MAY 27, 2008
Even though I knew The Strangers was very similar to Them (Ils), I still watched the latter knowing I was going to see the former in a few days. So knowing that, I think it’s even MORE surprising that I didn’t just like The Strangers, but liked it more than Them. Granted, some of the structuring was a bit less exciting than it might have been, but the differences were all for the better.
For starters, they don’t leave the house. Them really lost a lot of its tension when they went out into the open and into the sewers. I am afraid of being killed in my home, but not the sewer, because I’m never going to go in there unless I’m drunk and looking for Turtles or Barry Otto. Incidentally, the one time in Strangers that I felt myself relaxing was when they head out to their shed. Not that it’s a bad sequence, but the tension when they are inside the house is nearly unbearable at times, whereas the shed sequence seems a bit standard.
A big part of that is due to the fact that the house is rather small. It’s only one floor, so you know they can’t exactly back into a corner in the attic and be safe, because the killer might be walking around on the outside; a strong swing of an axe away. There are also only like four or five rooms, which limits hiding spots. Of course, there’s a trade off – without a lot of options, they need to find ways to keep the characters moving around, some of which are a bit clichéd (like the shed – they are going out there to use an old CB radio), but never flat out idiotic, which is good.
Interestingly enough, the film has a flashback which I think is just there to flesh out the running time, because it’s really not needed. I guess it’s nice to see the couple completely happy (they are on the verge of breaking up because she has just turned down his marriage proposal), but the cause of their issue is nicely (subtly) revealed before the flashback anyway. But since the movie is only 80 minutes with credits, I am guessing that people are already going to be pretty pissed off that even with trailers and such they aren’t even use up their whole two hour parking validation, so making it even shorter by cutting the sequence would make matters worse. Me, I like short films – better a 75 minute movie with a flawless pace than an 85 minute one with 10 worthless minutes.
The reason that the film is so short is that it’s simple. The poster pretty much gives away all the motive the film ever offers (they were home), and there are no dumb twists or tension-breaking backstory to flesh out either the heroes or the villains. You might have spotted a shot of Scott Speedman (hey pal, stick to stuff like this, not Underworld) being called a killer via blood on a mirror – don’t worry, it’s not a hint about his past or anything. It’s a movie about a couple being terrorized in their own home, and that’s it. Like my beloved Halloween, it’s the simplicity of the film that makes it work so well.
Does it work AS well? Well, no, of course not. There are a couple minor issues. One is the rather laughable opening narration, which tells us some statistics about violent crimes, and of course, that this film was based on true events. He also tells us that to this day, no one knows what happened in the house, which sort of spoils the ending (though this works to the film’s credit – if you think they are going to die, it becomes a guessing game of WHEN, as opposed to knowing perfectly well that they will live), but once the film concludes, one might take issue with this (highlight to read): One of them lives. Why doesn’t anyone know what happened if there is a survivor?
You may have noticed that Liv Tyler is the only one on two of the film’s three posters (I think this is the first film to have three posters all taken directly from the film itself). That’s because Speedman is absent for two large chunks of the film (he goes to get some smokes for like 15 min, and then is knocked out and hidden somewhere for another 15 later on). It’s all Tyler most of the time, which is fine by me, since she’s one of the most naturally beautiful actresses in ages. She (and Speedman, more or less) look like regular people, not movie stars, which adds to the film’s realism. Angelina and Brad would be impossible to believe in this situation, but not in Tyler’s case. And that’s even more impressive when you consider that she co-stars in my 2nd favorite movie of all time, a film without as much as a minute of anything resembling real life. So between that and her starring in a film with heavy Halloween influences (some of the subtle reveals of the killers are like the one in Halloween where Michael just sort of fades into view), she is now my de facto favorite actress.
The film’s writer/director, Bryan Bertino, has also shot an incredibly good looking film as well. Other than the cell phones and things of that nature, this film could easily be a well preserved relic from 1975 or so. No tripods, lots of rack focus shots, deliberate pacing, even the overall look of the film (particularly the final, day set scenes) remind me of all my favorites from the era: Halloween, Chain Saw, etc. Rogue better put this on Blu-Ray or there will be hell to pay! And hopefully Bertino gets another film soon, hopefully one that won’t be compared to an ultimately inferior (but still “first”) film.
One last note about the Them comparisons: (highlight for spoilers for both films) In Them the killers were young kids. Here, it’s suggested that they are young (we never really see any of the killer’s faces, but from the sides of their face and their overall size it is fairly clear that they are much younger than our heroes anyway), but never really spelled out. To me this was great, but I’m curious what you guys think – would you rather they had more explanation as to how old they were, why they were doing what they did, etc?
Goddamn you people, go see this movie. Ruins, Doomsday... no one went. Midnight Meat Train is looking at a limited release, and dog knows if Repo will even get that much. Why? I have no idea. Make up for it and go see The Strangers. I don’t care if movies are expensive and people are on their cell phones the whole time – we need to support stuff like this to ensure both the type of film and the people making them aren’t extinct in favor of remakes and kids horror. I also invite you to read this article by my good friend Uncle Creepy at Dread Central, which addresses many of the same concerns.
What say you?