21 October 2010

The Strangers

On recommendation I finally watched this, as an example of a recent "smart" horror film, with characters, and plot points that matter, and a concern for story as well as for scares. I have to concede that this fits that bill pretty perfectly. It's also right in the wheelhouse for the kind of thing I'm doing, and to top that off, first time writer-director Bryan Bertino wrote the script (then called The Faces) and was a quarter-finalist for the Nicholl Fellowship before selling it to Universal. His first film was a horror because he felt he could connect to his audience by scaring them (according to Wikipedia). Right in my wheelhouse, indeed.

The exercise in setting up some reasonably complicated and emotional relationships between the two leads proves a point I think a couple of friends were trying to make to me about horror the other day: it's a genre about things happening to the characters (with, therefore, pretty passive protagonists and very active antagonists or antagonistic forces), and even with all that set-up you end up disregarding most of it as you enter act two. I don't think it has to be quite as sharp a cut between character development and scary stuff happening as The Strangers has, but even with such a hard line separation I was happier having it all there than having none or having sloppy, lazy characterization fill twenty minutes.

The containedness is good, and gives me something to look at and think about. It's not quite how I want to deal with it, in terms of the threat or the reaction to the threat, but it's thoughtful and it works. I'd definitely like to see if I can find a script for this out there, maybe the Nicholls draft even, something before there was a shooting script. The use of handheld actually worked here, even though it was shakier than average. Something about a wide shot of a room, a girl alone, something out there, that all seems heightened by an unmoving but shaky camera. Static shots rendered handheld. Not like I've never seen it done before, but where I might have dismissed it, here I have to admit it helped the scene's tension.

It's hard not to compare this to Ils, but it actually holds up pretty well, and overall maybe better. For my money I found the masks a little off-putting and not-scary, though I enjoyed the man's mask ("enjoyed" meaning "was slightly unsettled/frightened by") and I enjoyed the blankness of not seeing their faces (though I can't help but wonder about the choice to never show us their faces at all, even when our characters see them in broad daylight... I don't hate the choice, but it felt stilted). But the killers themselves seemed pretty good. It sure has its share of miraculous timing, which is kind of a headache for a script-obsessed writer like me, but there were enough scary moments and enough thought given to the sequence of events and characters that I was willing to forgive. Plus, Ils lost a lot of its terror as soon as you figure out that the killers are a) easily tricked and fallible, and b) menacing children, nothing more; the masked invaders in The Strangers are a decidedly more adult, controlled breed of killer. It's not just their masks that hide their feelings. Their every movement is lethargic, as though half-asleep, they're more a menace that moves like molasses somewhere between methodical and maniacal (partially accidental alliteration! how about that!). In the end, they have two brilliantly telling lines, outlining a frightening M.O. for us without any heavy exposition. The first, in response to Kristen's demands of "Why are you doing this to us?" they respond merely, "Because you were home." Second, as they drive away in their beat-up pickup truck, stopping even to take a religious pamphlet from some young Mormon (?) missionaries, the girl (Dollface) says, "It'll be easier next time." This is (like, yes, Wikipedia points out) a proto-Manson family, calculatedly learning how to torment and kill. There's something plausible about this, unfortunately, which keeps the story a little scarier than a lot of supernatural horror stories. This kind of a creeper is a lot more likely to come breaking through your window at night than a tentacle monster or a fanged beast, or the walking dead, or a man from inside your dreams. These people are out there.

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