Monday, June 16, 2014

The Strangers

Every so often, a horror movie is released that punches us in the gut with its shock value, yet gives us a simple tale of fright that makes us wonder why there aren’t more movies made like this.  So many films of this genre out there try to place such a complicated strategy, confusing the audience in trying to convey a clever plot.  Most of the time I can applaud filmmakers for doing that, but sometimes we just need a scary little tale that’ll make us cringe in the corner of our house with the lights on long after the movie has ended.  In 2008, that movie was The Strangers.

Part of a newer subgenre of horror, home invasion films are starting to be made more often with some really cool ideas.  In the past, there’ve been movies like 1967’s Wait Until Dark, 1971’s Straw Dogs (remade in 2011), and 1972’s The Last House on the Left (remade in 2009).  Recently, we’ve had films like 2008’s Inside (French film), 2013’s The Purge, and 2013’s You’re Next.  All are terrifying as it plays into what we would do if the subject matter happened upon us.  Would we be lucky enough to get out of the situation alive?  Would we fight back?  The Strangers falls into the category of home invasion films and gives us a wide range of emotions, mainly…fright.

If you think about it, this film has a perfect setting and scenario to express the isolation that the characters are experiencing: a vacation home in the woods, with no neighbors nearby, no phone service, and setting the story in the dark wee hours of the morning.  The film already gives one shivers even before the terror begins.  Plus, the lack of motivation and explanation as to why these characters happen to pick this one house—this one couple—to intimidate and threaten is brilliant.  I love the line near the end, when one of the masked assailants is asked why are they doing this, and the person replies, “Because you were home.”  It’s so eerie and maddening at the same time, leaving us wanting answers, yet not getting any.  In my opinion, some of the best movies—especially thrillers or horror films—use this type of framework and that’s what makes it more frightening.

More filmmakers should follow the specs of this movie in order to make successful horror films:  Story takes place at night, in an isolated house/cabin, no communication with the outside world, and unidentified masked villains who do what they do without any motives whatsoever.  Some may call these clich├ęs, and in a sense they are, but when you watch this film, you forgive those banalities very quickly.

I must admit, when this film first started advertising on television and showing up on trailers before other films I’d been watching at the time, I had little to no interest in it.  I don’t know if it was the timing of it or if I just couldn’t make time on my schedule to see it…maybe it was the featured stars of the film, Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, that steered me away…but I made no plans to see it during its theatrical run.  But it’s kind of funny what made me want to see the film…and that’s seeing the character villains running around during Universal Studios’ Halloween Horror Nights in 2008.  Seeing two females with simple plastic masks of different doll faces and a guy with a sack over his head, all holding weapons (knives and an ax—I’m assuming plastic or rubber), gave me a bit of a shock and was the deciding factor in my decision to watch The Strangers, albeit on a DVD rental.

The film opens with a couple—Kristen and James (Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman)—arriving at a remote vacation home late at night following a wedding reception they had attended.  Obviously upset with each other after Kristen turns down a marriage proposal from James, they sit and ruminate until they hear a knock at the front door.  Upon answering the door, they see the silhouette—due to the porch light being
mysteriously burnt out—of a girl, asking for someone named Tamara.  The couple tells the girl she has the wrong house and she leaves.  After a few minutes, James leaves to go to buy some cigarettes and while he’s gone, the girl comes back and asks for the same person.  Kristen tells her that she already came by here, that they told her she had the wrong house.  Soon, knocks and bangs are heard throughout different areas of the house, freaking out Kristen.  When James returns, things gets worse and they quickly realize they’re being targeted by three masked individuals.

The Strangers is definitely not a movie you should choose to watch while you’re sitting at home, alone and in the dark—especially if you live in the sticks like the vacation home depicted in the movie.  I know I kept on thinking I heard noises outside and shadows at the windows, so be warned that this movie will work on your nerves.  But you’ll be completely immersed in this film and find yourself feeling for this couple, sometimes thinking they’re doing the right things and sometimes not.  For instance, when Liv Tyler’s character goes to the door after Speedman’s character leaves to get smokes, you feel she does the right thing by not opening the door when the girl comes back again.  Instead, she opts to talk through the closed door to tell the girl she’d already been there.  However, there are times when the couple makes choices that would go against any moral decision-making.

If there’s anything I can nitpick about the film is the overabundance of moodiness throughout the beginning of the film.  The story opens up with such gloom as we see that the couple have been fighting and are not talking to one another.  It’s sort of a downer and I’d always thought the movie would’ve opened up much better if the couple were happy and celebrating rather than being unhappy with each other.  At the same time, however, it does help the disposition they find themselves in, so the whole critique of this opening is very minor.

Now, I had mentioned that I didn’t go see this in theaters when it was released.  I’d hypothesized some reasons for this and one of them was because of the two stars of the film.  I might have something there because that’s one thing that I don’t like about horror movies these days.  See, back in the 80s and even before then, horror movies featured unknowns in the leads.  It helped with the believability of the story because most of the audience didn’t know who the actors were and made the movie seem like a true event.  Since the 90s, horror movies have become more chic and have garnered the interest of streamline actors and actresses to take these roles.  I feel that it’s detrimental to these movies, having well-known actors and actresses as the leads, giving the films a bogus feel to them as we see the wizard behind the curtain.  Bottom line, that’s the reason why I felt that I didn’t want to see The Strangers, because of having two recognized performers in the lead roles.  But their real identities are soon forgotten and you soon believe they are two real people who are undergoing a terrifying experience.

So…my final “bit” on The Strangers?

A truly disturbing home invasion flick, brought on by the mysteriousness of the villains and how everything plays out, The Strangers is a nice little scary film to watch in a house with tight security—like dead-bolted doors and windows, not to mention a complete online alarm system.  

That’s it for now…thanks for reading!

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