Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Film Appreciation - Because You Were Home

Cody Hamman has Film Appreciation for the down-to-earth horror of The Strangers.

The feature debut of writer/director Bryan Bertino, The Strangers has just about the most simplistic story possible. Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman star as Kristen McKay and James Hoyt, a young couple spending the night in a remote location, a summer getaway home owned by James's father. At 4am, there's a knock on the door - a young girl (played by Gemma Ward) stands outside, asking if someone named Tamara is home. Although she's right in front of them, Kristen and James can't see the girl's face very well, she's hidden in the darkness because the porch light isn't working. They'll come to find out, after the girl leaves because there's no Tamara there, that the light bulb had been unscrewed. They'll also find out that the girl wasn't really looking for a Tamara. She was checking to make sure there were people in this isolated house, so she and two friends, all of them wearing masks, can return to the house and spend the rest of the night terrorizing the young couple.

That's all there is to this home invasion horror film, and that's all there needs to be, because the set-up alone is one of the most terrifying things imaginable. The idea of a group of strangers showing up at your door in the middle of the night with the intent to harm you, for no other reason than for their own sick amusement. When the strangers are asked why they're doing this to Kristen and James, the only answer is "Because you were home."

This is a very relatable type of horror. You don't have to believe in the supernatural to buy into the scenario, there is no suspension of disbelief required to buy the story. This type of thing really happens in our world, and viewers can easily imagine themselves in the place of Kristen and James, with these strangers invading their home, the place where they should be safe and secure. You can nitpick how the couple handles the situation, maybe even think you'd be more capable than them in such a scenario, but it's still very much grounded in our own reality.

Bertino brings this horror to the screen with a rather deliberate, elegant style that, upon my first viewing of the film in 2008, had me thinking that he would be the ideal choice to direct a new Halloween film. The pace and tone of The Strangers goes hand-in-hand with John Carpenter's approach to the original Halloween, and the way the strangers stalk the couple around the Hoyt property is reminiscent of the way Michael Myers would stalk and play games with his prey in Carpenter's film.

In addition to Kristen and James serving as audience stand-ins in this awful situation, Bertino also does his best to make us become invested in the actual characters by giving them some drama to deal with before the horror even starts. The couple has come to this area to attend the wedding of a friend, and in the midst of the festivities James proposed to Kristen. She rejected the proposal. So when we meet these two, they're very somber and preparing to go off in their separate ways after this night. They're just about to have some either make-up sex or goodbye sex, depending on how things would go after, when the first stranger shows up at their door.

Bertino dedicates much of the film's first 29 minutes to showing us what Kristen and James are going through. If it weren't for the opening sequence, you might even think you were watching a straightforward relationship drama. I'm ambivalent about that opening. It begins with a narrator reading text on screen, which brings to mind The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, especially since the narrator sounds a lot like Chainsaw narrator John Larroquette. This text and voiceover informs us that something bad is going to happen to Kristen and James. Then the sequence goes even further, by showing characters arriving at the house the morning after this horrific ordeal, and we hear the 911 call that was made about it. That may be going a step too far. If it weren't for the narrator sounding like Larroquette and that part reminding me of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I'd be saying that the opening should have been removed. Drop us right into Kristen and James's relationship issues, and without the opening allowing us to brace ourselves the turn into horror territory could be all the more effective.

But even with that opening, the film still manages to be very effectively creepy and unsettling. So much so that I would rank it highly among the best horror films to be released in the last ten years. I fully enjoyed seeing it in the theatre when it was first released, and have continued to enjoy it every time I've revisited it since. The simplicity does have an impact on the rewatchability for me, it's not a movie I feel compelled to watch regularly, but when I get around to it every few years or so I am still impressed by it.

As the strangers drive off from the Hoyt property, one of them says, "It will be easier next time." The door is left wide open for a sequel.

A sequel has long been in the works, and in fact had at one time had been scheduled for a 2010 release. That didn't work out, and the project ended up getting trapped in development hell for nearly a decade. There was a script written by Bertino in place and ready to go, The Strangers 2 just needed to find a way to get off that ground. That finally happened this year, with Johannes Roberts (47 Meters Down) directing from Bertino's script, which had also been worked on by Ben Ketai over the years. The release date for the sequel hasn't been announced yet, but the strangers will be returning to the screen very soon...

No comments:

Post a Comment