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.

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