Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Strangers

It has been quite some time since I've seen a horror movie in the theatres, and by that I mean a mainstream horror film targeted to the masses. I have no desire or urge to ever again sit through the eighty minute Japanese horror film remakes that seem to come out all the time, and missed the large batch that came out the last few months-"One Missed Call," "Prom Night," "Shutter." There is no need for these movies to exist let alone see them. But "The Strangers" looked somewhat different, and even though the free ticket price was a plus, something else was drawing me to it. The trailer did not look that bad for a film of this reputation, and it reminded me of "Funny Games," only a bit more mainstream. And I was right. The best part about "The Strangers" is that it deviants away from the horror movie formula that has become standard in Hollywood, and it shows true talent by director Bryan Bertino, to whom this is his first film. The problems with the film occur only when he deviants from this more unique vision and when he drifts into the horror film formula, including the very last second of the film (literally), which seemed a bit of a cop out and was not fully needed. However, there is enough in this movie to recommend, and its a step above the horror films of the last few months and a very good remedy for those who tire of those.

It's never a good sign when a creepy narrator at the starts states that the story is based on true events. I will say that I was drawn from the first introduction of the couple played by Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman-in the film named Kristen McKay and James Hoyt-who are driving home from a friends wedding reception. They are silent. The cinematography here by Peter Sova is very top notch in this short segment, and there is a rather beautiful shot of them at a red light, with the red tint over them becoming green. When they get to their summer house in the middle of nowhere, the reason for their silence slowly unravels. He asked her to marry him and she said no stating that she wasn't read yet. She takes a bath in the prepared house-covered with rose petals and champagne, while he eats a large tub of ice cream and makes plans to be picked up the next morning. These opening moments might seem slow, but they are never boring, mostly because Bertino directs these actors and images in a captivating way-Liv Tyler does so much with her silent face here, and Scott Speedman (whose character I really wish was played by someone else) does his best despite having a huge lack of talent. Suddenly there is a hard KNOCK on the door, and a young woman asks for a girl that doesn't live there. Eventually James leaves to go for a drive, while Kristen somberly does a few things, until there is another loud knock at the door and its the same girl, only this time her voice is just a bit more creepy. Eventually the two of them are terrorized by three people with masks all throughout the night, who taunt them and tease them, and when asked why they simply reply "Because you were home."

This material here is certainly creepy-and the thought of people just coming into someone's home with the intent to kill with no reason at all is a sick but true fact, and if it happens as much as the opening title card states than it is ever creepier. However under the hands of a lesser talent, this same material could have been destroyed and turned into a standard horror film. But there are real genuinely creepy moments throughout this film. One to mention is a shot of Tyler standing in her kitchen drinking a glass of water. It's a wide shot and its a large kitchen, and in the background in the middle of the dark you can see a man with a mask making himself known. Bertino doesn't start the action here, though, and for at least a full minute and possibly more Tyler paces in the kitchen, and by the end of the scene she never sees this masked man. And the lack of music works well here. Other moments are placed throughout, mostly the nonchalant way in which these stalkers walk around the house-there is a moment where Tyler is in a closet hiding and the masked man walks around the entire square footage of her view, at one point sitting down for a minute. Maybe he was tired. But then he gets up and the terrorizing continues.

Speaking of the music, Bertino makes a good choice of having some moments of the film not contain any scored music at all instead relying on a record player that is in the house with them. During a creepy chase segment the record player is smashed into and the beginning of a song plays over and over and over again. And another moment has one of the creepiest uses of "Sprout and the Bean" by Joanna Newsom that I have ever heard. It reminded me of the one worthwhile thing in the awful awful awful 2006 horror film "The Return," which I remembered hoping would be the step up that "The Strangers" is. 

Sadly the whole film is not compiled of these thoughtfully shot and silently tense moments, and at times Bertino disappointed me by going into the realms of mainstream horror formula. This is why the first twenty five minutes or so of the film are so good, because it actually relies on character and talent to tell the story. For example the actual scored music, especially during the films key set piece chase scenes. I understand that there couldn't be the record player as the only form of music, because eventually that would have grown tiresome. But why not no music at all? Why is that never an option? The score by the (annoyingly) named tomandandy is very cookie cutter and very obvious, and it really has no use being here. And than your typical jump scenes-thankfully there is never a "it was only a cat" moments, which are jump scenes simply for the sake of being jump scenes. A few here are earned, but the one at the very end just ruined the effect the film would have had had Bertino stuck to his guns and made it more ominous instead of "in your face." 

All in all I did like "The Strangers" surprisingly enough. Those who probably would not look at the film as much as I did-and thats probably most of the audience who intends to see it-should still definitely get something out of it. It's a pretty creepy story, and told in a more subjective way than "Funny Games" was. It's ironic, but "Funny Games" actually comments on why people would find a movie like "The Strangers" sickly entertaining. And those that do look at film closer might find themselves pleasantly surprised by how well made and directed this movie is. I am intrigued by whatever Bertino has in his mind next, because when he diverged by the standard horror film format "The Strangers" was very effective, and what the material did deserve. It is only when drifting towards mainstream scares did the film faulter, but there is enough here to recommend, especially for a horror film fan. It doesn't tread much new ground, but it was a mild discovery.

*** of ****


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