Friday, October 31, 2008

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Strangers (2008)

If you watch only one contemporary horror film this Halloween season, do yourself a favor and make it The Strangers (2008).

Lean and (very...) mean at eighty-six minutes, this recent film of the “savage cinema” variety (think Last House on the Left, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or The Hills Have Eyes) literally takes no prisoners. It's a horror show without frills, without b.s., and without extraneous nonsense of any sort. The entire movie is devoted to one simple thing: scaring you silly.

Accordingly, The Strangers begins with a funereal mood of gloom and inter-personal alienation and then escalates to pure, heart-pounding terror – a mode the movie relentlessly sustains until the final jolt preceding the end credits.

Among other fine technical qualities, the sound-editing in this film is superb, and many of the scares depend not on what the audience sees, but what the audience doesn't see...and what it hears. This is a low budget effort, to be certain (again, think Chainsaw or Last House...) but it appears that all of the movie's considerable energy has gone towards making a horror film of eerie precision; one of finely crafted "jolt" moments that work exactly as a longtime genre fan would hope.

Perhaps it’s necessary to state a little bit about my bias or slant here, as I continue to discuss the film. Of course, I deeply appreciate all modes of the horror film (from every decade in cinema history), but the ones that really get to me on a personal level – the ones that truly scare me – are those, like The Strangers, of the savage cinema mode.

Films of this sub-genre don’t ask me to believe in ancient Egyptian curses, mad scientists, shape-shifting aliens or creatures that mysteriously thrive on the cycle of the moon. No, instead they urge me only to believe in a human heart of darkness...which I do, readily. Furthermore, these movies ask me to believe that one wrong turn, one twist of fate, can lead to a dark destiny.

Again…I’m there.

A good movie of this variety needs no stars, no expensive locations, no elaborate special effects: everything comes down to the realistic, savage central scenario and the likability of the characters countenancing it.
In other words, the idea of running out of gas in rural, out-of-the-way Texas at nightfall is pretty damn frightening to me. But encountering Dracula or The Wolf Man? Not so much… I just don't expect that to happen.
The Strangers commences ominously, with a baritone-voiced off-screen narrator informing us that the events of the film are inspired by "a true story." The opening card then reveals further specifics of the crime we are about to witness (including the time frame of the events: the night of February 4, 2005).

If you are a student of horror, you’ll instantly recognize this opening gambit as one familiar from Texas Chain Saw Massacre. It’s a simple technique that works on your subconscious like a bad itch; one that keeps gnawing at you because it connects the on-screen horror explicitly (and uncomfortably...) to our "safe" reality. (Even if the actual claim of truth is likely hooey…).

From there, The Strangers transitions to a brief series of slow-motion, fade-in/fade-out views of American houses of all shapes and sizes, ostensibly photographed from the interior of a passing car. We move slowly in these lingering “flashes” from lower-middle class suburbia to upper-class suburbia, to remote, rural territory. Finally, we arrive at our location: a secluded vacation house. Only much later in the film do we realize whose perspective these views actually represent; that we (and the camera with us) are hunting with a family of masked predators. We are sizing up the houses...seeking victims.

Before long, The Strangers introduces us to our two doomed protagonists, twenty-somethings James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler), as they arrive late one night at James’ family vacation home in the woods. Having just attended a wedding, you might think the couple would be happy, buoyant or even drunk. But no – an air of somber anticipation and lugubrious gloom hangs over them. And this is before the horror starts.

It turns out that Kristen has rejected James’ romantic marriage proposal that very night because she “needs time.” James is understandably dejected over this; Kristen feels conflicted, perhaps even guilty and ashamed at her choice. They feel estranged and separated from one another (despite the fact that James has decorated the master bedroom and even bath tub with scattered rose petals for the would-be momentous occasion).

Impressively, the cinematography and set design reflect this personal estrangement with various autumnal hues that signal the coming winter of the relationship.

This is a movie universe where even the bath water runs brown.

The house itself - richly visualized in amber, chestnut and terra-cotta - seems almost like something of a time-capsule tomb: oddly-out-of-step with the new 21st century; a testament to a happier, more prosperous past...replete with decorations like an old record player, a heavy piano, and the sort of elaborate woodwork rarely seen in new construction. James and Kristen may be staying there for the night, but this is a home they will never share. The characters seem not to belong there; like their days (or hours) are numbered. The scattered rose petals portend not a happy honeymoon, but rather a future in which blood spatter on the walls serves as complementary decoration.

As James and Kristen -- barely speaking to one another -- mechanically initiate sex in this environment, there is a loud and sudden knocking at the house’s heavy front doors. Not only is this intrusion the most grievous scene of coitus interruptus possible, it is the vanguard of a horrific home invasion, one that pits Kristen and James against three masked murderers.

Throughout the remainder of the film, these killers mercilessly lay siege to the isolated vacation house with hatchets, butcher knives, and with their Ford pick-up truck (Buy American!). Kristen and James struggle to survive the onslaught, but the killers gain entrance to the house regularly, seem to control the house’s power and phone lines, and have even made off with the couple’s cell phones. Every attempt at escape is foiled; every attempt at defense proves futile, or worse, counterproductive.

It's tempting to read all terror this as some sort of post-911 comment on the fact that neither oceans, law enforcement nor locked front doors can save us from an implacable enemy, but in truth The Strangers resurrects a sturdy horror trope that long pre-dates the September 11th terror attacks: the household siege (think Night of the Living Dead, or another classic savage cinema offering, Straw Dogs).

The motive for the terrible attack in The Strangers?You were home,” one of the killers enigmatically informs Kristen, as if that declaration explains anything.

And that’s about as much information as the movie provides the audience about motivations.

Frankly, I appreciate the restraint, especially given the all-too-common cinematic alternative of facile psychology (Rob Zombie's Halloween...j'accuse). Never once in The Strangers are we spoon fed some pat reason behind this inexplicable madness; for this bloody horror. I believe -- again -- that this is approach is highly realistic (and believable) because people in James and Kristen’s situation are in a life-and-death struggle, and rarely have the time to discuss rational things like motivation with their would-be-murderers. That’s’ the press’s job…in the attempt to place some cultural and historical context on a crime. The Strangers, in fact, remains so cryptic that it never even reveals the faces of the killers under those creepy masks.

The only (small) insight we get into this killing trio comes near the conclusion of the film, post-killing spree, when the Ford pick-up carrying the murderers stops two pre-adolescent boys on bicycles; boys who are handing out Christian literature.

One of the boys asks the older female killer (back to us; to the camera) if she is a “sinner.” Her answer is as inscrutable as her identity. And so the movie provides us almost nothing comfortable or easy to hold onto.

I suggest this is exactly the right strategy for a naturalistic, scary movie of the savage cinema variety. Who cares why Michael Myers (or The Strangers for that matter…) kill? What matters to James and Kristen (and to us in the audience), is that they are at the door. Knocking. What are you going to do about it? Ask them for a personal history? Ask if they were abused as children? I think not. That's bullshit.

The director and screenwriter of the film, Bryan Bertino, seems to have learned a crucial lesson or two from John Carpenter's Halloween (1978). One: less is us less and tell us less; and our imaginations will fill in (the horrific) gaps.

And two: don't spend the whole damn movie rattling our frayed senses with savage, fierce attacks. If a movie is entirely pitched at a hyper-kinetic pace, then there's no "rest" time for the horror to settle down in our psyches; for our imaginations to go to work.

In terms of The Strangers, this means that Bertino spends a considerable portion of the film with the attackers looming in the background of frames...just watching and waiting (in long shot). Suspense is generated because we don't know when they will attack; when they are present (and hiding...) or what, on Earth, they want. I remember being terribly disappointed with Halloween VI: The Curse of Michael Myers (1996) for a lot of reasons, but primarily because Michael Myers just popped up and immediately stabbed and killed people. There was no suspense; there was no watching and waiting; no stalking. It was all slam-bam, thank you ma'am...and that approach is simply ineffective for creating real terror. The Strangers avoids that pitfall and the result is an exercise in suspense.

There's a portion of this film that involves Liv Tyler alone in the house, listening to old music on the record player, smoking a cigarette...just waiting for James to return from an errand. Not much happens, but this segment of the film is riveting, as we begin to process the fact that a killer is inside the house with her. Watching. This is an old aesthetic for those with real attention spans; but it still works. These scenes also set up the geography of the terror to come; the terrain or battlefield.

A close examination of The Strangers reveals that it's primary concern is indeed building suspense, and in some manner approximating for the audience how it would feel to be trapped in a situation like this; with precious few alternatives and precious few escape routes.

Many movie critics suggested that The Strangers is a “vile” film. That it boasts no socially redeeming qualities. They must think this is so because the movie offers up no pat resolution, no happy ending and not the slightest whiff of explanation. But critics should ask themselves this question: did Marion Crane have a happy ending, or understand what was happening to her in that shower at the Bates Motel in Psycho? I would argue that she didn’t; and I would furthermore argue that The Strangers similarly concerns just one piece in what is obviously a much larger killing spree, and that our unlucky protagonists – Kristen and James – are victims in that spree. As such, they are not afforded the decorum of "understanding," of a perspective of the larger historical view. There's no time for that with Mansonite crazoids at the door, at the window, and in the house...

In some clever sense, The Strangers treats us (the audience) like victims too. Our hopes rise and fall with each gambit. We seek answers, beg for mercy, and ultimately, find no solace. We try to deny what is to come, even as all hope is lost. But in the end, there is no denying the inevitability of death.

If you like the savage cinema, if you appreciate dark turns of fate and obsess on the random nature of human life, The Strangers is scary stuff. Watch it tonight, and then -- when the doorbell rings (hopefully just trick-or-treaters, right?) -- consider that maybe the Strangers have singled out your house.
Just because you're home...


  1. In a weird way, I both like and dislike the lack of explanation. Certainly, vagueness is scary. But at the same time, I do like it when an explanation is vaguely sketched, and the audience is left to fill it in. Like the Xenomorphs in Alien or the Crawlers in The Descent. It gives our panicky imaginings a little more form if they're based on something that was actually in the movie, if that makes sense.

    But then on the other hand again, killers who don't have a Fruedian excuse but simply find the chase a lot of fun, that's scary. Then I really liked the meta-ness of it, that they wanted to terrorize the two in gradually increasing amounts - in effect, they wanted to create their own horror and star as the villains. How very Vacancy.

  2. John --

    Just watched this tonight. Fantastic stuff. One of the best mainstream horror films I've seen in ages.

  3. This film had it's fair share of detractors. But it's funny I found this movie to be more frightening than Paranormal Activity (which was getting comments like scariest movie ever). But I think it comes down to the fear being personal. The more personal the fear the more I buy into it. Home invasion is a very strong fear for me, so seeing this play out the way it did scared me to death. Same with Blair Witch. I used to go camping a lot even though the woods at night scared me to death. It didn't help that I had a family that loved to scare one another. I was always waiting for something to happen. So I quickly identified with the fear in the woods. I wanted to be scared of Paranormal Activity because like The Strangers, it was more or less a home invasion. But as you said in your insightful review, there were some story decision that made it suddenly safe for me to be there. I still enjoyed the movie, just thought it could have been better with some different decisions. The Strangers I will contest is underrated and terrifying. Even if I can't help but laugh when Dennis Reynolds (Glenn Howerton) from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia shows up!