Saturday, December 5, 2009

'The Strangers' and a Couple of 'Hauntings'

"The Strangers" for me was a pleasant surprise. It is a modern horror film that is much more interested in suspense than it is in gore. Much of the film is spent introducing actual protagonists we can care about as opposed to a bunch of disposable characters whose only reason for existence is to provide cannon fodder for the killers. If you're an ADD afflicted adolescent boy looking for a couple of hours of blood and guts, you'll be sorely disappointed. Writer/director Bryan Bertino slowly builds a palpable feeling of dread that really cranks up the suspense.

The story deals with a couple, Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman), who arrive at his old homestead out in the country following a wedding reception at which he proposed and she told him she wasn't ready. He had prepared the house earlier for a romantic celebration: rose petals strewn about, champagne chilling, flowers etc. He now feels foolish and embarrassed and hurt while she is saddened that she made him feel this way. It's obvious she cares about him and we never really learn why she turned down his proposal. Much of the first third of the film deals with the awkwardness of the situation - the trappings of a joyous celebratory evening are there, but the reason for the joy is not. He calls a friend and leaves a message that he might as well come get him as things didn't turn out the way he planned. Dialogue is spare. Neither knows quite what to say. Bertino is incredibly patient as the chill between the two slowly begins to thaw. But just as the flames of passion begin to flicker, there is a knock on the door. It is a young woman who apparently has the wrong house. This is the beginning of their night of terror as three masked figures ultimately descend upon the house, isolating them and terrorizing them apparently just for the hell of it.

What sets this film apart from the typical masked slasher film is Bertino's understanding that what is most frightening is the unknown, the unseen. The Strangers are only barely glimpsed through much of the film. There is one absolutely chilling scene when Kristen is alone in the house (James left to go to a convenience store for one reason or another - it is one of the things that just didn't ring true - it felt like what it was, a contrivance to get Kristen alone) and she has by now heard some strange sounds, there is more knocking on the door. She is beginning to get very uneasy. She is in the foreground of the shot, facing camera on the right. In the far background left, in the hallway, seen by the audience but not her, a figure suddenly appears. It simply stands there and stares at her. By the time she turns in that direction, he is gone but WE know he was there.

The movie opens at the end, with quick glimpses of the aftermath: a smashed and smoldering car, broken windows, blood on the wall. So we know that something really bad has happened. We also hear a 9-1-1 call from Kristen, though that never quite jives up with the facts as the story unfolds because the Strangers are able to destroy all of the phones before any 9-1-1 call is made. Nonetheless, because we have seen what is to come, the action that follows is colored by it. Long before the main characters know there's trouble, the audience does and this gives significance to even the smallest of details.

Though the film is set in the world of the 21st century, Bertino subtly evokes the 1970's throughout. The house is a ranch-style home straight out of the '70's, there is a turntable with a county-western album from that era, the truck the Strangers drive is from that era as well. It conjures up the Tate/Labianca murders: motiveless and random, somehow making them even more frightening.

The film employs all the usual trappings of a horror film: the false scare, the sudden 'boo' moment when a masked face suddenly appears, the two protagonists inexplicably splitting up thus providing a neat divide and conquer scenario for the killers, the heroine hiding in one of those closets with the slatted door so she can see the killers move about the room as she cringes in the dark. And the film struggles a bit in the final third, in part because the Strangers must become more aggressive; but overall I thought the film did a fine job of building suspense, creating and maintaining an atmosphere of fear and dread.

Which brings us to...

The early part of "The Strangers" made me think of a film that scared the heck out of me years ago. The film was "The Haunting." I'm talking about the 1963 Robert Wise directed version, not the awful 1999 remake. Based on Shirley Jackson's novel, "The Haunting of Hill House," the movie is an absolute masters' class in how to make a truly scary movie. The story is totally different from "The Strangers:" it is essentially about a group of people investigating the paranormal by spending the night at Hill House, a purportedly haunted house. Like "The Strangers" the first third of the film is spent introducing the main characters and following their arrival at Hill House. Because the film opens with some really eerie shots of the house with a voice-over that tells a bit of it's creepy history, we are primed to see what is going to happen there. We then step back, meet the characters, learn of their various foibles, and eventually get to the house. Once there, we are subjected to strange sounds, slamming doors, vaguely seen apparitions. Each of the participants chosen by Dr. Markwayfeels like she belongs. As much character study as horror film, "The Haunting" works by maintaining an atmosphere of mystery and foreboding throughout.

The unfortunate 1999 remake, totally misses the mark and is a perfect example of the Hollywood mindset of more is better. First of all, the choice of Jan de Bont as director is a major tip off. Now, I enjoyed "Speed" very much and thought "Twister" was entertaining. But remaking a rather subtle haunted house movie rife with psycho-sexual undertones as a fun house ride makes no sense. Possibly I would have enjoyed it more if it had been given a different name, but I went in expecting the subtle terror of the original, replete with complex and interesting characters, and instead found a series of set pieces with underwritten characters wondering through them (or being beheaded by them.) I was very disappointed.

I suppose it sounds like I'm ripping anything with violence, but that is honestly not true. My point is, the violence, the gore needs to be earned. This can only be done through good story lines and engaging characters. The original "Halloween" was great. The sequels pretty much just rode on the coattails, dumbing down the original, stripping it of style. Rob Zombie's re-imagining of it, however was clever and well done. Even the original "Friday the 13th" had a mystery and a twist ending. The sequels merely exercises in finding new and original ways to murder teenagers stupid enough to continue to come to Crystal Lake and have sex.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Psycho Changed the Game

I first saw Psycho on TV when I was a teenager and it absolutely blew me away (I was too young to see it when it was released theatrically). Never had I seen a film so terrifying, so unrelentingly suspenseful. I loved it. Volumes have been written about this film and about Hitchcock in general, and there's little new I can add. But Psycho was a game changer. It is hard to find a horror movie done since that does not have Psycho in its DNA. Certainly Halloween and Friday the 13th are direct descendants, with their Oedipal/incestuous underpinnings. It's easy to forget that the first Friday the 13th film reversed the Mother-Son situation found in Psycho. And Halloween revolved around Michael's unrequited lust for his older sister.

Of course what sets Psycho apart from the endless Halloween and Friday the 13th sequels - not to mention the Prom Night's and myriad other teenage slasher films - is its meticulous setup and Hitchcock's clever audience manipulation. While this may have been the father of the slasher films, it was not itself a slasher film. There are only two on-screen murders. The slasher genre quickly devolved into an exercise in upping the stakes in body count and grostesquerie. This has led inevitably to the current spate of Torture Porn films.

Breaking Taboos

The difficulty with the horror genre has always been that it is a genre of taboo-breaking. But once a line has been crossed it can't be uncrossed. Though modern (read: younger) viewers may not realized it, Psycho was a controversial movie when it was released. There were reviewers who were outraged by it. Hitchcock did the unthinkable: he pulled us into a story of a woman, desperate for a new life with her lover, who, in a moment of weakness, commits a crime. For the first third of the movie we pull for her to get away with this, or at least to see the error of her ways and return the money before she is caught. Everything is seen from her perspective: her boss crossing in front of her car as she makes her escape; the cop looking in her window as she tries to keep the envelope full of money hidden from him; the increasingly suspicious used-car salesman; and finally the strange young man and his parlor full of stuffed birds. We are literally in her head as she makes her lonely way along the desert highway imagining what might be said about her when her crime is discovered. We get to know her as intimately as any Hitchcock heroine. Our first glimpse is a voyeuristic peek through venetian blinds as she lounges in white brassier and slip obviously post-coital. Later we see her after she has taken the money, similarly dressed, only now in black bra and slip. Finally we see her as close to naked as the censors would allow at that time, once again as voyeur. Then, after all of this, and after we realize she has indeed decided to return the money, she is murdered. A third of the way into the film comes arguably the most shocking murder scene in film history. It broke all the rules. It was brutal, it was violent, it was unexpected. And the victim was the star of the movie.

But what Hitchcock accomplished with this was to create a situation in which, for the remainder of the film, all bets were off. If a big star like Janet Leigh can get knocked off, anyone can. Ergo, as characters return to the Bates Motel and the old Victorian house behind it, the suspense is ratcheted up to the final scene (excluding the epilogue in the courthouse) in which Sam distracts Norman while Lila descends into the cellar where we saw Norman bring his deranged mother earlier.
Post Psycho

Psycho broke new ground, and psychological horror films that followed had to find ways to up the ante. For the most part this meant a larger body count as I mentioned earlier. But all in one way or another borrowed from Psycho. From the use of the killer's POV to the overbearing mother to the phallic knife to the audience as voyeur; Psycho has reverberated through the dacades as few films in any genre have. It is referenced, homaged and ripped-off; but has truly never been equaled. It remains the gold standard of psychological horror films.

Up next: The Haunting (1963) Vs. The Haunting (1999)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Little Background and a look at Carrie

I am a big movie buff in general, but I have to admit that one of my true guilty pleasures has always been the horror film. As a kid I used to watch Saturday afternoon monster movies on the local Syracuse station. It seems every market at that time had their own Elvira inspired show, with a host or hostess done up in ghastly Gothic garb and spouting bad puns. Locally we had two: Baron Daemon and Dr. E. Nick Witty with Epal. Baron Daemon, a vampire in the over-the-top Dracula mold, started out as a late night host for B horror films like Mark of the Vampire or The Manster. Daemon reached such a height of local popularity that he even released a record. It was a 45 with "Transylvania Twist" as the A side song. The flip side was "Ghost Guitars." I had that record. Mike Price, who played Baron Daemon, sang/spoke the lyrics. He became so popular that he was eventually moved to a daily afternoon kids show that featured cartoons and Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials. Dr. E. Nick Witty and Epal remained a Saturday afternoon staple for several years. It was here where I was able to see the classics: Frankenstein, The Wolfman, Dracula, The Mummy, The Creature From the Black Lagoon. I also discovered Roger Corman through such films as The Attack of the Crab Monsters, Little Shop of Horrors, Creature From the Haunted Sea, as well as his Edgar Allen Poe series.

Dr. E Nick Witty and Epal

Anyhow, that's where I learned to love fear. And I did love those movies. Even the really bad ones like From Hell It Came (a killer tree stump, for God sake) and the epitome of bad: Plan 9 From Outer Space (zombies and aliens - what's not to like!) As the years have gone by I've learned to differentiate between good horror films and bad ones, but those wonderful black and white cheesy monster movies still hold a special place in my heart.

So what makes a good horror film? In a word: Suspense. Not gore, not blood, not special effects. In the end, all of those things may help build suspense, and that's fine, but when a film maker makes those other things the focus, the film suffers. Suspense in one form or another is the key to any drama (or comedy for that matter.) Suspense is built through dramatic irony - when the audience knows something that the characters on screen don't know. When the beauty queen says yes to the nerdy guy, we know it's a cruel joke - but the nerdy guy doesn't. When Carrie wins prom queen, we know it's a set-up. She doesn't. But we also know something that the perpetrators don't know - that Carrie has freaky powers. So the suspense is two-fold: first: is Carrie's one moment of joy going to be ruined by a horrible practical joke; and two, what will Carrie do when it does happen?

So what makes Carrie a good horror film? Is it that final violent orgy of destruction as Carrie gets her revenge on her tormentors? No, that's just the icing on the cake. What makes it a good film is everything that led to this point. (By the way, I am speaking of the original Brian De Palma version, not the re-make). Most of the film is the story of a misfit. A poor, socially awkward, sexually naive girl who is struggling to fit into that cruelest of all societies: high school. She is ridiculed and embarrassed at school, and she is preached at and emotionally abused by her religious zealot of a mother at home. We feel for this girl. When she is pelted with tampons by jeering girls in the famous locker room scene, we feel a strange mix of revulsion and empathy. The point is, we care about Carrie and when we begin to realize that she is being set up we are torn because we really don't want to see her humiliated, but we do want to see what her tormentors have planned and we really want to see her response. Knowing this, de Palma builds to the climax slowly, stretching time as we follow the rope up into the rafters to see the bucket of pigs' blood poised above Carrie's head. The suspense is almost unbearable at this point and de Palma plays it out for as long as humanly possible so that when the climax arrives, it is appropriately violent. We have waited for this and now we will not be disappointed. There is a subversive quality to the film in that the audience is enticed, ala Hitchcock, into siding with a mass murderer. We want to see her revenge. But then we quickly realize her revenge is indiscriminate. Wrongly believing that everyone was in on the joke, the innocent as well as the guilty are punished.

The point is, the over-the-top violence is earned through a slow build-and-release of tension, through developing characters we care about and through building suspense.

Next up: My take on Psycho.