Sunday, June 1, 2008

Something New Sundays: The Strangers

Apparently, I might be wrong.

According to every other critic, I am wrong.
Usually, when I'm wrong, I'm man enough to admit it.
But with The Strangers, I'm pretty sure I'm right.

Despite its obvious flaws, The Strangers is a freaky-deeky movie which induces pee-pants.

For some reason, all the critics write about are the flaws, completely ignoring the good parts. It's like that guy who you order pizza with and he complains about the olives when they're really easy to pick off. "They're chopped up in the sauce!" he whines. "Are you allergic?" you ask. "No..." he replies. "Shut up and watch The Strangers."

Let's just spend some time on the flaws to humor the naysayers who say "nay." Then I'll try to convince you to spend ninety of your hard earned minutes on some newbie's American ripoff of a French movie.

You've all heard it. Critics hate horror movies that claim to be "based on a true story." "Based on a true story" is a cheap attempt to stir up a false sense of reality. It's a marketing tactic and not much more.

The Strangers takes this a step further. B-Sol over at The Vault of Horror explores the difference between "Based on" and "Inspired by." In short, Bryan Bertino, the director, says that violent crimes happen all the time and that this story is inspired by these violent crimes. The Strangers isn't directly based on any particular crime...oh no, it's inspired by violent crimes in general.

That's like saying Cats & Dogs is inspired by a true story because cats and dogs exist.

Critics were really upset about the text used at the beginning of the movie. It sets up an "I guess everyone dies" sort of revelation which isn't really warranted. Ignore the statistics they tell you and the info they pass off as "real" at the beginning and you'll enjoy this movie so much more. To be honest, it wasn't until after I read all these reviews that I even remembered the conventional opening.

FLAW #2: There's no plot/story/character development/redeeming qualities
Over at The Movie Blog, their latest Podcast discusses how The Strangers has a concept but not a plot. This is right before they launch into one of the most sexist rants I've ever heard. Check out their discussion on Sex and the City if you hate women.

Here's the thing. There's definitely a ring of truth to all of these criticisms. The characters don't really get developed. The plot doesn't really progress much further than its initial premise. But in a lot of ways, the movie works. The director wanted to scare us and scare us he did. Based on the number of screams, jumps, and spilled popcorn piles, he did a damn good job. I guess not every character has to be developed. In some cases, they just have to scream really well. Some plots don't have to progress, they just have to end...or not. I think I just got kicked out of film school. In short, The Strangers is a scary movie which scares people until they're scared. Then it scares them again. And again. And again.

The first twenty minutes, which is SUB-PAR at best, does a fine job setting up the following seventy. Once the scary starts the scary isn't going to stop. Sweet holy Moses, it does not stop. Every time there's a chance to develop a character, some knife-wielding maniac bursts in through a window. Every time a bit of backstory tries to creep in, BLUDGEONING! I gave praise to movies such as The Descent for it's lack of false scares which I can't really do for this movie. In a lot of ways, The Strangers isn't as good as The Descent but what The Strangers does bring to the table is a feeling reminiscent of reading a Choose Your Own Adventure book!

The three maniacs have broken in through your front door. Your phones aren't working. You just shat yourself. There's a knife on the kitchen table which is across the room. Do you crawl across the room to grab the knife or do you jump out the window and take off into the woods?

To go for the knife, turn to page 17.
To flee through the woods, turn to page 101.
To sit on the floor and hope the maniacs will leave once they smell what you've done to yourself, turn to page 3.

So, I come home from an entertaining theatrical experience only to find out that everyone else who had seen The Strangers thought that I was dumb. Me, personally. Dumb. Wrong. Wrong to like this movie. Wrong to have had fun. Rotten Tomatoes rated The Strangers a not-so-fresh 44% which has dropped down to 41% since Friday. Yikes.

Here's where I try to convince you that The Strangers is worth watching. Now, this isn't going to sound professional, but it's okay, this isn't my profession. I really had a good time watching this movie. My heart raced, my muscles tightened, and my hands blocked my eyes. Everybody else in the theater seemed to feel the same way. In the end, if nobody else liked it, that'd be fine by me. Heaven knows there's plenty of movies that I LOVE that everyone else LOATHES. Add The Strangers to the pile right next to Chain Reaction and Born in East L.A. I think I just lost all my readers.


The maniacs are already crazy as a couple'a shithouse rats. You think you dropping a deuce in your drawers is enough to leave you living? Sorry, the maniacs tie you and your loved one to chairs and slice your throats until you look like the Kool-Aid man peed all over you. OH YEAH!


PAGE 17:
You scramble across the room and grab the knife. One of the maniacs pin you up against the oven. You try to take a swing at the assailant but miss. Out of nowhere, the other two killers enter the kitchen and before you know it...BLUDGEONINGS!


PAGE 101
As you try to jump out of the window, the biggest maniac grabs you and drags you to the living room. They throw you and your loved on onto the couch. As you look up at the keepers of your fate, they slowly begin to remove their masks! One by one, the intruders put their knives down and pick up their axes. Their electric axes, that is. It turns out that the strangers are actually an up-and-coming band who heard that you have to think outside the box to get people's attention. Knowing that your loved one was a music executive, they decided to stage this impromptu performance.

They begin to play and as it turns out, they aren't that good. When your loved one informs the group that music contracts aren't in their futures, you quickly realize that a "we'll get back to you" response would have been a better choice. Knives replace guitars and your last memories will forever consist of a bad Wallflowers cover and wondering why you didn't just go out to the movies instead. Guess you should have seen The Strangers, it could have saved your life.

The End.


Kim and Nick Grafton said...

This is the best movie review I have ever read. I have absolutely no desire to see this movie even after your review, but now I really want to go out and buy a chose your own adventure book... And isn't "nay" what naysayers usually say? Just a thought.

Taylor said...

Something tells me that both you and I love the idea of Arwen, miss elven princess herself, getting chased around by knife-weilding maniacs, and giggle with joy at watching her lose some blood in the process.

*By the way, I had to look on IMDB to remember her elvish name--I try to only remember important things in life, Lord of the Ring characters not being one of them ;)

J.J. said...

I'm in your camp, I think, even though I haven't seen it. I remember being petrified during Blair Witch and then brushing it off because that's what others were doing. It's easy to dismiss scary movies on merits that should be expected only from other more "serious" genres.

Keith said...

I'd watch Liv Tyler do anything, anytime, anywhere. I'd watch Liv Tyler watch paint dry.

Haven't seen this yet but I've been planning on it. Perhaps this week!

Jonny said...

I'm totally with you on this one, Scott. I thought The Strangers, as a genre film, worked really well. The problem with the critics' reaction to this film is that hardly any of them are horror fans and thus feel like every film needs to have well-developed characters and a strong, thorough, cohesive plot. Like you alluded to, the only true litmus test for a horror film should be: does it scare me? Well, personally, I had trouble sleeping for two days after seeing this film. I dug the minimalist approach a lot. Plus, did you catch the references to Texas Chainsaw?

Also, Bryan Bertino should be commended on a strong directorial debut, don't you think? I don't know if you've read a lot about him, but apparently, after he sold the script to Rogue, they asked him to direct it even though he didn't have any prior directing experience. He said he was literally reading "how to" books while he was making this film. Pretty crazy.

I don't know if you've heard Adam and Sam's discussion of Suspiria over at Filmspotting, but Adam made a good point about horror films and I think it's applicable to The Strangers also. He said so many people can't look past things like character, plot, dialogue, etc; most great horror films are generally weak in those areas, but they make up for it in terms of mood, tone (and in Suspiria's case, awesome set designs and lighting schemes). I think The Strangers is another example of a film that isn't necessarily a great cohesive film overall with amazing characters and a thorough story, but as a horror film, I think it's great. Sure, the plot is razor thin and there's virtually no character development, but if that's what you're looking for, why are you seeing these kinds of movies in the first place? All I know is that aside from the first few minutes, I was so tense I could have punched a stranger square in the face. And that scene where Liv Tyler stands in the kitchen and the killer slowly appears in the background? With no music cues, just pure silence? God, that was a great shot wasn't it? I remember seeing that shot in the trailer and that was enough for me to be there opening night.

I'm glad you had the balls to like this film even though apparently the rest of the world thought you (and I) were "dumb" for liking it. Just remember, a lot of these critics were the same people that thought Crash was one of the best movies in the last 10 years, so...

Anonymous said...

Count me in the minority as well -- loved it (the bag-headed guy totally reminded me of Jason in Friday the 13th, Part 2). I urge you to see a 2006 French film called 'Ils' or 'Them.' Very similar thematically, and just 90 minutes of pure tension building, sparse soundtrack and jolting thrills. I needed a nap after watching it, I was so tired.