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Taking the Michael
A UK region 0 review of HURT by Slarek

A few years ago, in an attempt to discourage media students from making the same damn films that media students always seemed to make, some colleagues and I drew up a list of the most tiresomely familiar outlines for student productions. These were then read out to the assembled new intake as part of their very first lesson with the warning that turning in a film from this list would qualify its maker for some serious ridicule. One of the prime ones was, and should always remain, doing your own half-arsed version of the cult film of the moment. Now you have to realise that at this point we were in the wake of the success of The Blair Witch Project, and exam moderators across the country were holding their heads in their hands in despair at the number of crappy Blair Witch knock-offs they had to sit through, each one featuring a group of students stumbling about in the woods with two cameras (one shooting colour, the other black-and-white), finding decidedly un-creepy objects, then dying at the hands of an unidentified figure, dropping the camera to the ground on the last shot. Honestly, there were thousands of the buggers. This creativity void was not new. For some years we had been alternately groaning and sniggering at the sight of students dressing in suits and killing each other with hopelessly poor American accents because they only film they'd watched more than once was Reservoir Dogs, and they all wanted so much to look as tough and cool as Mr. White. Unsurprisingly, none of them ever did.

Mind you, they're not the only ones doing it. Almost from the moment there's an unexpected movie hit, the studios are lining up to make their own versions of the same, while several independent directors have made their first mark with an alternative take on a successful or reputable work of another. With that in mind, there seems little doubt that director/actor Scott A. Martin is a fan of John McNaughton's memorable debut feature, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Like McNaughton, Martin aligns us with an amoral killer and offers a window into his world, here via an interview conducted with murderous sociopath Michael by an ageing reporter. Claiming to have killed a total of 47 people, mainly young women, Michael has kept a video tape record of his activities, which include everything from extensive footage of his basement porn video production work to records of the murders themselves, a selection of which he has brought with him for the reporter to watch.

Hurt is shot on what looks like a combination of mini-DV and Hi-8, but given that it is largely composed of Michael's own home movie records of his thoughts and deeds, this is visually appropriate, and it could well be that the story and structure grew in part out of these technical restrictions. This in itself is fine. Considerably more confusing is Martin's decision to hop randomly and unproductively through no less than six different aspect ratios, with much of Michael's footage curiously presented in scope, a ratio alien to domestic video cameras. Such stylistic game-playing inevitably detracts from the documentary feel created by shooting on low band video in the first place. There are also several shots, including a notable one in the early woodland hunt, that could not have been filmed by Michael or any of his cronies without the fleeing victim spotting that there was a camera stuck right in their face.

But the real problem here is one of content and structure. While the idea of telling the story of a self-confessed serial killer through his own home movies is sound enough, the genre's own dark lineage means that those home movies really need to deliver the goods, and for the most part they don't. Michael's chats to camera create the sense of a man who likes to pretend he's a dangerous killer rather than one who is, while the some of the recorded episodes ramble slowly and aimlessly down a path to nowhere. This is particularly true of footage of young, would-be porn actresses in audition, sequences that play out in sometimes laborious real time, which is fine for authenticity but deadly for film drama and narrative progression.

As things progress, so to speak, we get to meet Michael's collaborators and the touchstones multiply, with references to both The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Man Bites Dog, the unique and disturbing impact of either Hurt can only dream of emulating. In the thirty years since Hooper's groundbreaking genre classic raised the horror bar, we've been disturbed by Se7en, convinced of the reality of The Blair Witch Project, and exposed to the visual nastiness of Hostel and its ilk, to quote but three. Any subsequent movie looking to tread similar dark psychological or visceral ground needs to be prepared to seriously push the envelope, and that's something that Hurt never does. Michael kills and Michael rapes, but the acts themselves are largely inexplicit and the suffering they cause barely registers, too often lost in a montage or distilled by a score so inappropriately busy with groaning rock tracks (including a cover of the Talking Heads' Psycho Killer, of course) that I began to suspect that the film was designed in part as a promo for a friend's as-yet unsigned band.

The psychology of Michael's behaviour remains equally unexplored, his interview with the reporter a missed opportunity to get inside the head of a man who has an almost indifferent attitude to killing and who agrees to the interview more out of curiosity or boredom than the more expected ego kick. The reporter in particular gets precious little to work with, reduced largely to mundane questions and brief appearances to shake his head in disapproval at the tapes we are intermittently reminded he is watching.

Just occasionally, Hurt creates a feeling of creepy authenticity when the seemingly unrehearsed performances hit the right note of naturalism, with director Martin doing rather well as Michael, particularly in the quieter, almost offhand moments. But in other respects, the film's ramshackle structure and occasionally wobbly continuity reminded me of an extended student film, its unfocussed improvisation and a lack of editorial discipline allowing sequences to drift on way past when they have served their narrative or character purpose. Shot on video on a low budget and free from studio enforced restrictions regarding content and morality, Hurt could – indeed should – have taken us to dangerous and uncomfortable places, made us squirm in our seats and question whether we actually want to watch what it was daring to show us. It may seem perverse, but this is exactly the sort of film that I look forward to being disturbed by, and Hurt just doesn't come close.

sound and vision

Hurt was shot partly on digital video, probably mini-DV or DV-CAM, which generally looks fine, with the contrast and sharpness of the expected quality and the black levels solid. Some of Michael's own footage appears to have been captured on lower band analogue video, which exhibits considerably more noise and weaker contrast than the DV sequences. Inevitably there are some very visible digital artefacts in some shots, but the unmistakable video look is just right for the material. The use of six different aspect ratios has been preserved through a 4:3 transfer with the various widescreen crops windowboxed within.

The Dolby 2.0 mono track is not the best mix in town, with little if any Foley work and some jolting variations in volume. Within these restrictions, the dialogue and music are clear enough.

extra features

There were none included on the preview disc, but apparently the release disc includes a commentary by Scott Martin, trailers, and the usual stills gallery. The commentary apparently focusses on the problems of low budget filmmaking, which would have been of interest here.


Hurt is the sort of film I should be predestined to like to some degree, as I always respond well to the freedom that digital video offers any filmmaker prepared to take their audience to places no studio film would dare to tread. Except Hurt doesn't do it. There's a germ of a fascinating, troubling film in here, but like the student films I recalled in the opening paragraph, it lacks structure, cohesion, originality and daring. And despite the reporter's dire warnings about what we are about to see, nothing I witnessed here made me wince, not even a little. Man, even bloody Hostel managed that.


USA 2006
116 mins
Scott A. Martin
Scott A. Martin
Greg Mason
Alan McClintock
Crystal Pirlo
Melissa Miller

DVD details
region 0 UK
4:3 (plus various letterboxed)
Dolby 2.0 mono
subtitles .

release date
24 September 2007
review posted
16 September 2007

See all of Slarek's reviews