After being unceremoniously dumped from Universal’s release schedule last year following a series of mass shootings in the US, Craig Zobel’s entertaining horror-comedy The Hunt will finally get in front of audiences to be judged on its own merits, free from the out-of-context “bad taste” hot takes the studio’s publicity team no doubt feared. Now the film is being released, it appears its underlying message of understanding over partisanship is not one that would, to quote President Trump on Twitter, “inflame and cause chaos”, because it comes off a bit too half-baked to cause too much consternation.
The Hunt begins with a plane load of billionaires heading on some mysterious hunting trip and the tone is immediately set by an OTT display of comic ultraviolence. Then the film jumps to a collection of disparate folks waking up in a forest with gags padlocked to their mouths. The rag-tag group of would-be victims are attacked and it becomes very clear to all involved that they are being hunted for sport by the same rich psychos from the cold open. Enter Final Girl-in-the-making Crystal (Betty Gilpin) an unassuming young woman who turns out to be more than capable of giving these wealthy homicidal maniacs a run for their money.
The Hunt is another entry in Blumhouse’s burgeoning horror sub-genre of “elite-sploitation” (for want of a better phrase) in the vein of Get Out and The Purge series,where unsuspecting protagonists are set upon by a cabal of wealthy elites and their nefarious machinations. These films have a lineage that can be tracked back to 1932 with Irving Pichel and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s The Most Dangerous Game, and even later iterations such as Ernest Dickerson’s ‘90s actioner Surviving the Game (starring Ice-T and Rutger Hauer, its mint). That these films are having a moment right now is a reflection of the current political climate and the clear divisions between the left and the right, the rich and the poor, that plays out viciously in the media and manifests in the us-versus-them dichotomy of the characters in the film.
Director Zobel and writers Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof press their tongue firmly in their cheeks as they portray both murderers and victims as two sides of the same coin. The hunters are actually wealthy liberals who decide to take action against a group of boorish opinionated Republicans who believe in and propagate conspiracy theories about the left. While both sides represent what is worst about humanity, they also clearly showcase how, when we let pettiness obscure understanding, it gives rise to our nastiest selves. However, this approach has the effect of the filmmakers wanting to have their cake and eat it too and comes off as a half-hearted attempt to push buttons (one wonders what someone like Bobcat Goldthwait would have done with this same material). Even its jokes about Trump and fake news, which in the world of social media is still an issue, already feel dated.
The performances are all fairly entertaining, but none of the characters stick around long enough to have too much of an impact. The villains get to exercise peak smarminess, especially Glenn Howerton who seems to be riffing a lot on his Dennis from Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia schtick these days. But Betty Gilpin (GLOW) is terrific as Crystal, the kick-ass heroine who becomes more than a match for her aggressors and proving game for every punch and punchline the film wants to throw at her. There is also a final act appearance by an Oscar-winner, playing very much against type, who partakes in a bone-crunching fist fight with Gilpin that is almost worth the price of admission alone.
As a horror-comedy, The Hunt is suitably broad and over the top in its violence; eyes are gouged, faces are shot off, bodies are pulverised. This translates to the effect of its satire, too. Nothing here is subtle, which is not a deal breaker, but the concerns the filmmakers built into the narrative feel a bit played out. Even if released on schedule, it feels like the film is reinforcing old arguments. It essentially takes the same premise as Get Out and decides to play it all for laughs but avoids deepening or refreshing the themes. At a brisk 90 minutes The Hunt is still an entertaining ride and real midnight movie material for horror fans, even if it doesn’t quite stick the landing.
Director: Craig Zobel
Writers: Nick Cuse, Damon Lindelof
Cast: Betty Gilpin, Ike Barinholtz, Glenn Howerton