An archive review from The Gingold Files.

By Michael Gingold · July 28, 2009, 12:55 AM EDT

Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on August 9, 2007, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.

Even if you didn’t know from the ads that The Collector is “from the writers of Saw IV, V & VI” (and now VII), it would be pretty easy to tell from the movie’s emphasis on torturous physical abuse and visual fetishization of its implements. And the good news is that it’s better than the last couple of Saw sequels, in large part because it has a sympathetic and well-acted protagonist at its center.

That’s Josh Stewart as Arkin (his first name), whose day job ironically has him installing security devices, considering that his night job involves breaking into houses he has worked on and making off with valuables. In desperate need of cash to help his ex-wife Lisa (Daniella Alonso), who’s got custody of their daughter and loan sharks after her, Arkin implores his criminal employer Roy (Robert Wisdom) for a quicker payoff on his next job. Roy tests Arkin’s desperation with a cigarette lighter held to his arm, with burning-hair close-ups that carry a you-think-this-is-bad-you-ain’t-seen-nothing-yet air about them.

Arkin’s latest target is the mansion of Michael and Victoria Chase (Michael Reilly Burke and Andrea Roth), who are supposed to be on vacation, but whom Arkin is surprised to find at home when he jimmies his way into the place after nightfall. A more unpleasant surprise is the reason they’re there: They’re being brutally held captive by a black-clad, masked man (Juan Fernández) who has rigged the expansive home with vicious booby traps. Arkin doesn’t notice these when he first makes his way up to the room with the safe in the dark, but he quickly finds himself trapped in the house with locked doors, barred windows (plus a nasty surprise for anyone who tries to pull them off) and rooms crisscrossed with tripwires designed to release all manner of deadly implements. Now he has to struggle to save his own skin and that of his would-be robbery victims, and Stewart makes Arkin a convincing louse who nonetheless bears enough moral scruples to keep him sympathetic.

The emphasis on diabolical death devices carries the strongest echoes of the Saw franchise, and its basic implausibility too; could one guy have really set up all this stuff in the time he’s shown to have? On the other hand, since he mostly creeps around in the background and never says a word, we’re spared any specious justifications for his evildoing of the type that has made Jigsaw a bore over the last couple of years. As captured by Brandon Cox’s shadowy cinematography, he’s an efficiently menacing and mysterious presence, and the movie only stumbles when attempting to justify its and his moniker. The subplot involving his “collecting” activities doesn’t make a lot of sense in the context of the rest of what happens, and feels shoehorned into the plot after the fact (like the torture bits in Captivity) in an attempt to give the movie a marketable hook. (I have no evidence that it has been, though the film was known as The Midnight Man until just recently, when it was acquired for distribution by Mickey Liddell, who now has a prominent executive-producer credit.)

Making his directorial debut on his and Patrick Melton’s script, Marcus Dunstan has turned out a singlemindedly nasty piece of work, but one whose relentlessness is rather compelling, thanks more to the empathy he and Stewart create for Arkin than to the by-now familiar bag of visual tricks (grimy-colored filters, flash frames, etc.) Dunstan employs. Even given the copious gore (very convincing makeup FX by Gary J. Tunnicliffe) and human suffering, the movie doesn’t tip over into outright distastefulness too often; when a little girl (Karley Scott Collins from the Pulse sequels) becomes caught up in the mayhem, her involvement is manipulative, but not unsavory. Late in the proceedings, once Arkin is put through some heavy punishment himself, the issue isn’t so much gratuitousness as the fact that he can continue to go mano-a-mano with the bad guy.

Dunstan and Melton first broke through with their Feast script and also penned its sequels, which took an ironic, arm’s-length view of their characters that some (including this reviewer) found increasingly and sourly cynical. The Collector is a step in a more dramatically rewarding direction, one that they’ll hopefully continue if (as has been reported) this one is headed for franchise status as well.