FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE, so beware yon spoilers!

Jun 12, 2008

Who are the people in your neighborhood?

Lots of you have been waiting for me to weigh in on The Strangers, so here goes (thanks for the huge implied compliment, btdubb). I'd been anxious to see it for months and months, and I caught a gramma-time screening the day it opened- so it's a bit surprising, even to me, that it's taken me so long to write about it. What can I say- I move in mysterious ways. I'm also fresh and exciting, more than a woman, always a woman, and as we all know, I'm like the wind.

But enough about me- how 'bouts them strangers, eh? In the end, I kind of had a love-hate relationship with it. It was certainly scary enough, at times, to have the audience (jam-packed with younguns) screaming and yelling- in a good way. Why my gramma-time screening was chock full of whipper snappers, I have no idea. What's next, these kids taking over my favorite shuffleboard hot spot? Or my Lawrence Welk time being inundated with "rock and roll"? I'm almost afraid to leave the house. And why is it so cold in here? Where's my shrug?

But, again, enough about me. What do YOU think about me? HA HA HA.

James and Kristen (Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler) head back to James's family's vacation home after attending a friend's wedding. It's about 4am, they're exhausted, and things between them seem a bit tense. Over the course of roughly the first 40 minutes of the film, we learn why things aren't entirely hunky dory in lovey-dovey land: it seems that James proposed and Kristen said she wasn't ready for marriage. For some reason, this totally puts a damper on the romantic evening James had planned. Also putting the damper on said romantic evening is the appearance of...dun dun dunnnn...the strangers.

It all begins when a junkie-type blonde girl knocks on the door, asking if...uh, so-and-so is home. So-and-so doesn't live there, see, and James and Kristen are a little weirded out. I totally know how they feel: once upon a time, someone pounded on my window at about one in the morning. Before I could really do anything, the someone started opening my window. I was awake and on the phone at the time; I hung up, called the cops, and yelled at the someone in question. Someone replied "Is Steve there?" to which I had to reply in the negative- I knew no Steves. Well, that's not entirely true- I had a Columbia House account under the name "Steve Donder" (their mistake, not mine), but somehow I doubt this late-night/early-morning caller knew of my 12 CDs for a penny...and your soul alias. He left, the cops came, and that was that- though I didn't sleep that night.

But enough about me! James decides to head to the store to get Kristen some cigarettes and to clear his head, and this is when The Strangers really amps up. Before long, the blonde girl is back and masked baddies have made their way into the house. James eventually returns, a game of cat and mouse begins, and things progress toward a finale that's both unexpected and completely expected.

The first hour or so of this movie kicked complete ass- particularly the sequences when Kristen was home alone. The first appearance of the bag man caused the audience (myself included) to shriek and cower. Unfortunately, the film simply ran out of steam somewhere along the way. The masks get less and less frightening the more you see them, and it seemed as if writer/director Bryan Bertino was unsure about where to take the story. As such, the conclusion of the film is flat, if, perhaps, the most "real".

That said, Bertino has made an original film that certainly hearkens back to the good ol' horror days of yore. It looks fantastic- the house is bathed in a warm glow that belies the dangers lurking just outside in the dark- and the sound design is top notch. The Strangers doesn't lack for scares, to say the least.

It also doesn't lack for stupid horror movie characters. The interesting relationship setup of the first half hour (and the accompanying character development) is all but abandoned after the strangers arrive, leaving Kristen and James with little else to do beyond crying and grimacing, respectively. I understand the need for characters to get separated in horror movies- people need to get picked off, so to speak, and that's much more easily accomplished if the characters are alone. It's up to the writer, however, to accomplish this in a way that isn't going to feel completely outside the scope of human behavior (writers of films in the Friday the 13th series, however, are immune to this rule. It's Friday the fucking 13th, you know? Anything goes!).

To wit: if I am one of two people trapped in a house by masked kookadooks and my pal, the one with the shotgun, says "I'll be right back", I will say "Fuck that noise, I am coming with you. Or leave the boomstick with me, your choice." Kristen, however, says "Alright, I'll just hold onto this pillow. I'll keep my back to this open door while I'm at it." This, to me, is unbelievably unbelievable, enough to have left me throwing my hands up in the theatre and for my friend to lean over and suggest that Kristen simply send up a flare.

Later, she heads out into the dark to look for James- yes, he left with the shotgun and he hasn't returned. She doesn't find him in the empty barn, but she does find all manner of pointy farm implements- scythes and the such- and yet she grabs not a one to use as a weapon. People, pick up anything to use as a weapon- I don't care if the only thing on hand is a fucking Cabbage Patch Kid. Pick that shit up and wield it. I'm sorry- in a pinch, even Agnes Millie or whomever can do some damage. Kristen doesn't subscribe to my line of reasoning, however, and she remains empty-handed. She also trips and twists her ankle (natch) and crawls across a wide expanse of back yard, thinking, I suppose, that if she can't see the strangers, they can't see her. Stupid Kristen.

All in all, it was pretty intense, beyond scary at times, and not nearly as torture-laden as the ad campaign (and some knee-jerk reviews, as My New Plaid Pants points out) would have you believe. I liked it more than I liked both Ils (Them) and Vacancy; I only wish the latter third of the movie or so lived up to the promise of the first two. The Strangers is a bit like a piece of gum- when you first start chewing, you say to yourself "This gum is the most awesome fucking thing ever!"; then comes the point when it's lost all its flavor and you find yourself wondering why it's still in your mouth.

I'm certainly not writing off Bertino as a horror filmmaker, however, and The Strangers is a damn fine first effort. I think he's one to keep an eye on. I'm far less enthused about the rumors surrounding a sequel, though. This movie is enough on its own.


Anonymous said...

So, it does sound rather a lot like "Funny Games" -- is it as much like that as it sounds? Or not so much when you actually see it?

Also, for the record, I've been hit in the head by a Cabbage Patch Kid (I have a twin sister, 'nuff said) and those things hurt like HELL. At least, the ones with the solid plastic skulls do. So, that's a wise suggestion, Stacie. As a matter of fact, you may have just saved someone's LIFE with that suggestion. Dude! Way to go!

John Barleycorn said...

I can't believe you liked this more than Ils. We're not friends anymore.

Star Rosencrans said...

blah blah blah SPOILERS HERE PEOPLE.

This film kills me because it was SOOOO good up until the point Scott Speedman returns to the house, and then they just stop acting like real people. He doesn't believe her, why? She doesn't explain that there were definitely people inside the house as he heads out to the living room?

The problem with Bertino is summed up with the friend's arrival - Bertino has to get the jump scare in with the rock through the windshield. With that, it makes no sense that their friend walks around COMPLETELY UNAWARE that someone might be there. You could have the entire scene with the friend in the house make sense if someone DIDN'T MORE OR LESS ATTEMPT to kill him the moment he arrived. Considering they did, you might expect him to pay a little more attention, or be a little more vocal in his search for his friends, rather than skulk quietly through the wreckage so as not to alert someone to his presence.

Because of these inconsistencies - especially the "hide in the house that the killers have been in and out of all night watching us while i take this shotgun out back" moment - the ending left a pretty bad taste in my mouth. It felt unfair to make Liv and Scott's characters human again right before they meet their fate. It's dirty pool to set your characters up as real people and ask your audience to care for them, only to condemn those characters to an unavoidable fate by making them act retarded. Especially in this film, where every stupid, unmotivated action could be fixed without sacrificing the tension and scares.

In a standard slasher film, at least the characters are consistently cardboard and stupid.

And the very last shot? Totally unwarranted.

Stacie Ponder said...

Meg, I'd say it's really nothing like Funny Games beyond the home invasion angle. This is much more of a straight-up horror/thriller, whereas I think Funny Games is more a commentary on those type of films. But that could be me.

Barleycorn, I knew my opinion might make me unpopular, but there you go. The characterization here, what there was anyway, was much better than Ils, where you didn't learn anything about them at all. I think my expectations for Ils were too high. I don't know, it's been a while, but I thought it was disappointing.

Starlen, you bring up some good points I neglected to mention in my "these people were so stupid" section. If I came home and Live Tyler said "There was someone in the house", first I would say "Omigod, what are you doing here, Liv Tyler? I just loved you as an elf." Then I'd say "Really? Did you call the cops? Let's call the cops." or, "Let's get the fuck out of here." I certainly wouldn't say "There there, crazy Liv" and tell her she was wrong. That really irritated me.

And the friend? I'd like to think if I showed up at someone's house in the middle of the night, someone threw a rock at my car, and my friend's car was smashed to hell, I might call the cops. And call out my friend's name.

The stupidity of the characters really pulled me out of this film, which SUCKED.

And the last shot was just plain silly.

Craig Blamer said...

Up until the point where the friend goes into the house I was pretty much with the movie... but at that point, I was "Huh... I know where this is going."

After that, I was out of the movie but enjoying myself watching how the director was putting it all together.

And I'm really glad that he didn't go OTT with the mayhem. Simulated torture isn't really my bag, anymore.

A solid debut, but nothing great (which means it's head and shoulders above most multiplex competition). Waiting to see what he does next... but not The Strangers 2, I'll agree.

FatalPierce said...

I haven't seen "The Strangers" yet so I sadly can't comment on the movie itself. Well I could but I'd pretty much be plagiarizing what Stacie just wrote and I only agree with plagiarization when its 4am, I'm in college and I have a paper due at 6am...

Anyway where was I? Oh yeah the grab a weapon suggestion. It always baffles me when these kids run around chased by certain death and can't take time to grab something pointy. Just the other day I was watching "Prom Night" and I literally yelled at my screen "You are in a high school, there is nowhere on Earth with more fucking weapons!"

Crap, I think I had a point when I started typing but it got lost in there somewheres.

Fred [The Wolf] said...

Yeah, I thought the film was too by-the-numbers as well. Very predictable, as I called every shot and every move these characters were making. I thought they were somewhat credible - I mean, how would you react in a situation like this? - but I do think they did alot of stupid things just to make the film longer. But I was cool with everything else. At least this film creeped me out. I can't say when the last time a modern horror film did that to me. There's still hope for the genre yet.

Star Rosencrans said...

Stacie: Not to harp on it, but the moment he comes home is even worse than that. He left the house after someone came by in the middle of the night - strange, though not necessarily threatening. And then he was on the phone with Liv when she told him the girl came back by, there was some banging, and she was scared, and immediately after she said "Please stay on the phone with me," the line was disconnected, and we can assume he tried to call her back and wasn't able to.

So then he comes home to her cowering in a bedroom, lights off, record skipping, her hand is bloodied, she's holding a butcher knife, and he assumes there's really nothing wrong?

AND THEN - she says she saw somebody wearing a mask, tells him not to go out but NEVER ACTUALLY tells him that she's certain SOMEONE WAS IN THE HOUSE and MAY STILL BE. Which is kind of a pertinent point for someone wandering back out into the house.

So neither of them act reasonably in this case. And it's absolutely all I can think about as the film progresses.

And, like I said, it is sad, because the film is so good up until that point, and in other points later. It IS creepy and scary and suspenseful.

Unknown said...

Maybe you can get a quote on the back of the DVD box.
"The Strangers is the Fruit Stripe Gum of modern horror. - Final Girl"

Wes Fierce said...

I was just dumbfounded by how paper thin the plot was. It was like what Scream would have been if Craven had decided to focus the entire movie on the opening scene. Even THAT had more plot, though.

My only real gripe with the Strangers was when James shoots his friend. He's got himself and Kristen in pretty much the best situation of the whole movie, yet he pulls the trigger just as the person is ABOUT to step into the doorway? Why not wait til they're in the room and he has a better shot? I think that was the breaking point for me :P

elgringo said...

I just wrote about both "The Strangers" and "Ils" (or "Them") over at He Shot Cyrus.

If either of the two films loses steam by the third act, it's definitely "Ils." The second they leave the house, any terrifying feeling of containment disappears.

"The Strangers" is scary from minute one until minute ninety. As for the last shot, I thought it was fantastic. In fact, the entire ending, except for the dialogue between the psychopaths, completely worked for me.

Anyone who's interested in Funny Games, please note that Haneke's film and Bertino's are practically polar opposites of one another. It's interesting to see the different ways to work with a "home invasion" premise.


Chantal said...

Okay, now I want to see that movie even more then I already did. Hello Liv Tyler!

Oh and you have a place in my heart for loving Wrong Turn! Seriously underrated movie and who cares Eliza and Desmond have 1.75 facial expressions, Eliza is still HOT.

Anonymous said...

I have'nt seen the film yet, but yea god, looking at those pictures--does Liv Tyler not have the broadest shoulders of any actress in Hollywood? I mean, check out the one of her tied up with her back to the camera, facing the strangers. The only other woman I've ever seen with shoulders like that was 6'2 and played college basketball.

Joseph Emmerth said...

You say this is an original film, but I thought it was supposed to be a remake of "Them"? Anyone know for sure?

Stacie Ponder said...

For sure, it's not a remake of "Them".

B-Sol said...

I just had a big problem with that ending. It felt gratuitous, with no suspense at all. "Real", yes. Cinematic, no.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Great review! I just wrote one up too. I used your quote about chewing gum and licked to this blog and this review. Hope that's alright.

I am coming at this movie almost two months late, but I just wanted to say that I have had this review bookmarked for some time now waiting to read it until I was able to catch the flick.

Spot on review, and check mine out if you want...just click on my name.

Keep up the good work, I enjoy the site.

Christine said...

Just to let you know how inspiring (and useful) your blog is...

Last night as we were watching 'Anatomie,' my husband and I heard strange noises upstairs. He said he was going to investigate and I immediately jumped up to go with him. But I didn't go empty-handed. Oh, no. I know better. I grabbed me a fireplace poker. Hubby's eyes boggled and he wanted to know what I thought I was going to do with THAT. I told him, "Like Final Girl sez, 'I don't care if it's a Cabbage Patch kid. You pick that shit up!'"

See? I paid attention and learned a very valuable lesson. Thanks, Final Girl!

Stacie Ponder said...

Ha, that's the best comment ever. I think my work on this planet is done!!

Anonymous said...

Well, I agree that they acted dumbly sometimes and Mike could have called the police. Buuut, we have to realize they don't know they are in a horror movie. They are normal people standing in a house, the possibility of those things happenning is really low. At least where I live.