Monday, June 02, 2008

The Strangers

In a lot of ways, The Strangers is a throwback. It's first and foremost a fright film/rollercoaster, designed and built to scare you and nothing more. The plot harkens back to the hard-edged horrors of the seventies, particularly Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween. Both of these previous films share with The Strangers a certain pointlessness; the plot of all three could be accurately summed up with the phrase, "Sometimes, bad shit happens." That there is no reason, theme, or message other than the randomness of violence, feels, in this case, more like a limitation of the rollercoaster genre than the film, and, really, it is enough that The Strangers is well-made for one of these vehicles. In the interest of full discolsure, I will admit that for a good fifteen or twenty minutes it had me right where it wanted me: a quivering mass, shielding my eyes from the horrors onscreen and inwardly shouting advice to Liv Tyler, trying desperately to save her and myself from further encounters with terrifying masks. Additionally, The Strangers recalls a time when great directors cut their teeth and announced themselves by raising the stakes in the forgiving, formulaic horror genre. It would not surprise me if Bryan Bertino, the writer/director of this movie, went on to greatness, but, whatever his future, he's certainly put himself on my radar. While the film ultimately trades in too many cliches and emerges as too-familiar an experience to be branded an undisputed classic, it's still quite a ride and finds a surprising amount of clever riffs on its well-worn formula.

The Strangers opens with a nice, intriguing setup, giving us a quick summary of what we are about to see. As a 911 call plays and a woman screams about intruders in her house and blood on the walls, two boys walk through what remains of the caller's home. There they find a wrecked car outside, a bloody knife, blood on the walls, and a turntable revolving endlessly. The inhabitants are gone. It's a low-rent, William Castle version of The March of Time sequence in Citizen Kane, showing the basic outline of the plot before diving in, but it's quite effective for a time. After the film flashes back to show how the house came to be in this state, a character puts the needle down on a record and it raises the tension in the theater. When the record needs to be flipped and the needle put down again, it's suddenly clear that the record player is part of a game, and The Strangers is toying, cleverly, with its audience. We're aware that, eventually, the characters will put the needle down for the last time, but not which time. Each instance of this otherwise innocuous act seems like it will bring on the intruders and the knife and the blood. Eventually, maddeningly, though, this conceit wears thin and what was a fun, sadistic game becomes a dull grocery list of things that must occur before the movie can end. Blood on the wall? Check. Knife on the floor? Check. And so-on.

After giving us the layout of the carnage, the film flashes back to a young couple making their way to this very same remote country home in the middle of the night. These opening beats are nearly perfect, depicting the awkwardness between lovers whose relationship is undergoing a new strain. We learn (far too soon, and, disappointingly, in another flashback) that he's proposed to her and she's said no. The awkwardness, tenderness, and animosity between the two characters is wonderfully played by Tyler and co-star Scott Speedman. He, in particular, captures the well-meaning, sensitive facade that jilted men often use to mask their hostilities. Unfortunately, and equally maddening, the scenes between the two of them, go on for an excruciating amount of time and keep repeating the same dramatic beats. They keep telling each other, essentially, "We don't know who we are as a couple or how to be with one another anymore after this shake-up," over and over again. It's soggy with heartfelt, one-note, bleary-eyed scenes, and really betrays the elegance of the opening moments between the characters.

Luckily, Liv Tyler runs out of smokes, the beau gallantly offers to pick some up for her, then there's a SPOOKY knock at the door (all knocks are spooky when it's four in the morning). The titular Strangers have arrived to save the film from the sort-of unearned schmaltziness and repetitive writing that stinks up Kevin Smith films. So begins the fifteen or twenty minutes that make this a film worth seeing and one that has me still jumping at noises four days after seeing it. Moments after this sequence range from good to amatuer, but none match the sheer power and delightful filmmaking found when the Strangers begin their attack. Decked out in genuinely scary masks, they aren't so much trying to harm Tyler in these moments as they are trying to terrify her. They toy with her, knocking at the doors and windows, moving objects in the house around, popping up in unexpected places, and converging on her without directly harming her. What's happening is scary, but seems ludicrous and unreal. Each moment builds on the next until a chilling critical mass is reached. My own brain, trying to rationalize through my own fear, started wondering if what was onscreen was "real" or if the film was pulling a Repulsion-style meditation on feminine vulnerability and employing an unreliable narrator mindfuck (it wasn't).

A single shot in this sequence is almost worth the price of admission alone. In this shot, Tyler busies herself in the foreground while a masked man emerges from the darkness behind her. She, unaware of his presence (or of the fact that he's wonderfully balancing the frame), continues her business until this "Stranger" disappears back into darkness. The use of a masked figure stalking the edges of a widescreen frame (and balancing it, thus giving us what we unconsciously wanted all along) is nothing John Carpenter didn't do 30 years ago, but this works all on its own. Scarier than the figure is the figure's disappearance. He disappears before Tyler sees him, and the darkened doorway now contains multitudes, dredging up all manner of childhood boogeymen. This is masterful horror filmmaking. It's a prefect combination of elements, coalescing into an iconic, classic image that speaks to the fragility of existence and the fear of the unknown. I wouldn't hesitate to call this moment in this otherwise commercial, manipulative movie a work of art. As such, it makes all of the moments in the film when the movie employs cliched, cheap scare techniques (something pops up and the soundtrack makes a loud noise... two for flinching!) or, worse, false scare techniques (same as previous, but as it turns out it was just the cat!) seem even more shoddy and manipulative than they usually do, the way the sheer speed and noise of an old wooden roller coaster will sometimes put to shame its shinier, loopier counterparts.