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Manhunt
cast: Henriette Bruusgaard, Jørn Bjørn Fuller Gee, Lasse Valdal, and Nini Bull Robsahm

director: Patrik Syversen

76 minutes (18) 2008
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Metrodome DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
If you have ventured into your local multiplex recently you might be forgiven for thinking that the horror genre is on its uppers. In the wake of weak (but comparatively successful) remakes such as Nispel's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Aja's The Hills Have Eyes, North American horror has begun to cannibalise itself as decent and occasionally iconic works of slasher horror such as My Bloody Valentine (1981), Friday The 13th, Prom Night (1980), and Last House On The Left, receive watered down remakes aimed at wider (teenaged) audiences. However, cross over to the continent and the picture could not be more different. Feeding on early 2000s' works of French transgressive cinema such as Noe's Irreversible, and de Van's In My Skin, French horror has emerged in recent years as a powerhouse of creative energy producing films such as Aja's Switchblade Romance (2003), Moreau and Pauld's Them, and the genuinely unsettling Martyrs (2008) by Pascal Laugier. Patrik Syversen's Manhunt (Rovdyr in Norwegian) tries to pay homage to both of these traditions, with rather mixed success.

Manhunt is a film that wears its cinematic heritage on its sleeve. The film opens with an almost shot-for-shot recreation of the opening to Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), as a group of happy 1970s' youngsters travel across country in a van. The music accompanying this carefree opening is David Hess' Wait For The Rain, the same song that accompanies the opening of Craven's The Last House On The Left. The group then stops at the same kind of rundown petrol station frequented by the female protagonist from Zarchi's I Spit On Your Grave. After a somewhat predictable run-in with the locals, the group wind up being hunted through the Norwegian forests by the same kind of faceless bearded inhuman monsters that pop up in Switchblade Romance. They are mute except for the odd whistle in much the same way as the hoodies from Them. Given that all of these references fit into the first half of a film that is not even 80 minutes long, it would not seem unfair to accuse the film of being derivative, especially as its writing shows a similar lack of imagination.

The problem with Manhunt's writing is that it is transparently functional. For example, when the opening act establishes that Camilla (Henriette Bruusgaard) cannot stand up for herself against her unpleasant boyfriend Roger (Lasse Valdal) it seems obvious that she will wind up as the blood-soaked but triumphant 'final girl'. Similarly functional writing can be seen in the case of Mia (co-writer Nini Bull Robsahm) who serves as the voice of reason and as the conscience of the group during the opening act. Mia is so blameless and sympathetic that it is immediately obvious that her life-span is destined to be similar to that of a red-shirted security officer in Star Trek or a plucky young fighter-pilot with a 'great gal' waiting for him back home.

Combine Manhunt's high reference-density with its transparently functional and derivative writing and you get a screenplay that is constantly jolting its audience out of the narrative by making them think 'oh! That's a bit like that film... what's it called..?' By inviting such postmodern contemplation, the screenplay effectively makes it impossible to see the characters as anything other than cyphers for the demands of the narrative. This robs the film of much of its emotional impact and reduces it to little more than people wandering aimlessly around a forest until the next set-piece appears.

With its short running time and limited dialogue, Manhunt is clearly supposed to be the same kind of no-nonsense horror film as Them, or Bertino's The Strangers (2008). Unfortunately, both of these films work because their directors were able to imbue them with a great deal of tension. Manhunt lacks tension. What it has instead is a tangible sense of dread, which is something quite different. The film's second half makes fantastic use of sound to create a world full of whistles, blaring horns, grunts, screams and rustling leaves. This world feels as savage as it is tiny and claustrophobic. Even though the characters are in a huge forest, their world suddenly seems very small indeed. This sense of claustrophobia and impending doom is greatly aided by some clever camerawork. Syversen uses hand-held characters on uneven ground, as the camera operator shifts to retain his balance the view of the characters seems oddly human. Suddenly we are the hunters, spying on the characters from some hidden vantage point. Syversen also has the camera jerk about when an off-camera noise is heard, making us feel as though we are in the forest looking about for what might be out there. The claustrophobia we feel as a result of Syversen's use of sound and camera motion is not the claustrophobia one might get from a tight place. It is the claustrophobia of a fear-clogged mind.

Ultimately, Manhunt is not a particularly brilliant film but its success in its native Norway and its release here on DVD increase the likelihood that someone will hire Syversen and put him to work on a script with a little bit more ambition and vision. Syversen has a great film in him, but Manhunt is not that film. All it is, is an hour and a quarter of well-made but ultimately pedestrian horror.
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