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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Strangers: please let me revise it

Spoilers. Seriously.

When I first viewed The Strangers, I was psyched like I don't remember being for a contemporary horror movie. This was because of the promotion. I love the poster, which manages to evoke suspense in the print medium. I'm a huge fan of tasteful, restrained promotion in horror. Though I haven't seen the film, this trailer for Hostel: Part 2 nails it.

And this one for The Shining... well, I've watched it dozens of times. I think the music in this trailer is relevant to the track "Kubrick" off of John Scofield's album A Go Go.

As for the film itself, The Strangers didn't disappoint, until the ending. As I've suggested before, I think the last few minutes are superfluous to an already taught, intense, and appropriately brief film. Consider the difference between ending on "because you were home," versus ending on Liv Tyler's bloodcurdling shriek that recalls the obligatory closing shock you can find in so many films. With obligatory closing shock, you jump and scream, and as you catch your breath, you start to laugh, because OCS has no context; it's a practical joke on the audience, and once you've been had, you laugh it off. I think that after all we've been through, The Strangers deserves to be scarier than that. Recall the line "because you were home." When that line is delivered, your heart should be about in your gut, sick and helpless.

Now let's try a new ending. The same musical tone sustains under the last scene as Tyler asks, "why are you doing this?" The music sharpens to a hiss and pinches off with a whisper as the intruder replies, "because you were home." Black screen. Credits.

You say "ugh" as you stand up from your seat.

Here's what I love about this film:

I can imagine the rest of the film arising from the scene where the intruders turn on the record player to disguise their location in the house. The director asks himself, "what else can I do with sound in this film?" and the movie delivers dissertation on the sound of suspense.

First, silence. In Psycho, the infamous Mother theme begins after the appearance of the mother in the shower scene. Curtain, cue music, start stabbing. Then for Mother's next appearance at the top of the stairs, the music begins slightly before she steps into the hall, throwing the viewer into a panic because the suspense of Arbogast mounting the stairs is still not resolved, since Mother has not actually appeared yet. The delicate moment that happens between the music and the appearance of Mother shows that the threat and the different and deserve special attention. When the male intruder first appears in the long shot in The Strangers, it recalls the appearance of the black shape coming closer to the curtain in Psycho. I'm sure that most contemporary directors would have added an audio cue to that figure stepping into the living room, like a low bass rumble or a single screech of strings, but Bertino recognizes that it's essential to let the audience find him themselves and let the shock really hit.

Now the sound. Bertino does his best to score his film with natural sounds, rather than audio cues. The jumpy scenes depend on a lot of loud banging is terribly effective, and doesn't remind the audience that they're in a theater the way incidental music does. The incorporation of the record player is inspired. For a film that relies so heavily on sound, turning on the record player is the equivalent of turning out the lights. And when the record begins to skip, the repitition of that musical phrase disguises the actual passing of time, trapping the characters and the audience in the disorientation of having each moment resemble the last because the sound is so intrusive that it becomes impossible to focus on how close the killers are getting.

Watch this movie again, in headphones if you can, and just for fun, stop the film at the right moment and see how you feel. Absorb the moment before returning to the movie and letting the real ending roll.

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