Series 7: The Contenders (2001)
I was quite surprised by this low-budget offering from first-time writer/director Daniel Minahan. Emerging in 2001, this cold-hearted satire was well timed to coincide with the rise of reality television into the collective consciousness of living rooms worldwide.
The plot is simple. Six people are randomly chosen via a lottery to participate in the seventh series of a deadly television show, "The Contenders." Armed with a selection of weapons, they must eliminate their fellow contestants while being taped by a camera crew and broadcast to a nation hooked on reality TV. The winner receives big cash prizes!
The film is broken into a series of short TV-style episodes, complete with cheesy commentary and corny music. We are introduced to the "contenders" - a variety of average people, such as a nurse, a spoilt young girl, an unemployed father of three, a demented old man and Jeffrey Norman, a dying artist. In terms of character development, we focus mostly on Dawn Lagarto (Brooke Smith). She's the reigning champ, with 10 kills in 2 tours. She's also foul-mouthed white trash, estranged from her family and eight months pregnant.
Director Minahan manages to create a world where reality TV is taken to the extreme, where people will resort to the lowest forms of cruelty in order to find wealth and fame. The glib presentation of the show and the way the camera follows the contestants, documentary-style, only makes the violence all the more shocking when it occurs. It also challenges us in regards to audience culpability: if we choose to watch, are we just as guilty for what occurs at the hands of the protagonists? The audience presented in the film is so disassociated from the violence that they actually cheer the killers on, smile nervously at the cameras and ask for autographs.
The acting, as one would expect in a film with such a meagre budget, is a mixed bag. Ranging from very amateurish to extremely effective, Brooke Smith as Dawn and Marylouise Burke as Connie impress the most. In particular, the moral decline (or illumination) of Connie into the most calculating contender is engrossing to watch.
While never it's never boring, Series 7 does stumble … without spoiling the slim plot, there is a twist during the showdown between the last two contenders that throws the pacing of the film. However, this is somewhat redeemed by a pleasantly nihilistic, if overly dramatic, ending. Here's a hint: the film presents us with a soap-opera dramatisation for a finale because we're told the original footage was destroyed. Check "movie trailer" in the deleted scenes on the DVD: you'll find the "original" footage and a vastly different ending.
Series 7: The Contenders can't be easily defined as a horror film … it has no real visceral scares and doesn't dwell on gore. Superficially, it's more of a black comedy. But scrape this aside and you're left with some very thought provoking and disturbing themes and imagery. This film should be kept away from fans of recent horror films (such as Jeepers Creepers) and watched by those who enjoyed similar fare such as American Psycho, The Blair Witch Project, Man Bites Dog, Battle Royale, Funny Games and Cube.