With The Hunt now arriving on streaming platforms early, Tom Jolliffe looks at cinemas fascination with humans hunting humans…
With the controversial film The Hunt having been quietly released at cinemas shortly before COVID-19 lock down, and now made available on streaming platforms early, it’s high time to take a look over cinemas fascination with the idea of humans being hunted for sport/entertainment. This is not new, though the reasoning behind The Hunt’s delay was somewhat understandable. Mass shootings are sadly not too rare an occurrence in the states, but the timing of a release that could be construed to make light of human/human hunting was deemed troublesome.
In the end, whether the controversy helps or hinders is up for debate (though the unfortunate timing of its ultimate release has lead to difficulties), but the critical reception has been middling. It brings to mind the delay of the Schwarzenegger film, Collateral Damage that was put on the back burner in the wake of 9/11. Ultimately the film was probably too mediocre to really have garnered much notice but you still get the decision.
Still, as I say the concept of humans being hunted for sport or entertainment is not new in cinema. There’s a dark fascination with the idea and in particular when thinking of near future Dystopia, or prescient films about class divide. Generally these films boil down to two slight differences (or a melding of both). Films like Running Man for example, or Battle Royale, and indeed more recently, The Hunger Games, often take a slightly satirical look at media and consumer lust for macabre television. In TV we’re becoming desensitised to violence, to consequence. Yes, right now in the current climate that might be limited to extreme game shows like Takeshi’s Castle, Wipeout, or even shows like I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here. Whether we’re watching someone getting pummelled 60 feet through the air by a rotating sponge, into a pool of water, or being forced to eat a kangaroo’s plonker, there’s this dark satisfaction for the audience to see publicans or celebs being lightly tortured. Infamously some shows involving ice skating, or winter games, and likewise I’m a Celeb, would be called up for leading to horrible physical injuries, or celebs being psychologically pushed over the edge by ‘the game.’ In Sci-fi we’re given a look into a level above. Into a macabre fascination with watching what feels like we shouldn’t (even when it becomes mainstream).
In the more prescient ideas, it’s not mainstream. It’s games behind closed doors. How many tournament fight films have there been with a rich maniacal recluse organising death matches for his own amusement? Enter The Dragon a classic example of that particular formula. Still, class comes into this a lot. The wealthy with a lust to spend their money on extravagance can get no greater extravagance than the opportunity to hunt a fellow human for sport. In Hard Target, Lance Henriksen plays the villainous Fouchon who organises hunts of down and out former war veterans for rich folk wanting to experience the ultimate in hunting. It’s a classic John Woo joint that has every stylistic excess you’d expect from ‘the Woo’ whilst simultaneously getting the very best out of Jean-Claude Van Damme. In Henriksen and his cohort Arnold Vosloo, you also have a double hit of brilliantly intense villainy.
Around the same time as Hard Target there was also the vastly enjoyable Surviving The Game, with a group of hunters all terrorising (and underestimating) Ice-T. These films are only as good as their antagonists, and in Rutger Hauer, Gary Busey, Charles S Dutton and F Murray Abraham you have about as exceptional a selection of tyranny as you’ll find anywhere. It’s great fun. These tend to work particularly well through the peak era of 80’s and 90’s exploitation action films. Even in the cinema released works, there always felt like an inherent B movie charm to many of these, with, bang for buck aside (and A-list casts) not so much to differentiate between them and standard straight to video fare.
A great early forerunner to both Hard Target and Surviving The Game was Avenging Force. If anyone could do high concept with a lowering of brow, and plenty of amiable B movie charm, it was Cannon films. Whilst their young star turn, Michael Dudikoff was more synonymous with his other Cannon breakout, American Ninja (and subsequent sequels), it’s Avenging Force that probably marks one of his strongest films (alongside a little Hitcher-lite gem called Midnight Ride). Indeed, of The Hitcher, all kind of reasoning is taken out, in Ryder’s (Rutger Hauer in exceptional form) almost motiveless, but relishing hunt and torment of Jim Halsey (C Thomas Howell).
The Hunt itself would mark as more a high concept dissection of class divide than cultural/commercial/media satire. Being in the Blumhouse canon it takes a tried and trusted formula and rejigs it for a modern audience. How successfully is open to your reaction to it I guess. Certainly critics felt Betty Gilpin brought a lot of sincerity and intensity to her role, perhaps with the studio more intent to add a layer that you may not have had back in the day watching things like Hard Target, but perhaps in the unabashed B movie sensibility, it works better to not take things quite as seriously. The Hunger Games I’d always felt was far too po-faced, and ultimately, for its genre, not fun enough. Whether you dissect class, or media etc, this sub-genre for me, tends to work best when you’re not taking it too seriously. When you know to go high energy, or go home. Fitting drama in the right spots, when you need to break up a relentless pace. That being said, it’s not a bad thing that Blumhouse has tended to shoot for higher than the sum of the parts in some of these films, and The Invisible Man was testament (and more successfully so) to that.
Aside from the aforementioned, there have been plenty of highlights in the genre. The Belko Experiment was enjoyable, Big Game was ludicrous but fun (thanks to Samuel L. Jackson) and The Tenth Victim an old 60’s era Italian made B picture that offers a nice early example of the genre. There were a large number of trashy exploitation films in the 60’s and 70’s with these themes too. A lot that were pretty terrible (but that almost adds a certainly quality to the viewing experience), but some had some interesting ideas like The Perverse Countess.
What is your favourite film about humans hunting humans? Will you be watching The Hunt? Let us know in the comments below or on social media @FlickeringMyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020, including The Witches Of Amityville Academy (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch) and Tooth Fairy: The Root of Evil. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.