The Most Dangerous Game (1924), also known as The Hounds of Zaroff, ranks at least in the top ten short stories that have influenced filmmakers.

 

The Most Dangerous Game is about a big game hunter called Rainsford who falls off a yacht in the Caribbean.  He gets washed ashore on an island belonging to General Zaroff, a Russian exile and another hunting enthusiast.  Zaroff, it transpires, has grown bored of hunting animals and graduated to hunting bigger game, i.e. human beings.  So he dedicates himself to tracking down and killing the poor sailors who frequently get shipwrecked in the treacherous waters around his island.  Zaroff is delighted by Rainsford’s arrival because now he has a quarry he can really pit his wits against.

 

Armed only with a knife, Rainsford is soon being pursued across the island’s forests, swamps and clifftops by the crazed Zaroff, who’s equipped with proper firepower and supported by a hulking henchman and a pack of hungry hounds.  A typical hunter, Zaroff makes sure the odds are stacked in his favour.

 

The Most Dangerous Game has been filmed officially several times, most recently in 2017 under the title of Never Leave Alive.  Several loose adaptations of it have appeared too.  But its premise of humans hunting other humans lurks in the DNA of dozens, if not hundreds, of films in the action-adventure, thriller, science fiction and horror genres – including the Hunger Games movies, the Saw ones, the original Rambo one (1982) and that infamous Japanese bloodbath Battle Royale (2000).

 

I recently discovered Connell’s story on the Internet and read it for the first time.  Some of it is surprising if, like me, you’ve already seen many of the films it’s inspired.  For one thing, Connell spends about 6000 of his 8400 words setting up the situation, before the hunt begins.   Admittedly, he squeezes a lot of action into the final quarter.  Rainsford flees through the forests and swamps to the cliffs, tries and fails to kill Zaroff with three hastily-improvised traps – a Malay man-catcher, a Burmese tiger-pit and a Ugandan knife-trap – fakes his own death and returns to Zaroff’s headquarters for a final showdown.

 

Also surprising is Rainsford’s lack of self-awareness.  The irony of his situation is implicit in the story, obviously, but he never recognises that irony himself.  The Most Dangerous Game begins with him sailing for South America with the intention of shooting jaguars and you get the impression that, once he leaves the island, he’ll continue to South America and shoot jaguars.  His experience of being hunted like an animal hasn’t increased his empathy for hunted animals.

 

Still, there’s much to enjoy.  Particularly amusing is the scene where Zaroff describes his modus operandi to a slowly-comprehending Rainsford:

 

“I wanted the ideal animal to hunt,” explained the general.  “So I said, ‘What are the attributes of an ideal quarry?’  And the answer was, of course, ‘It must have courage, cunning, and, above all, it must be able to reason.”

“But no animal can reason,” objected Rainsford.

“My dear fellow,” said the general, “there is one.”

 

So much for the original story, then.  What about the countless humans-hunting-humans movies that have come in its wake?  The following are my favourites.

 

© RKO Radio Pictures

 

The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

This is a direct adaptation of the story by Ernest D. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper, who made it while they were also making King Kong (1933).  They filmed it at night on Kong’s jungle sets, including the famous one depicting a gorge spanned by a fallen tree-trunk.  Connell’s plot is followed closely, though it’s pumped up and made more cinematic – a bigger proportion of the film is devoted to the hunt, Zaroff (Leslie Banks) has more henchmen helping him out and, in another overlap with Kong, Fay Wray is added as a love interest for Rainsford (Joel McCrea).  Also added is a grotesque trophy room where the heads of Zaroff’s victims are displayed – the glimpses we get of those heads wouldn’t have been allowed a few years later, after Hollywood’s censorious Hays Code was imposed in 1934.  Leslie Banks, sporting real facial scars that he acquired whilst fighting in World War I, is entertaining as Zaroff; though by attempting to do a Russian accent by rolling his ‘r’s a lot, he ends up sounding more like a demented Scotsman.

 

The Naked Prey (1965)

Shifting The Most Dangerous Game’s premise to 19th century South Africa, The Naked Prey has a group of white hunters offending and then falling foul of a local tribe.  The last survivor, played by Cornel Wilde (who also directed and produced), is stripped of his clothes and hunted across the veldt by the vengeful tribesmen.  I saw this as a kid and was traumatised by its stark depictions of the horrors inflicted by the hunters – an early scene shows native bearers plodding in and out of the gutted carcasses of slain elephants – and the horrors inflicted on them by the locals.

 

© United Artists

 

The Hunting Party (1971)

Here, The Most Dangerous Game is reworked in the guise of a Western.  A gang of outlaws led by a thuggish Oliver Reed – while most British actors stick out like sore thumbs when they appear in Westerns, Reed really looks the part – kidnap a woman (Candice Bergman), not knowing that her husband (Gene Hackman) is a wealthy cattle-baron who’s even more psychotic than they are.  He’s currently on a hunting trip with some buddies, using newly-developed long-range rifles with telescopic sights.  When he learns what’s happened, Hackman and his fellow hunters set off in pursuit, picking off the outlaws one by one at their leisure, from a safe distance.  Critics loathed The Hunting Party on account of its level of bloodletting, which was obviously inspired by Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969).  But I find it fascinating just for its single-minded nihilism.  Hackman’s prey get little chance to fight back; and even while his friends abandon him, sickened by his cruelty, Hackman keeps going, determined to kill ’em all.

 

Punishment Park (1971)

The underrated radical filmmaker Peter Watkins was responsible for Punishment Park, a fictional docu-drama  that transposes The Most Dangerous Game to a near-future dystopian USA – one where both the Vietnam War and opposition to it have escalated and Richard Nixon is drafting increasing numbers into the police and National Guard to maintain order at home.  The titular punishment park is a set-up whereby police and Guardsmen hunt down political dissidents (i.e. anti-war protestors, hippies and civil rights activists) while they try to cross an area of desert.  The former get valuable experience and training while the latter, if they can cross the park without being apprehended, supposedly win back their freedom.   Everything is viewed through the neutral eyes of a European film crew who are making a documentary about the process – though as the one-sided nature of things becomes clear to them, they find it harder to maintain that neutrality.  It’s a disorientating and disturbing piece that feels no less relevant today, given the way things are going in Trump-era America.

 

© Chartwell Francoise / Project X Distribution

 

The Beast Must Die (1974)

Strictly speaking, British horror movie The Beast Must Die isn’t about humans hunting humans.  It’s about humans hunting werewolves, though you could argue that werewolves are human for at least part of the time.  Calvin Lockhart – the first black actor to land the leading role in a British horror film – plays a millionaire hunter determined to bag a lycanthrope.  He rigs up his country estate with CCTV cameras and motion sensors, procures a helicopter and invites five unsavoury people to visit for a few days convinced that one of them – he’s not sure which one – is a werewolf.  Even watching this movie as a teenager I knew Lockhart’s logic was barmy.  What if he’s got it wrong and none of them is a werewolf?  He’ll be really disappointed.  Or what if they’re all werewolves?  They’ll surely rip him to pieces.  But nonetheless, The Beast Must Die is good, daft fun.  The sneaky werewolf gradually gets the better of Lockhart and his hi-tech equipment, whilst also bumping off his staff and guests Ten Little Indians-style.  (These include Peter Cushing, Charles Gray, Anton Diffring and a youthful Michael Gambon).

 

Southern Comfort (1981)

Perhaps the most accomplished film on this list, Southern Comfort was made by Walter Hill when he was at the height of his powers.  It tells the tale of a National Guard unit on weekend manoeuvres in the Bayou who unwisely antagonise an unseen group of Cajun hunters.  With its premise of supposedly well-trained, well-equipped American soldiers floundering in unfamiliar terrain, the film is often viewed as an allegory about the Vietnam War; but as the Cajuns prey on their victims using traps, quicksand and savage hunting dogs, the film’s roots in The Most Dangerous Game are plain to see too.

 

© 20th Century Fox / Cinema Group Ventures

 

Predator (1987)

A sci-fi / action highlight of the late 1980s when Arnold Schwarzenegger was King of the Box Office, Predator has clear parallels with The Most Dangerous Game.  Ah-nuld and a team of testosterone-stuffed commandoes (Carl Weathers, Jesse Ventura, etc.) enter the jungle to hunt down some insurgents, only to find themselves being hunted, for sport, by a grotesque-looking alien.  Yes, this is really an alien-hunts-humans movie, but the alien has all the characteristics of a human big game hunter.  It collects trophies (skulls) and, possessing deadly heat-rays, super-powerful sensors and an invisibility device that Harry Potter would be proud of, it hunts secure in the knowledge that it has technological advantages that its prey doesn’t have.

 

Surviving the Game (1994)

A homeless man (Ice-T) thinks his luck is on the up when he’s hired by a group of wealthy men to be their assistant during a hunting holiday in the remote Pacific Northwest.  But – surprise! – it soon turns out that he isn’t assisting them, he’s being shot at by them.  Surviving the Game is silly and predictable but I like it for its spectacular mountain landscapes and its excellent cast.  In addition to the always-endearing Ice-T, it has F. Murray Abraham playing a Wall Street stockbroker who believes that hunting people sharpens his business instincts, Gary Busey playing a deranged psychiatrist who finds hunting people therapeutic, and Rutger Hauer playing the evil scuzz-ball who’s masterminded the operation.  With a trophy room of human heads and a sequence involving a gorge spanned by a fallen tree, the film also makes visual references to the 1932 movie version of The Most Dangerous Game.

 

© Carnaby Film Productions / Kaleidoscope Film Distribution

 

A Lonely Place to Die (2011)

This is a neat little British thriller about a group of mountaineers in the Scottish Highlands who discover a young Eastern European girl, obviously a kidnap victim, locked in an underground vault.  Unfortunately, the kidnappers (chillingly played by Sean Harris and Stephen McCole) are in the area too, with high-powered rifles, and decide to retake the girl and eliminate her would-be rescuers.  As well as featuring some beautiful scenery in Glencoe and Glen Etive and some vertiginous rock-climbing set-pieces, the film has a grimly funny scene where the villains encounter two proper hunters, out shooting deer, who fatally mistake them for animal rights activists.

 

Revenge (2017)

Coralie Fargeat’s stylish exploitation movie gives The Most Dangerous Game a feminist twist.  Millionaire drug-dealer Richard (Kevin Janssens) takes his glamorous mistress Jen (Matilda Lutz) to his luxury hideaway in the desert, where he also intends to meet up with two sleazy buddies for some hunting.  Things don’t go as planned – Jen is sexually assaulted, she threatens to tell everything to Richard’s wife, and Richard tries and fails to kill her.  When Jen flees, wounded, into the desert the three men saddle up with their hunting gear and set off in pursuit.  Jen, who early on looked like she’d go to pieces at the sight of a broken fingernail or a laddered stocking, suddenly develops some outdoor survival skills and begins turning the tables on them.  It’s preposterous stuff but, like all such films, you find yourself cheering when the hunted starts to bite back against the bastard hunters.

 

© Rezo Films / MES Productions / Monkey Pack Films

 

In-flight movies

 

(c) Marvel Studios / Walt Disney Studios

 

I’ve done a lot of flying recently, mostly with Qatar Airways.  And when I’m on a long-haul flight with an airline that’s sufficiently in-the-money to have a big entertainment system embedded in the seat-back a few inches from my nose, there’s only one thing I can do.  I can only dig into that system’s movie-selection and find a few big-budget summer blockbusters – movies I’d never proactively go and seek out at a cinema, but which are sufficiently easy on the brain for me to watch when I’m knackered and strapped into a cramped airplane seat for seven or eight hours.

 

The first thing I watched was the Marvel Comics superhero adaptation Avengers: Age of Ultron, which was released six months ago.

 

Being old, I can remember a time when the Avengers really were comic-book characters and the prospects of them ever appearing in a movie seemed remote.  But my experiences reading the Avengers comic as a kid in the 1970s were frustrating, because the newsagents closest to where I lived in Northern Ireland didn’t stock anything by Marvel.  I had to wait till my family made one of their occasional visits to the nearest town, Enniskillen, where I could buy such comics at Veitch’s newspaper shop.  The infrequency with which I read the Avengers meant that each time I did so, disconcertingly, the team of superheroes featured in the comic had changed their line-up. There were always newcomers who’d seemingly popped up out of nowhere, while previous members I’d become used to had disappeared.

 

(c) Marvel Worldwide Inc.

 

However, the team’s core was fairly solid: Captain America, Thor and Iron Man.  All three appear in Age of Ultron, respectively played by Chris Evans, Chris Helmsdale and Robert Downey Jr.  Also in the movie are the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner).  And we get War Machine (Don Cheadle), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and the Vision (Paul Bettany) too.  And halfway through the movie, in struts Samuel L. Jackson playing the one-eyed Nick Fury, director of the espionage, law-enforcement and counter-terrorism organisation S.H.I.E.L.D.

 

Phew.  That’s a lot of Marvel characters in one movie.  I found it hard to keep up with them all.  I was particularly puzzled by the presence of the brother-and-sister superheroes Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, because I remember them from a different comic, the X-Men – in which they worked for the bad guy, Magneto.  (Indeed, Quicksilver also appeared in the last X-Men movie, Days of Future Past.  There, however, he was an easy-going dude played by Evan Peters, whereas in Age of Ultron Taylor-Johnson portrays him as an altogether more intense and serious character.)

 

(c) Marvel Worldwide Inc.

 

Incidentally, I was pleased to see Iron Man take centre-stage in this film.  I always felt sorry for him in the comics because frankly, compared to the more dramatically attired Captain America and Thor, he seemed like a dork in a boring tin suit.  But played by Robert Downey Jr, he’s more interesting and glamorous.  Mind you, the fact that his human alter-ego, Tony Stark, is a billionaire playboy who’s built his business empire on selling weapons – he’s basically Donald Trump without the crap wig but with a dossier of dodgy arms deals with the Saudis – has made him the subject of some disapproval, including in this recent article in the New Statesman:

 

http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2015/04/politics-iron-man-how-marvel-sold-arms-dealing-billionaire-liberal-america.

 

Actually, Iron Man’s moral ambiguity is what gives him depth – depth that’s lacking in some of the other characters.  And it’s Stark’s overconfident meddling with forces he doesn’t understand that creates and unleashes the movie’s big baddie, Ultron, a global computer system powered by a gemstone from Loki’s sceptre – you need to have watched the previous Avengers movie to know what I’m talking about – that becomes sentient and later incarnates itself in a robot body.

 

Among the other characters I remember from the 1970s is the Vision, the ghostly green-skinned synthesised android who was one of my favourite Avengers.   I’m glad that he’s played here by an actor as good as Paul Bettany.  I also recall Nick Fury, whom I thought was a dullard in his comic-book days.  He seemed a slab-headed, gung-ho, ex-marine type who really belonged in a war comic like Sergeant Rock.  But casting Samuel L. Jackson in the role hasn’t only given Fury a change of skin-colour – personality-wise he’s more appealing now.

 

(c) Marvel Worldwide Inc.

 

By the way, Fury has been played in the past by a white actor, in the 1998 TV movie Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.  In that, he was played by, ahem, David Hasselhoff.

 

With multiple characters, multiple sub-plots, multiple incidents and multiple back-story references, I should have liked Age of Ultron more than I did.  After all, this was how the superheroes’ stories were told in the comics.  And over the years, comic fans have complained about how these superheroes have been treated by filmmakers, with the complex comics storylines – developed over scores and finally hundreds of issues – simplified and pared to the bone to suit the demands of a stand-alone film, with a linear narrative, little room for back-story and a running time of two or so hours.

 

Age of Ultron should have been a happy reminder to me of how the comics were, but I found it too distractingly busy.  It even made me nostalgic for the best superhero movies of old – Sam Raimi’s first two Spiderman films, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and Zack Snyder’s underrated take on Superman, 2013’s Man of Steel – where the superhero and supervillains were confined to two or three characters and the stories were reasonably self-contained.  Yes, I love the old comic-book approach to story-telling, but I don’t think it works in the medium of film.

 

Age of Ultron would probably have been more palatable as a TV series, where its twists and turns could have been spun out over a number of episodes.  The irony is that the movie was masterminded by Joss Whedon, whose best-known work is a TV series: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which ran from 1997 to 2003.

 

(c) Marvel Studios / Walt Disney Studios

 

I thought I’d enjoy another Marvel adaptation, one of the sci-fi / space-opera comic Guardians of the Galaxy, which was released last year.  This was because it got many good reviews that praised its irreverent tone and described it as unpretentious fun.  Also, science fiction fans saw fit to give it this year’s Hugo Award for best dramatic presentation (long form).

 

It’s about a group of buccaneering, spacefaring misfits who get caught up in a feud between two intergalactic factions, the Nova Empire and the Kree.  The group consists of a human (Chris Pratt) whom aliens abducted from Earth in the 1980s, when he was eight years old; a hard-assed extra-terrestrial lady with a green skin played by Zoe Saldana, who’s best known for her performance as an extra-terrestrial and blue-skinned lady in James Cameron’s Avatar (2009); a hulking warrior whose body is a circuit-board-like mass of scar patterns (David Bautista); a genetically engineered, talking space raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper); and a walking alien tree called Groot, who only communicates with the words “I am Groot” (voiced by Vin Diesel).

 

Unfortunately, I didn’t much enjoy Guardians of the Galaxy because I didn’t think the film was as smart, funny or cool as it thought it was.  A particular annoyance was Rocket, the talking space raccoon, who’s meant to be its main source of humour but whose incessant, cynical wisecracking just bugged me.  After a few minutes in his company, I was longing for a giant spaceship to run over the top of him and reduce him to a smear of interstellar roadkill.

 

(c) Marvel Studios / Walt Disney Studios 

 

The film has a smug knowingness that’s embodied in the fact that it has Vin Diesel playing a tree.  Yes, that’s Vin Diesel, who’s often mocked for his wooden acting style, playing a mass of wood.  Get it?  Come to think of it, the joke would have been funnier if they’d hired Roger Moore.

 

I found the film’s soundtrack problematic too.  It features a host of songs that were supposedly on a cassette tape in Pratt’s Walkman when he was abducted and now constitute his only link with Earth.  The issue is that Pratt was supposedly abducted in the late 1980s and all these songs – which get played out over the movie’s swashbuckling space action – come from the 1970s or late 1960s: I’m not in Love by 10cc, Spirit in the Sky by Norman Greenbaum, Hooked on a Feeling by Blue Swede (which also saw movie-soundtrack duty in 1992’s Reservoir Dogs), etc.  You’d expect something from the late 1980s to be on that cassette tape, although it’d probably be a shit song like Faith by George Michael or Wishing Well by Terence Trent D’Arby.

 

A properly cool late-1980s kid, of course, would have had the likes of the Jesus and Mary Chain, Killing Joke, the Cramps, the Pixies, the Sisters of Mercy and the Stone Roses on his or her Walkman.  Wow – imagine that lot being played out over scenes of epic space battles!

 

One compensation is the supporting cast.  Keep your eyes and ears open during Guardians of the Galaxy and you’ll spot Glenn Close, John C. Reilly, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Peter Serafinowicz and Christopher Fairbank, who once upon a time played Moxey, the Scouse plasterer in the much-loved British TV comedy-drama Auf Wiedersehen, Pet.  And playing a shaven-headed, blue-skinned villainess is the Scottish actress Karen Gillan, who occupies a fond place in my heart for essaying the no-nonsense Amy Pond in Doctor Who.

 

(c) Skydance Productions / Paramount Pictures

 

Matt Smith, the actor who played the Doctor to Gillan’s Amy Pond, turned up in another blockbuster I watched during my Qatar Airways flights: this summer’s Terminator Genisys, the fifth in the franchise of sci-fi movies that began with James Cameron’s The Terminator back in 1984.  I can imagine Smith’s excitement at being offered a role in a big-budget Hollywood movie turning to disappointment when he saw its final cut and realised he was barely in it.  Mind you, he should be relieved that he’s barely onscreen because the finished film isn’t very good.

 

It begins with a reworking of events at the start of the 1984 Terminator.  John Connor (Jason Clarke), human resistance leader in a dystopian future where the machines have taken over and nearly extirpated mankind, discovers that the machines have sent a terminator – i.e. a hulking but human-like killer robot – back in time to the early 1980s to execute his mother, prevent him from being born and prevent the human resistance from ever existing too.  So he sends his friend Kyle Reece (Jai Courtney) back in time to the 1980s to stop the terminator and save his mother, Sarah (Emilia Clarke).

 

The twist is that Reece arrives in a different version of the past.  This is because someone, mysteriously, has sent another terminator – a reprogrammed, nice terminator, similar to the ones Arnold Schwarzenegger played in the second and third Terminator movies in 1991 and 2003 and also played by Schwarzenegger here – to the 1970s to protect Sarah Connor as a girl.  And this has changed the timeline since then.  Therefore, you get incidents similar to ones in the first two Terminator movies happening again, but differently – mainly because nice-Arnold-from-the-1970s and a now-weaponised Sarah Connor keep turning up to kick the asses of various bad-guys-from-the-future.  These bad-guys-from-the-future include the creepy, cat-like, shape-shifting T-1000, who in Terminator II was played by Robert Patrick but is played here by the Korean actor Lee Byun-hun.

 

Meanwhile, Sarah and Arnold have somehow managed to build a time machine similar to the one used by the machines.  With this, Sarah and Reece travel forward in time to 2017, by which time the takeover by the machines hasn’t yet happened – it’s been delayed, apparently – but it will happen soon unless the sneakily-becoming-sentient machines are stopped.  If that doesn’t make sense to you, don’t worry.  By this point it’d stopped making sense to me too.  And thereafter the film flails around with an increasing number of chases, explosions and bursts of illogical plot exposition.  There’s one plot-twist that would have been chilling if it hadn’t, unfortunately, been given away in the movie’s promotional trailers.

 

Just as the plot gets lost in a mess of time-travelling inconsistencies, so the audience’s appreciation of Terminator Genisys gets stuck in its own self-defeating loop.  To understand what’s going on, you need to have seen Cameron’s original two movies.  But if you’ve seen those, you’ll probably be annoyed to watch their best ideas and scenes pilfered by this brasher and shallower re-tread.

 

Any entertainment value in the film comes from a couple of the performances: namely, the great character actor J.K. Simmons in a supporting role and the now-pushing-seventy Schwarzenegger as yours truly.  To explain Arnold’s decrepitude – I use the word ‘decrepitude’ in a relative sense: it’s not like I’d fancy my chances in a fight with him or anything – we learn that the synthetic flesh coating the terminators’ robotic skeletons grows old, just as real flesh does on real humans.  Thus, by 2017, Arnold (who hasn’t travelled forward in time with Sarah and Reece, but has just hung around since 1984 waiting for them to show up) is looking quite pensionable.  The filmmakers have even given him a catchphrase to reflect his aging: “Old, not obsolete.”

 

(c) Skydance Productions / Paramount Pictures

 

This is nowhere near as memorable as “I’ll be back” or “Hasta la vista, baby”, but it does sound poignant when he utters it in 2017, while we see his hand trembling uncontrollably and we realise the circuitry inside it soon will be obsolete.

 

Sadly, a modified version of that catchphrase sums up Terminator Genisys itself.  Old and obsolete.