These days, there seems to be two types of horror films in mainstream America. You’ve got the so-called “torture porn” films like Hostel and Saw. Or you’ve got remakes — either or foreign films like One Missed Call or Shutter*, or of classic horror films, like Prom Night (not that the original Prom Night could really be considered a classic, but you get my point, right?). They’re not always bad movies — though usually they are — but it’s really very seldom that one comes along that’s actually, um, scary. And they’re horror movies, right? Shouldn’t “scary” sort of be the whole endgame?
So when a movie like The Strangers comes along, it’s like a breath of creepy fresh air. I’m not going to say that The Strangers is the second coming of the American horror film or anything, but when a horror movie does so many things right, you can’t help but be giddy about its success (not financially, since the numbers have yet to come out; plus it’s competing against that other horror movie this weekend).
What makes The Strangers work so well is that it takes a decisive 70s approach to horror filmmaking. In particular, I’m thinking of the pre-Jason slashers like, of course, the king Michael Myers himself. A lot of the decisions that are made by the filmmakers in The Strangers seem to stem from a love of John Carpenter’s classic.
The film starts with the audio of a 911 phone call from a couple of kids who find the aftermath of whatever it is that we’re about to see. The kids are freaking out, telling the operator that “There’s blood everywhere!” So we know what we’re in for from the get-go. But then the movie moves into flashback mode and shows our protagonists, James and Kristen, played by Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler (yummy), and we get their backstory (a failed proposal after a friend’s wedding reception followed by some really awkward moments as the couple head to James’ family’s summer home where the celebration of their engagement was supposed to happen) and, well, we actually start caring about the characters. In fact, I was so into what was going on between the two characters that at times I forgot the horribleness that was surely about to come to them.
When the creepiness does begin, it begins with a loud bang on the door. And that just begins to show where the movie really shines. We don’t see everything. In fact, we see very little of the baddies before the finale. But we hear them. A lot. I’d have to say that 75% of the scares in the movie come from the sound design. It kind of brings to mind that old Hitchcockian quote about how what you imagine is always much scarier than what you actually see. But in this case, it’s your imagination wondering just what the hell these people are going to do once they inevitably find their way into James and Kristen’s house?
We hear banging, clanging, feet shuffling across grass, and an old record player that gets used to full effect several times, including the creepiest use of Merle Haggard in a movie ever. Most of the tension comes from the fact that, yeah we hear them, but where are they are what are they doing? It’s the same situation that our victims are in.
So when we do see the baddies, they’re even creepier. They tend to stick to the dark and emerge from the shadows in a very Michael Myers-type way, just emerging from the blackness like they appeared out of nowhere. It also helps that the masks that they wear are really fucking creepy.
Another plus: We don’t have a clue why these masked peoples are doing what they’re doing. Remember in the first Halloween when Michael Myers was killing babysitters just because he was a psychotic killing bastard? You know, before they gave him a sister in part 2? He was scarier then, right? What’s scarier: Someone who’s coming after you for some sort of revenge or vengeance, or someone who’s coming after you just for shits and giggles and because they just enjoy stabbing folks? That’s what we get here: Three masked people who are just screwing with poor James and Kristen just because, well, because they were home. And that’s just… disturbing.
Oh Yeah: When I saw the trailer to this movie, I thought it was a remake to the French home-invasion flick, Ils (aka Them) and I’d actually read on a few horror-themed websites that this was the case, but it just ain’t true. Although the two movies do draw some parallels, The Strangers was actually written two years prior. So don’t get all horror fan huffy puffy and refuse to see The Strangers just because you think it’s yet another Americanizing of a solid foreign horror film. It’s not. It’s a solid horror film in its own right and deserves to be seen, so that director Brian Bertino can go on to creep us out some more in the future. Although when this comes out on DVD, I can’t say that I won’t be watching a Strangers/Them two-fer.
Viewed in a theater (Regal Hollywood 20).
*I accidentally typed “Shitter” here. Freudian slip?