Thursday, October 3, 2013

28 Days Until Halloween - The Strangers

"Why are you doing this to us?"

"Because you were home."



I love Bryan Bertino's The Strangers.  Like easily in my Top 10 Horror Films love.  There, I said it.  I think it belongs right up there with the classics, side by side with Halloween and The Exorcist.

The difference, for me, with films like Halloween and The Exorcist is that they're supposed to be classics -- basically because everyone's been saying as much since they were released.  Arguably, both films had their share of criticisms when they first came out -- but by the time they were on my cinematic radar, they had been elevated to the status they now enjoy.

I saw The Strangers when it was first released.  I had no preconceptions or expectations going in.  And it knocked my fucking socks off.

This year, Adam Wingard's film You're Next was released, after an odd delay of well over a year since it debuted to great acclaim at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival's Midnight Madness program.  The reasons for the delay are unclear to me, but the film that I saw didn't seem worthy of any distribution hesitation.  The film was smart, fun, and scary.

Now, the key word for me there is "fun".

Again, I did enjoy the film -- but I just want to point out what I feel the difference is between it and The Strangers.

Both films fall into the Home Invasion sub-genre...

A quick side note: I think all horror films fall into one of two categories.

The first is what I like to call the Children Lost In The Dark Forest kind of story.  Films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Eden Lake fall into this category.  An individual or group of people are in an unfamiliar place, and are beset upon by whatever "monster" lives there.

The second category is the Invasion Of The Home  Now that is not simply a Home Invasion film, like The Strangers is.  I simply mean that (such as in the instance the classics I mentioned, Halloween and The Exorcist) the premise is that the familiar surroundings of the characters, what should be their safe place is invaded by an outside force.

Okay, back to my earlier tangent...

Like I said, both The Strangers and You're Next fit neatly into the Home Invasion sub-genre.

But ultimately, You're Next is more fun than horrifying.  Yes, there's violence.  Yes, there are scares and suspense aplenty.  But you also have a heroine who turns out to be much more than we assumed (and kudos to Wingard for it), and she turns into more than a worthy foe that we cheer on.

Of course we're scared when one of the assailants is stalking and killing one of the victims -- but it won't be long before our dread is assuaged by the heroine reducing our recently terrifying antagonist into a screaming and dying mess.  And we cheer, and yell out encouraging things like KILL THAT MOTHERFUCKER!!" when she does.

The Strangers has no such element -- no emotional release valve to take down the tension and terror.

Bryan Bertino did an amazing thing.  He wrote two incredibly real and sympathetic people.  When we first meet James and Kristen, they are sitting in a car, and the tension (hell, the sadness) between them is   intense.

We flashback to a wedding that they are returning from, and it was here, at a romantic event, that James proposes to Kristen.

There's just one problem.

She said no.

Big bummer for James.  And now the two of them have returned to a way off the beaten path vacation home owned by James' parents.

Right away, James calls a friend to come and pick him up as soon as he can.  He's so hurt and humiliated, he wants nothing more than to get the fuck out of there.

Kristen isn't faring much better.  She's not cold-hearted, it's just that she ultimately isn't ready to get married.  She knows that her decision has crushed James, and she is equally heartbroken over hurting him.

But here they are, alone (essentially in the woods), and with nothing to do -- but talk.  It could easily be the start of a small character piece about a couple coming to grips with their relationship, and deciding what the future holds for them.

At least, until there's a knock at the door.

From there, Bertino slowly and relentlessly cranks up the tension, as James and Kristen are terrorized by a trio of mask-wearing assailants.

And it's a unique demographic for the murderous three.  There is the hulking male, a daunting but anonymous physical threat.  He wears a simple sackcloth over his head with eyeholes cut out of it.  It's a scary mashup of Bubba's scarecrow mask from Dark Night of the Scarecrow and Ghostface from Scream.

But the other two killers are women.  Each are named in the credits by their respective masks, "Dollface" and "Pin-up Girl".

Of the three, the women are the only ones that speak, with Dollface offering the chilling explanation of why they are doing this, simply "Because you were home."

You get the sense that Dollface is the newest addition to the group (an assumption I'm making only because it seems that Pin-up Girl tells her later on "It'll be easier next time."  You never completely see their faces, but it seems like she was the one who said it -- and the violence seems like old hat for the Man In The Mask), with the duties of her initiation including getting the whole thing rolling by knocking on the door at the beginning, and being the first to initiate the final wave of violence against James and Kristen.

And the, as I say, final wave of violence is what makes the film so terrifying, because The Strangers is another film that ends badly.

I realize that I seem to be setting a pattern here, as none of my previous entries had upbeat ending (I guess you can make an argument that Wendy and Danny escape at the end of The Shining, but I don't think their lives will ever be happy again), but I think that's what makes a great terror film so terrifying.

Sometimes, good people don't survive.


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