Thursday, January 29, 2009

Movies: Stranger things have happened.

In the asymmetrical wake of the media/genre-fancy reaction to the barely-there subgenre of "torture porn," the bar for announcing the birth of a new horror subgenre fell through the floor. Hence, by the arrival of 2008's The Strangers, the debut effort of writer/director Brian Bertino, critics scattered throughout the pro am horror blogging world could confidently speak of the new "home invasion" subgenre of horror; this despite the fact that the new genre could really only be said to consist of four or five notable movies, one of which (Funny Games) was actually a remake of a decade-old flick. Of the home invasion flicks, The Strangers became something of a standard barer for the alleged subgenre in that it was the most financially successful of the lot and, in a surprising counter-programming victory, it was released against Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and managed to score numbers that made some of the horror scribes wax poetic about the coming age of horror box office dominance.

I bring this up not because I do or do not but the existence of a home-invasion subgenre, but because I think it got lumped into "the next big thing" so fast that a taxonomical error occurred. You'll get the most mileage out of The Strangers if you look at it not as another step in the larval-stage of the forming home-invasion genre, then as an efficient and smart revisionist piece that belongs in the venerable slasher genre.

The horror fandom is about to be up to its collective nips in slasher remakes. Somewhere, in some dungeon-like level of the development bunker in the subbasement of the Lionsgate Traumfabrik, some luckless assistant is trying to find out who owns the rights to Splatter University. So, before mediocre drek like My Bloody Valentine: Film in Super Suck-o-Surround become the gold standard by which we're all expected this newest wave of slicers and dicers, I'll like to at least try to make the case that The Strangers illustrates how smart filmmakers can keep a genre vital without lapsing in ironic self-parody or slavish dogmatic adherence to form. Furthermore, the box-office for The Strangers proves, if not that we're headed into a new Golden Age of Horror, at least that genuinely lively and evolving works can be entertaining and appeal to a mass audience.

If you missed out on The Strangers, the recap is super-easy. We open with the discovery of a gruesome crime scene, with a voiced-over 911 call describing the carnage.

Then we flashback for the majority of the flick's slim-and-trim 85 minute running time.

Enter young couple, Kristen and James. After attending an amigo's wedding, K and J are headed to his father's house, an ever-so-secluded ranch house set among an impressive stand of towering pines. All is not well with our protagonist couple. At the wedding, James popped Kristen the Big Question. She said no. On arriving at the house, the two mope about in the strewn rose petals, chilled bubbly, and other wreckage of James's matrimonial plans.

They are interrupted briefly by a spacey young girl, face shrouded in the pine-shadowed evening darkness, who knocks on their door and asks if somebody neither James nor Kristen have ever heard of before is home.

To avoid the long road trip home, James calls a friend and arranges a ride home (he's going to leave their Volvo with Kristen) and then goes out for a head clearing evening drive.

Happily, pulling us back from the brink of mumblecore, enter a trio of masked psychos. Home alone, Kristen becomes the target of these relentless tormentors – two women and a man – who pound on the doors and windows, leave sinister messages written on the windows in red paint, and, worse yet, seem able to enter and leave the house at will. James's arrival doesn't scare off the attackers, but emboldens them.

The rest is a cat and mouse game played between the trio of attackers and our frightened couple.

Simple, no?

Visually, the movie's got a crisply professional look that's awash in autumnal colors and inky black shadows. The sound design – which begs for a spiffy home theater set up – fully uses the conceit of the limited space, with heart-stabbing bumps and clatters coming distinctly from different locations around the house. The acting ranges from fair to excellent, with the actors managing to even squeeze in a genuinely touching moment between their screaming bloody murder. All in all, a solid genre work.

Okay. Here's why The Strangers is the one of the best slasher flicks in the past ten years. Discussing Frank Miller's Spirishtar, Curt "Groovy Age" Purcell dropped a mighty, mighty rumination on what makes a "reimagining" work. Cribbing from the Groovy One:

Miller's reimaginings of Daredevil and Batman are hyper-faithful, by which I mean he zeroes in on certain core facets of their characters and worlds, and heightens those facets to defining principles. He's not imposing something external on them; he's bringing out what's implicit and, in retrospect, essential. The precision and rigor with which he accomplishes this constitutes his departure from previous depictions.

The Strangers is a hyperfaithful slasher insomuch as it finds the real core of the genre and makes it the defining principle. The flick is the final chase – that one long stretch of tension where the final girl runs and stumbles throughout the set in an effort to escape the baddie, never fully eluding him and managing to stumble into the remains of all his previous work – exploded into the length of a feature. Bertino trimmed the genre most tedious excess. He's disposed of the disposable characters, starting the flick with just his final girl and her boy. Gone are all the vestiges of the Reaganite neo-Puritanism. Instead the "axes for kisses" approach to sexuality that was such a crucial factor in the first gen slashers, there's a chillingly nihilistic lack of motivation. (Curiously, the victim couple is, refreshingly, caught not in the throws of hormonal passion, but tackling with an inability to leap to the next stage of a relationship: a most likely intentional, but completely fitting metaphor for the state of slasher genre as it heads into its third prolonged adolescence.) The decision to have these killers pop up ex nihilo is far from cynical though; it is refreshing. Why do cinema slashers kill? Is it really because they hate life and joy, or can't afford traditional store-bought meat products, or have mommy issues? No. The motives of just about every cinematic serial killer, from Bates to Jigsaw, seem, in retrospect, a bit silly. Rather, the carnage exists because screenwriters decree it. There's something pleasing efficient and honest about the lack of backstory here.

In focusing on the real delight of slasher flicks, that wildly tense moment, The Strangers reveals the errors of subpar efforts like the earnest, but ill-conceived Halloween remake (which made the mistake of amplifying non-essential, rather than essential component) or the half-assed, cynical pandering of flicks like My Bloody Valentine (which viewed the genre as little more than a laundry list of crap one had to throw up onto the screen).

Not that The Strangers is perfect. True to form, the flick requires moments of victim stupidity that push against viewer tolerance levels. Also, Bertino occasionally mars the visual storytelling with inexplicable shaky handcam work, as if sections of an earlier first-person p.o.v. effort somehow made it into the work. But both these factors are understandable in terms of genre conventions and first-time director flubs. They don't slow down the ride.

Before you shell out another 12 to 15 smackers for the next sequel/relaunch/reimagining filmed in Smell-Surround!, at least consider re-watching The Strangers instead. You'll have more fun.


Shon Richards said...

I for one am glad to see compression come to horror movies. The idea of chopping out people you know are going to die anyway seems so logical but something we see so rarely.

I saw like a million Forensic Files over the holidays and the most horrifying thing to me about all of those real crimes was how senseless most of them were. I couldn't get over the lack of motive. It made the simplest crimes seem more horrible because of the lack of a balancing motive. I hope more horror movies take advantage of this lack of motive like the Strangers did.

Curt Purcell said...

Haven't seen STRANGERS, but this dispensing of backstory might emerge as a bit of a trend, since DARK KNIGHT's Joker tossed out a few different ones, in mockery of every attempt to figure him out.

CRwM said...


In a similar vein, the the killers in Funny Games make a mockery of the idea that there should be some sensible explanation for their actions, inventing a origin story that they then announce was a complete lie. Scream touched on the same concept, giving one killer an origin but having the other simply announce that motivations were irrelevant.

I think its an admission on the part of filmmakers that slasher origins are always so dumb and inexplicable anyway - take Scream (please!): the heroine has been more traumatized and has a better motive for being a slasher than the slashers do - that your better off without them.

Besides, slashers are more like mythological creatures than "real" criminals - let them be a monsters. They don't need a reason. You know?