Monday, June 9, 2008

So good, it's scary

My mother hated the new movie The Strangers. She even tried to warn me not to see it, because she found the film so unbearable. "I kind of just wanted it to be over," she said, adding that seeing one of her favorite actresses (Liv Tyler) brutalized for two hours was not her idea of a good time. Of course, relentlessly scary movies are my idea of a good time, precisely because they work my emotions so expertly. While many modern horror flicks are laden with cheesy cliches or gratuitous gore, The Strangers is a stylish and unbelievably effective shocker. It's one of the best movies I've seen this year and certainly the scariest in recent memory. The set-up is simple. Tyler and Scott Speedman play Kristen and Jimmy, a young couple who return home after a party. They've just had a fight, and slowly we realize it stems from Jimmy's rejected marriage proposal. The writing and acting here are both terrific, deftly establishing both the characters and their unease. (Emotionally drained and a little drunk, neither is at all prepared to face the horrors that follow.) The two are startled by a loud knock at the door, and a mysterious woman (Gemma Ward) who says she's looking for "Tamara." The couple finds this odd, but quickly forget about it; Jimmy heads out to buy cigarettes while Kristen stays behind. Then the pounding at the door resumes, and as Kristen's suspicions mount, things go from bad to worse. By the time Jimmy returns, the pair are caught up in a desperate fight for survival. The Strangers compares favorably to John Carpenter's original Halloween, borrowing from that film several elements: the masked assailants; the shadowy camera work (which is incredibly suggestive and plays on our fears of what lurks in the dark); and the slow-burning tension. We never really see the stalkers' faces , and we never understand their motivation, either; the randomness of the brutality is all the more frightening for its lack of rhyme or reason. The Strangers takes its time, but once it gets going it plays out like a nightmare. Watching the film, I thought how strange it is that so many movies with similar plotlines lacked any real sense of jeopardy or doom. But in the hands of writer-director Bryan Bertino, the movie is unrelenting and brutal. Sure, there are plenty of "jump" moments; but they come as a result of superb set-up and attention to detail. In one nail-biting sequence, Kristen takes refuge in a closet (again, shades of Halloween) and watches in horror as one of the attackers prowls the house, seeking but not finding her. We are so caught up in the moment that we're rendered sitting ducks for anything the film throws at us, and the same goes for the entire movie. It should be noted that the sound design is a huge part of what makes the movie so frightening; from the jarring knocks at the door to the indistinct scraping and running sounds that bewilder the characters, The Strangers suggests even more terror with what we hear. (The film also benefits from several moody folk songs.) The performances of the two leads, particularly Tyler, are outstanding. Tyler is terrific as a normal woman pushed past the point of reason; she makes Kristen sympathetic and entirely convincing as a victim of unimaginable terror and violence. And while I won't spoil it, the movie boasts a terrific and evocative ending that lingers in the memory. The Strangers proves that you don't need excessive blood or elaborate plot mechanics to make a good horror movie-- just simple craftsmanship and a commitment to scaring the pants off your audience.

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