Friday, May 30, 2008

"The Strangers" -- * * 1/2

Ever since premiering two months ago, the superb trailer for the new home invasion thriller "The Strangers" has been circulating, creeping the shit out of people. In theaters nationwide, it's been invoking gasps, particularly at the moment when we first get a glimpse of a masked assailant stalking Liv Tyler. For weeks now, I've had friends-- and I'm talking about people who rarely go to the movies-- asking me about that "scary movie with the people with the masks." While the movie actually manages to deliver what the trailer promises, that ends up not being quite enough. There are some remarkably effective touches here; the film has a fairly unsettling feel to much of it, and some good scares at that. However, it all too often wallows in cliche horror movie tricks, and its repetitive nature at times gives way to boredom. For a film that runs only 75 minutes to begin with, that's ultimately too many detractions (at least, for me) to merit a trip to the theater.

The movie opens with a sequence that seems to intentionally evoke memories of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," with two Mormon boys happening upon a blood-smeared house one morning preceded by a suspiciously John-Laroquette-sounding baritone voice telling us "What you are about to see is based on true events" that took place on February 11, 2005. We then flash back four hours earlier to Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) and James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) returning home from a wedding, with her still in her gown and him in a suit. He's set up a candle lit dinner and rose petals in the bathtub ahead of time, but judging by his frown and the dried-up tears on her face, it seems a safe bet neither is in the mood for romance. We don't quite know what happened initially, but yet another flashback tells us he proposed to her and she turned him down. As the two begin to have make-up sex at 4 a.m., someone pounds on the door. It's an adolescent-looking girl asking if Tamara is home, and she clearly has the wrong house. When James goes out to get something, the girl returns asking for Tamara again, only this time she's wearing a creepy store-bought mask and she's brought two similarly-attired friends, just in time for James to return. Though the motivation-less creepers stalking a pretty man-and-woman recalls Michael Haneke's "Funny Games," "The Strangers's" closest cousin is last year's very strong B-movie "Vacancy" with its "couple going through relationship problems terrorized by psychos" premise.

Like numerous films of this ilk (including "Funny Games"), the opening section, before anything actually bad happens, is the strongest. Slowly establishing the relationship/situation between James and Kristen, while building tension and atmosphere, the opening third puts us on edge without us really knowing why and incrementally involves us. At first it's not quite clear what's going on between the two, and even when we find out, we don't get details. Once Kristen starts getting scared/tormented, before the home is actually invaded, it's a lot more unsettling than what occurs when the shit hits the fan. Before it does, we don't really know what's about to come or when, and Bertino utilizes a lot of silence to maintain the tension. When we get out first big jumpy "scare," it feels earned and is a lot more effective for the way it's been built up. Over the course of the movie, we don't learn much about the couple, but their relationship is nicely established and they're not just disposable, empty-headed teens. Neither actor does gangbusters work here, but they're believable as a couple and if better-utilized, their relationship/situation could've been really effective overall.

Despite some questionable decisions as a writer (some groan-worthy character decisions and seemingly pro-Christian messages), Bertino is an unquestionably talented director. He clearly has an affinity for old-school horror mechanics, and understands that silence is scarier than big loud noises. Particularly in the first third, he employs lots of silence and little-to-no music, and even when the music kicks in later, its not overwhelmingly loud/jump-inducing. The film also has a low-lit and/or washed out look to it that keeps the atmosphere suitably murky. The movie's also refreshing in that there are minimal teases or 'gotcha' moments (e.g.: a cat jumping out of a closet); when you think something bad's about to happen, it usually does. My friend Ben responded to this, "so you liked that it was predictable?" and he has a point, but still, in horror movies, fake outs are usually the order of the day.

I'm a proponent of as much ambiguity in movies as possible, so maybe I'm a bit biased, but I found the amount of unanswered questions in "The Strangers" wildly refreshing. We know these are three people who knock on Kristen and James' door wearing masks and asking if Tamara is home, and that's all we're told. We don't get a scene where the mask-wearers' identities are revealed, and we find out Tamara's the girl who used to live in the house before her mother killed her, and etc. etc. Nothing (including the tormentors' motivations) is explained, and the ambiguity lends a creepy air to the proceedings. The film's admirable in its simplicity and allows the more successful moments to be their own raison d'atre and not be bogged down with exposition. The creme de la creme of those moment's is, predictably, the trailer-glimpsed one of baghead standing in the background while Liv Tyler smokes a cigarette in the kitchen. While it would have been great if we didn't already see this moment before seeing the movie, it's arguably a big part of what's getting butts into seats, and even spoiled, the moment isn't sapped of all impact. He stays in a background for a very long time, and the shot doesn't get any less armrest-clutching the longer it it goes on. However, Bertino's best trick is his usage of old-timey country ballads to incongruously play over tense moments, most effectively during an extremely tense unexpected-guest-arriving sequence scored to "Mama Tried."

Still, for every nod of the head Bertino gets with his good decisions, there are almost as many cringes induced by his employment of tired horror movie cliches. The film tries to establish itself as "real" with the opening crawl (despite being inspired by elements of five or six different crimes, not directly based on anything), but things consistently occur happen that can only happen in horror movie world. When James goes to retrieve something from the car, one of the strangers touches the back of his neck, and when he immediately flinches and turns around, there's no one there. Are they ghosts, or just have superpowers? Also, James' decision to leave Kristen alone in the house not once, but twice, smacks of something no real person would do, and the dialogue occasionally reeks of Horror Screenwriting 101 ("I'm so scared!" and "Don't go out there!" are both shrieked at various points). Managing to undo much of the good will generated by the earlier sections' quiet/tense strengths, the movie seems to indulge in loud, jolting music and sound effects the more it goes on, culminating in an inexcusable final shot that just might result in crowds leaving the theater justifiably angry.

This is a very small-scale, intimate horror film, and at first it seems clever and effective in its economy and simplicity, but then it does the thing it does well again... and again... and again. At about the two-thirds mark, it hits you: is this movie going to be all buildup? By the fourth sequence in a row of one of our leads creeping around for five minutes and hearing ominous noises leading into a jumpy scare of a masked person jumping out the shadows, I felt like shouting at the screen "Is that all there is?!" I guess it's logical that not much happens -- think about it, how much story momentum can really occur in a home invasion scenario? -- but the repetitive structure begins to get flat-out boring as the film progresses. It's effective to a point, but it loses said effect fairly quickly. Even in its stronger moments, the movie's never terribly compelling, and you keep waiting for it to jumpstart. The trailer turns out not to be a tease of what the film has to offer, but rather, a compressed 2.5 minute version of the film. That's all you get; no different types of scares, no other set-pieces, no further interaction between our creepers and our leads. It's disappointing, and may be the rare case where a trailer saps a movie of much of its impact.

As those who know me are aware, I'm somewhat of a cheerleader for the horror movie genre. I think it's so filled up with regurgitated half-assed shit and barely warmed-over, soulless remakes, that when something even a smidgen unique or inspired comes along, I tend to be more than a little appreciative (this year alone saw underrated gems such as "Cloverfield," "Teeth," "The Signal," "The Ruins" and "Doomsday"). And while "The Strangers" does some things right, these things are almost maddening because they hint at the potential that was there. Anytime an old-school, straightforward horror movie comes along, it's a step in the right direction in my eyes, but what we get here is an uncomfortable balance between effective atmospheric touches and settling for what's been tried-and-proven before. What you end up getting is a movie that won't terrify you while you're watching it, but just may put you on edge when you think about it while home alone later that night. The trailer will bring in a nice opening weekend at the box office, but with a little more care and craft, this could've been more than a modestly engaging, forgettable horror movie.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It should be noted that Gemma Ward is possibly the sexiest serial killer to date~

1:10 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home