Whether it be for sport, punishment or reality television, the idea that people can be competitively hunted down and killed for entertainment has become a recurring motif in the world of cinema. Mark Fraser looks at 10 movies where both men and women are treated like prized trophies.
10. Open Season (Peter Collinson, 1974)
While out on a weekend hunting trip, three demented Vietnam veterans (Peter Fonda, John Phillip Law and Richard Lynch) kidnap a stranded couple (Alberto de Mendoza and Cornelia Sharpe) and take them to their mountain hideaway, where they rape Nancy (Sharpe) before letting the hapless pair loose so they can track them down like animals. This trio of cocky sadists, however, becomes the prey when a hooded, revenge-driven third party (William Holden) starts picking them off. Apparently this modus operandi – kidnapping people and then setting them loose in the forest after a bout of physical/mental abuse so they can be hunted and killed – was employed by real life degenerates Leonard Lake and Charles Ng back in the first half of the 1980s when they set up their murderous shop in Wilseyville, central California.
9. The Running Man (Paul Michael Glaser, 1987)
Framed and incarcerated police helicopter pilot Ben Richards (Arnold Schwarzenegger) gets a shot at freedom when he is deceptively convinced to take part in a fight-to-the-death television game show in which the criminal contestants have to run through a dangerous obstacle course while being attacked by flambouyantly-attired hired killers. It’s pretty much death by numbers as all of the expendable characters are wiped out one by one while Richards and his fellow runner/soon-to-be main squeeze (Maria Conchita Alonso) work their way towards the heart of the evil and corrupt media corporation that produces this program for 2017’s bloodthirsty TV audience. While avoiding predictability isn’t one of Paul Michael Glaser’s strong points, he did get to direct an interesting supporting cast. Former wrestler and ex-Minnesota governor Jessie Ventura appears as one of the killers, while African-American 1970s leading man Jim Brown turns up after quite a few years out of the limelight. Also in there are Mick Fleetwood and a teenage Dweezil Zappa who, as one of the rebels raiding the broadcasting facility, is able to legitimately quote a line from one of his father’s songs (“Don’t touch that dial” from I’m The Slime, which appears on Frank’s 1973 album Overnite Sensation).
8.The Most Dangerous Game (Ernest b Schoedsack and Irving Pichel, 1932)
The granddaddy of films about hunting humans, although the actual chase doesn’t begin until the last third of this relatively short (63 minutes) black and white movie, in which a mad Russian count (Leslie Banks) pursues shipwreck survivors on his small, isolated island. He meets his match, however, when a big game hunter and author (Joel McCrea) arrives on the scene after his ocean liner sinks following its fatal encounter with some perilous reefs. This was based on a 1924 short story by Richard Connell, which was remade in 1945 as A Game of Death by Robert Wise (which I have yet to see) before being loosely used for Ray Boulting’s Run for the Sun, a competently made 1956 chase movie starring Richard Widmark and Jane Greer as a couple of writers who are pursued by some ex-Nazis (Trevor Howard and Peter Van Eyck) after crashing their light plane near the baddie’s jungle compound somewhere in Mexico. Unlike the first two adaptations of the Connell story, however, the visitors aren’t hunted for sport; rather, their murderous hosts are trying to stop them from escaping and spilling the beans.
7. Series 7: The Contenders (Daniel Minahan, 2001)
For reasons that are never really fully explained, six US citizens are randomly chosen in a national lottery to take part in a television reality show in which they all have to kill each other until only one is left standing. The problem for the survivor is that he/she then has to compete (and get through) another two series before being set free. While sometimes clever as a parody of reality TV, this docudrama ultimately suffers from a lethargic narrative – it says as much as it can about the medium it is scrutinizing, but presents it in a way that is neither exciting nor reasonably tense. Even the finale – when two of the participants (played by Brooke Smith and Glenn Fitzgerald) hijack the game and take a cinema full of filmgoers hostage – becomes something of a cop-out when it is televised via a staged re-enactment. Although this says something about media control and censorship, it makes lousy entertainment.
6. The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012)
Sometime in the future – as part of the government’s strategy to keep the impoverished masses in line – teenagers aged between 12 to 18 are chosen by the state to take part in a televised fight-to-the-death contest until only one participant is left standing. While the build up to the start of the game is somewhat slow and talky, all hell literally breaks loose when the hapless contestants enter the arena and collectively eliminate the weakest participants in one violent blow. Unfortunately the ensuing contest becomes quite lacklustre.
5. Predators (Nimrod Antal, 2010)
A number of unrelated international mercenaries and criminals inexplicably find themselves on a heavily jungled alien planet where they are pursued – and then popped off one by one – by the locals who, in this instance, are related to the creature that appears in the below-mentioned Predator. Not so much a sequel to the 1987 movie as a variation on the same theme, with a stronger emphasis on the fact that the humans have been specifically chosen by their intergalactic hosts to provide the entertainment.
4. Predator (John McTiernan, 1987)
After wiping out a rebel camp somewhere in Central America, a muscular special forces team led by the appropriately named Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) suddenly finds itself being hunted down by a mostly invisible – and seemingly indestructible – alien, which appears to be in it for the thrill of the chase. Interestingly, aside from spawning a few off-shoot movies, Predator was also loosely remade as Battleground in 2011 by Neil Mackay, in which a group of not so muscular heavily armed bank robbers on the lam finds itself being knocked off one by one by a deranged Vietnam veteran after taking refuge somewhere in the backwoods of Michigan. Thematically similar perhaps, but – unlike the John McTiernan film – it’s ultimately a ridiculous mish-mash of stolen ideas.
3. The Condemned (Scott Wiper, 2007)
A rebel media entrepreneur (Robert Mammone) undermines the reality television networks by setting up his own jungle island battle-to-the-last-person-standing survival game and broadcasting it on the Internet. In this instance the “players” are made up of a bunch of soon-to-be-executed death row inmates sourced from some of the world’s meanest prisons. Things, however, eventually backfire for the self-made web mogul and his crew when one of the last surviving contestants (Vinnie Jones) turns the tables on his captors and wreaks havoc at the broadcasting facility. Kind of similar to The Hunger Games except it wastes no time with lengthy exposition and cuts to its vicious and violent chase pretty much immediately, while the contest itself is an act of illegal exploitation (which unsurprisingly gathers a massive audience) rather than a tool for maintaining the existing power structure.
2. Punishment Park (Peter Watkins, 1971)
Back in the alternative universe of the early 1970s, a fascist American government punishes political dissidents (like anti-Vietnam protesters, uppity students and left wing radicals) by making them run across 53 miles of desert while being pursued by armed policemen (who are using it as part of their training). Those who make it are promised clemency; those who don’t get thrown in jail. Or at least that’s what the participants are told. A powerful statement – told through a riveting 16mm mockumentary – about political paranoia, the abuse of power and the repression of free speech in a society that regards itself as the greatest democracy on Earth. If anything, this is one piece of angry cinema.
1. Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku, 2000)
To tackle its growing youth problem, each year the Japanese authorities randomly select a high school class and take its unwitting students to an isolated island, where the youngsters are forced to fight each other to the death – or commit suicide – until one person is left. The progress of each contestant is monitored by a collar-shaped tracking device, which transmits its information back to a makeshift army communications base, where one of their former teachers (Takeshi Kitano) barks instructions at the contestants through a microphone. Given the class is pretty large, there are plenty of deaths – some of them quite colourful. As in The Hunger Games, many of the players form early alliances with the vague hope that they’ll work something out in the limited time they’ve been given. Others, however, quickly become vicious lone killers. And, like the Gary Ross film, while teen spirit doesn’t totally prevail, it manages to enjoy a modest victory.
Written and compiled by Mark Fraser
What do you think of the films featured in this top 10? What films would you add to this list?