I'm shocked to be saying this, but The Collector is my favorite horror film so far this year. Granted, the competition hasn't exactly been stellar, but I don't think anyone at the HorrorSquad/Fantastic Fest co-presentation of the newest film from Feast and Saw sequel scribes Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton could have been more surprised to like the movie than I was and still am. I loved watching Dunstan and Melton process their success on Project Greenlight, but when Feast finally came out I was disappointed. I've also been disappointed by the Saw franchise in general, the majority of which were written by the charming duo. And that's not even covering my disappointment with the two Feast sequels, disappointment being a generous word choice.

Before the screening began, HorrorSquad honcho Scott Weinberg, who flew into Austin specifically for the event, was making stops around the theater with Dunstan in tow and it was obvious just how happy the director was to be showing off his grotesque baby. I can't deny that his enthusiasm wasn't infectious, hell, you could have made a boat the size of the Titanic out of that man's smile. So when Fantastic Fest papa Tim League took the stage to present The Collector to a room packed with eager horror hounds, I was stacking hope on top of hope that I'd finally like a Dunstan/Melton film.

I dug it. Dug it hard, even. I've got a full review up over yonder, but in a nutshell I found it to be knockout for the duo, particularly so for the first time director. And that was just my gut reaction when the credits rolled. Not until Weinberg took the stage to volley a Q&A with the creative pair did I realize just how striking of an accomplishment it was.

Photo by Jette Kernion
What stood out most to me was the budget, which Dunstan said was under $3mil (I heard $2.4mil later on). Now to someone who has tried and failed miserably at making a movie, three million dollars is a number so large it warrants typing out in full just to absorb it. In the land of professional movie making, however, it's peanuts. That's not even half the budget of most Uwe Boll movies, for crying out loud. Obviously there is no golden rule that states a lower budget mandates lower talents, but there's certainly a correlation. Which is understandable; budget can make the difference between running around in the grand canyon and playing in a sandbox. But there are times when those left in the sandbox build castles and The Collector is a big boy with a moat, parapets and dungeons full of bear traps.

You'd never know there were constraints to the production because there is nothing in the final film that broadcasts itself as a compromise. All of the gory effects pieces are confident and brutal (no obvious inserts or re-shoots) and the acting talent is pitch perfect for all of the roles. Which is an accomplishment that grows only more impressive when Dunstan/Melton explained how ill fated the production was. Though the plot of a thief breaking into the house of a serial killer was originally conceived as its own project called The Midnight Man, the first interested studio (Twisted Pictures) wanted it to be retooled as a prequel to Saw. Obviously that never ended up panning out, so their script went back into limbo before the boys were able to set it up at Dimension Films.

I apologize for not being able to recall the exact turn of events after that, but Dimension's umbrella turned out to be more like a sieve and the film only reached about 75% completion before once again falling into limbo. Months of an ambiguous future went by before Dunstan poured more of his own money into the film to bring things 'round to 100%. Yet things still weren't in the clear. Even after the film was bottled up, the pair had a meeting in which The Weinstein Company broke the news that the studio simply could not afford to release the movie, what with all of their coin being tied up in mainstream titles like Inglourious Basterds. It was at that low point that a miracle happened.

Photo by Jette Kernion

Harvey Weinstein, a man notorious for being a fickle studio titan that'll hold on to films just so others can't release them, granted Dunstan and Melton a one week window to court a new distributor for The Collector. Once again against the odds, the two found a savior in Freestyle Releasing, who loved the movie so much, they agreed to put it out in over a thousand theaters at the end of July. It's not unusual for most films, independent or not, to go through a roller coaster like that, but to end out on top is a rare thing on its own, and an even rarer ending for small projects with little to no presence in mainstream culture.

Having seen the film, I'm not surprised. It is, as Dunstan pointed out before and after the screening, a horror movie made for horror movie fans. However, unlike a lot of movies that wave the 'for the fans' flag, The Collector doesn't dumb itself down. It's a throwback in the purest sense of the term. It's not a funny homage to a time of boobs and blood, it is a hard edged, no bullshit nail bitter. Combine a movie that speaks for itself with a charismatic pitchmen team and it's crystal clear why it'll be carving its way to cinemas on July 31st instead of going straight to a retail shelf near you.

Though in spite of it being a thoroughly entertaining film, I'm still afraid it won't see the financial success it deserves. Sure venues like Fantastic Fest and HorrorSquad can champion the movie, but that's a very targeted audience. I'm not too jazzed about the ad campaign for the film either. It has good trailers available in both red and green band flavors, but the two recent clips (#1, #2) release are both from the one element of The Collector that looks like a Saw film. I'm afraid people will see those clips or see a TV spot here and there that don't represent how different (and superior) The Collector is from the franchise it superficially resembles and dismiss it outright.

That's just the way things go, though. Marketing must do what marketing does, which is to play to what's popular. I just hope that it doesn't flounder at the box office. Clearly it won't be a run away success, but so long as people know this home invasion beast is in the wild and know that it's worth their night out, I'm sure Dunstan, Melton and Freestyle Releasing will get what they've earned.

Oh, and thanks once again to Fantastic Fest for a great showcase. And thanks to Cinematical regular Jette Kernion for taking some photos of the event, which was the first time I actually got to meet the most amiable horror geek imaginable, AKA Scott Weinberg. I've no doubt HorrorSquad will put up a reminder next week, but just to pound it in once more, The Collector starts nation wide on July 31st, 2009.