Friday, June 06, 2008

The Strangers (2008)

Horror is cyclical, and clearly now we're moving out of the gory Texas Chainsaw Massacre '03/Saw/Hostel phase and into a bunch of movies in which a young couple gets terrorized somewhere remote, like a motel (Vacancy), or a country house (Ils/Them), or a bullshit art realm (Funny Games), or another country house (this movie). They're basically slasher movies with less slashing and more suspense, and smaller casts = cheaper budgets. This time it's Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, home from a wedding reception and uncertain about their future together, menaced by three anonymous, masked baddies with unknown motivations.

I would describe The Strangers as an entertaining, well-crafted movie that I never need to see again. First-time director Bryan Bertino does a reasonably good job of establishing mood (it's a cliche, but I love the disjointed country music playing during an early scare scene), building suspense, and delivering shocks. The problem is that his screenplay doesn't offer anything of substance - the movie isn't about anything except scares and the idea that being terrorized will help a couple with their relationship problems.

I mean, come on, young filmmakers, give us a little subtext, or a theme, or something to show that you have a little personality to put into your chosen art. In its pared-down way, this movie is vaguely reminiscent of the original Halloween, in which the reasons for Michael Myers' killing spree were disturbingly absent, turning him into an inscrutable killing machine. But John Carpenter was smart enough to know that that very absence, articulated as a theme through dialogue and the performances of Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasence, could itself be the subject of dread. In this movie, the fact that the killers are the same faceless, emotionless killing machines feels like a lack of imagination, or a reliance on an outdated formula. And it leads to this movie's unsatisfying ending, where Bertino seems to paint himself into a corner and give up. The movie works well enough as a ride, or an exercise, and Bertino seems to have the chops as far as camerawork and sound design go, he's just going to need to be a little more imaginative storywise for his next movie.


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