Monday, March 1, 2010

Chris 2010 Viewings #23: The Strangers

US, 2008. Directed by Bryan Bertino. Starring Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman.

When people ask what my favourite film genre is, I give them my honest answer: French movie with talking. When they tell me that isn't a real genre, please stick to the Blockbuster-approved section names, I pause and tell myself that "Foreign" isn't a genre for heaven's sake, so I give them my honest answer: Horror. This disgusts many people, but it is true.

That said, I don't watch any straight-to-video crap, I've only ever seen one Friday the 13th movie (the first one - I don't count Freddy vs Jason, which I watched strictly because Ronny Yu directed it, back when that meant something), the only "torture porn" movies I've bothered with were the first Saws, and those were only for a writing assignment. This doesn't make me superior, I'd rather watch that stuff than all the "nice" British movies that come through the store.

What I like about horror is how it embodies a kind of pure cinema that is driven largely through images and atmosphere. My ideal horror is embodied by Hitchcock, Polanski, Dreyer, Lewton, De Palma, Kobayashi, Kubrick, Mario Bava and a bunch of other great names I'm forgetting. The thing is, I think a lot of people misrepresent the genre in ways that are well illustrated by an effective but ultimately objectionable movie like The Strangers.

It's certainly pure cinema, as the plot bears out: a young couple arrive late to the man's isolated and deserted family home. Three mysterious figures descend upon the house and begin a campaign of scaring them, and then attacking them. That's about it, and you pretty much know the outcome from square one, when a narrator and onscreen titles tell you it's "based on a true story" and little is known of what really happened. Sounds like no witnesses are around to tell their story, I wonder why that could be?

The director, Bryan Bertino, has a pretty sure hand and I admire his decision to eschew sudden-shock-accompanied-by-music-sting nonsense in favour of slow burn suspense most of the time. It's refreshing, after forty-five minutes of a movie to know that a moviemaker is playing fair, so you can at least feel safe from lousy, easy tricks. Occasionally he overplays certain effects: one character frequently appears in the distance, in plain view of the victims, the victims look away, and when they look back the threatening presence has completely vanished from sight. I hate it when people play how-likely-is-that logic games when watching horror films as if most people behave calmly and rationally in a pulse-pounding, scary crisis, but how likely is it that when
someone plays this now-you-see-me-now-you-don't game repeatedly with only split-seconds to make their escape that you wouldn't see their leg moving behind a bush or something? It's a great - albeit now cliched - effect once or twice, but eventually you start to call b.s.

The performances are rather good, with both Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman considerably better than I would ever have imagined, the suspense is taut, the film is no longer than it needs to be, and Bertino realizes that country music is the scariest music of all. All that said, I sort of hate this movie.

A lot of people who refuse to watch horror pictures paint a picture of them as strictly blood, guts, and tension, and why would you subject yourself to that? Some of the film fans I know and most respect feel this way. The truth is that the best horror films rise above such a basic template - usually through pure filmmaking chops, but also through actually being about something, having a point, having something to say. Vampyr, the great Lewton cycle, Psycho, The Shining, up through Shutter Island, great moviemakers use the form the way they would any other, to suit their artistic needs, not to simply throw unpleasantness at the screen and walk away with some cash.

Bryan Bertino has nothing to say except "I can scare you". His film ends nihilistically, pointlessly, in a way that genuinely does make you wonder "why the hell did I watch that?" He is talented, but not a master in the sense that he can transcend the basic fact that his movie is about two already emotionally wounded people who are set upon by psychopaths, terrorized, and butchered. A great horror film can resonate in your mind for years to come because it used fear to touch on something deeper in you than worrying about whether your home security system is up to snuff. Even having an open ending, all The Strangers leaves you with is a bad taste. And bad tastes fade away, leaving... nothing.

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