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Sunday, June 01, 2008

Strangers (The)

This week I was confused when I saw the marquee at the Essex Cinemas with a double bill reading Sex and the City with The Strangers as the new films of the week. I had to blink three or four times before my brain transcribed the titles correctly and I realized it didn’t read The Strangers I Had Sex with in the City and I could finally breathe easier. God only knows I wouldn’t have wanted to sit through that eighteen hour film, which even the most condensed version of such a movie would have to run. Better to watch these two very different movies du jour separately. Yes, Pumpkins, I had a past before I married my perfect husband, but I tend to think of it as simply rehearsal more than sluttery. I’m just glad that was then and not now because after seeing The Strangers I’m not sure I’d ever open my … door … so eagerly again.

I wandered into The Strangers without any expectations or idea of what I might find since the studio, Rogue Pictures, must have spent at least $30 - $40 on promoting this thing, which, it turns out, would just about equal the budget of the entire movie. First time director and writer Bryan Bertino was fortunate that he wrote a script that required only one setting and the flick could be filmed in a cheap location (Florence, South Carolina) so the cast could stay in an area Motel Six without much fuss. Hopefully, Liv Tyler saved all the cashews the airlines doled out on her frequent trips back-and-forth between LA and New Zealand when she was making The Lord of the Rings trilogy so there would be some semblance of ‘craft services’ on this no-stravaganza. At one point I wondered if the director even had permission to shoot on the property where they were filming or just broke into some rural house and rustled up sandwiches for the crew from whatever fixings they could find in the homeowners’ kitchen and just hoped they’d wrap up the movie before anyone spotted them there.

Yes, these are strangers to bank financing and most likely studio backing as well. Whatever the producers produced is not self-evident beyond hiring Bertino in the first place. His script is way better than you’d expect from a Z-grade horror movie, which almost tries too hard to be more than what its audiences are going to want. I mean, really. Who goes to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for deep-seated character development and ennui?

As for The Strangers themselves? You might be led to believe that the title refers to the main characters James Hoyt (Scott Speedman; Adoration) and Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler; Smother) themselves. As the story opens, the couple are returning to James’ father’s rural “getaway” home in the country after attending an off-screen wedding (it’s cheaper than shooting one, eh?). Unfortunately, also before the movie’s beginning, it appears that James took this festive occasion to ask Kristen to be his wife and she didn’t exactly give him the answer he sought, m’kay. It makes for an awkward and sometimes tense drive home that doesn’t get much better when they finally arrive back at the house. There, Kristen discovers that James has covered the floor in rose petals, has champagne on ice, and the living room is romantically lit in candlelight. Couldn’t you just die? Who would be so dumb as to leave home for hours with lit candles unattended unless they were hoping for an insurance payday soon, or as my Uncle Saul calls it, “the kiss of Jewish lightning”.

Anyway, much weepy-faced sniffling comes from Kristin as she tries to look doe-eyed, sweet, and oh-so-forgivable, even when she persuades James to do her bidding and go out to the store in the wee hours to pick up more cigarettes for his not-fiancé. Nothing conjures up thoughts of “innocence,” “romance,” and “femininity” quite like the kiss that comes from full-fledged ashtray-breath. Maybe if he’s lucky she’ll cough up a loogie for him too when he gets back just to show her appreciation. So far this sounds like some obscure Fellini-esque, angst-ridden romantic drama, right? It plays like one too and drags on and on longer than a Pope. By the time anything remotely scary finally happens I’d forgotten it was a horror movie we were supposed to be watching unless you consider the fear of falling asleep in a public theater a horrifying movie experience.

But, oh that Bryan Bertino may just be a genius in the making. After lulling the audience into a near-coma of character analysis between these two lovers-gone-mild, something as simple yet as startling as an unexpected knock at the door in the middle of the night sends the audience straight out of their seats and into damp underwear.

What begins with a child’s innocuous inquiry “Is Tamara here?” in the darkened entry way ends with a full ratcheted-up attack from three masked psychotics who spend the rest of the night and early morning playing a cat-and-mouse game with the rapidly less-estranged couple, The reason for this assault is not immediately clear, making the randomness of the aggression as frightening as the randomness of where the next scare is going to come from within the darkly lit house.

The trio of assailants, never visible without their masks on, is particularly terrifying because of the seeming topsy-turvy nature of their disguises. The leader (Kip Weeks; Glory Road) wears a gunny sack over his head a la Jason Voorhees before he found that now-famous hockey mask, although this guy has the panache to add a smiley-face grin under his seemingly vacant eye holes. His two partners, both female, are masked with vintage kewpie doll masks, one blonde (Gemma Ward; The Black Balloon) and one brunette (Laura Margolis; tv’s "Dirty Sexy Money"), both with enormous black eye openings covered in a mesh fabric that reveals nothing behind the screens. Their oddly out of place look at 4:00 am along a rural road would probably frighten anybody; seeing them lurking in the woods outside the house or standing prone on the front lawn is totally creepy.

Naturally, this is not just a matter of hunkering down and fighting the good fight from a single room inside the house. As in most horror movies, the protagonists do all the usual dumb things they could do to get themselves killed: they split up when they should stick together; they wander into darkened rooms without weapons to protect themselves; they leave doors and windows open when they should NAIL the damned things shut. You’d think someone would be bright enough by now to either go straight to the garage or workroom or wherever and get a nail gun, ball-peen hammer, or cordless drill like the bad guys always do. Or they’d shatter glasses all over the floors and make it easier to hear when the crazies are sneaking up on them. Or hey, here’s another great idea: why not just get in the car the second the first nut job shows up and not come back? I mean, geez, what “kid” is out in the country at 4:00 am looking for her friend Tamara? That’s downright disturbing.

In retrospect, The Strangers begins and ends with bookended images of teenage Mormon missionaries walking their bicycles along the side of the dirt road, innocent bystanders to the evil that occurred in the house the night before. I couldn’t help but laugh at the idea that Bertino was subversively suggesting that here is another representation of strangers who might come knocking at your door uninvited. The question is whether or not you’d even answer the door for them. After seeing The Strangers I’m not sure I’d answer the door for the President of the United States at this point. Well, at least not until January, 2009.

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