In 1997, the Austrian director Michael Haneke gave the film world a nasty turn with Funny Games, a chilly polemic against screen violence. The less you know about Funny Games, the more susceptible you'll be to Haneke's new remake, its shock tactics intended to administer morally bracing medicine. Of course, the content of Funny Games has been public knowledge ever since the audience staggered ashen-faced from its first very Cannes press show. That was surely the optimum time to see Funny Games, when Haneke had his best chance of traumatising an audience that probably expected merely a sombre art-house essay on the woes of the Vienna bourgeoisie.
Following the success of his Hidden, Haneke has remade Funny Games in the US, in English (the first version having been in German). Otherwise he's changed barely a thing, certainly diluted nothing. Funny Games US is a shot-by-shot, virtually breath-by-breath reconstruction of the original. The country house looks exactly the same; even its grounds appear to have been transplanted in one piece to Long Island. The shocks are positioned in the same places; so is the fridge in the kitchen. The look is still clean, clinical, with new cameraman Darius Khondji offering a slightly brighter, but hardly shinier, echo of the 1997 images. Officially, there are three minutes between versions: rumour has it that the actual difference, presumably allowing for credits, is 20 seconds.
It makes sense to consider Funny Games US less as a remake, more as the screen equivalent of a European stage play's off-Broadway transfer: same production, different language, different cast. As the middle-class parents tormented in their holiday home, Suzanne Lothar and the late Ulrich Mühe are replaced by Naomi Watts and Tim Roth. The two clean-cut, polite, opaquely malevolent youths in tennis whites are Michael Pitt and Brady Corbet.
Haneke's premise is this: we unthinkingly relish violent cinema, but if we were forced to contemplate the reality of violence and our own morbid complicity in it, then we might be shamed out of our bad habits. Funny Games graphically depicts a family's suffering, and two ghouls presiding over the horror, seemingly just catering to our own thirst for "entertainment". Haneke is not, as some have suggested, a sadist: he's rubbing our noses in our own sadism. He draws us into the action so that we wince out of empathy for the victims – then pulls back, denying us the expected sentimental gratification. The film distances us with abrupt Brechtian tactics: when Pitt first turns to the camera with a conspiratorial smirk, you feel distinctly queasy.
Haneke's target audience is the American audience that never saw the first Funny Games but – so he claims – urgently needed to. Funny Games US is aimed not at Haneke's art-house following, but at mainstream horror buffs. The hope is that they'll be suckered by the marketing into ingesting Haneke's homeopathic cure for their unhealthy cravings.
That's the theory – and the American critics have decidedly not bought it, taking umbrage at Haneke's know-it-all loftiness. They have a point. Moreover, the new film has its contradictions. The original featured actors little known outside Austria, but it's another thing to cast international stars: while Watts offers a characteristically sharp performance of bare-wires vulnerability, it can't help but carry distracting overtones of her earlier intrepid-woman-in-peril roles.
Above all, you feel that Haneke hasn't kept up on the genre he's attacking. In 1997, Funny Games came across as a critique of the "home invasion" genre: all those films in which peril was brought to the family hearth by demented babysitters, landlords and ex-lovers. Today, Funny Games US seems an inadequate response to the far more extreme, more specialised, arguably more sophisticated new violence of Hostel, Saw and their ilk. Then again, time and geography bring other changes. The Austrian original inescapably read as an allegory of bourgeois collusion with Nazism. In 21st-century America, the hoods on the victims' heads look like souvenirs of Abu Ghraib.
This new overtone aside, Haneke's cloning exercise adds little to a powerful, if contentious, polemic. If you've seen the first Funny Games, the remake isn't intended for you. If you haven't, and can only find the original on DVD, then see the remake on the big screen: it undeniably benefits from cinema viewing, if only because you'll get to see who tut-tuts, or cheers, or storms out. In any case, you're guaranteed a bad time. But a salutary one? That depends on you.