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November 11, 2008

Brief (I Hope) DVD Review

The Strangers. If we rate by how well the writer/director, crew, and actors achieved their intended purpose, it gets... well, I'll say three and a half stars.

Here's a short review: I am never scared by horror movies. And by "never," sure, I mean I sometimes jump at the pop-ups, but basically I view them as violent comedies. Not real comedies, but leaning towards the comic side of the drama/comedy axis. They're funhouse movies, by and large-- cheap thrills, cheap scares.

Now, here's what I did on this one: I turned it off. After an hour of nerve-wracking tension and plenty of scares, one scare about three quarters of the way through sent me jumping off the bed. At that point, I said, 'Well, that's it for me!" and turned it off.

I turn off bad movies all the time. But this isn't a bad movie. It's very good. And I didn't turn it off due to gore -- there's almost no gore in this. (Almost -- and what there is is pretty damn light for a horror movie. It's less bloody than a typical action movie.)

It's almost all just tension, anticipation, and then... the scares.

I'd had it with the scares. My spine was tingling, I had the creeps and heebie-jeebies, and I wanted to go to bed without nightmares. As it was it still took me an hour to get rid of the creepy-crawly goosebumps.

Here's the trailer. I thought this sonofabitch looked creepy as hell. For once, a horror trailer that actually isn't quite as good as the movie.

Some more thoughts:

This movie is astonishingly minimalist. Two protagonists, three psycho-sadistic home invaders, one house, one barn.

There are only four characters with speaking roles. Only two of them have more than three or four lines (that would be the victims of this relentless terrorizing by masked sadists, Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman), and even the main characters barely talk. There's little music. Most of the time the camera just follows around Liv Tyler as she looks around for trouble.

The camera work on that is really good, by the way. A typical shot will show Liv Tyler in profile, looking left to right, her head at the far left of the screen, her dark hair terminating the left edge of the frame. And even when there's not a scare, I was sitting there thinking "Move the camera to the left! The left! I want to see what's behind her!"

Of course the director does not oblige. He sets such a creepy mood, though, that even when he's not building towards anything in particular, you're still on edge.

I can't imagine what the script looked like. If the movie itself is minimalist, the script must have been even more so -- barely any dialogue, long scenes in which not a lot seems to happen (just someone looking around, etc.). No one-liners. No jokes. No speeches. No detective work. No cutesy reversals. No surprise twists. No heroic moments at which the victims decide They Shall Be Victims No Longer.

It turns out this was a really good script, but how on earth would someone have figured out it was a good blueprint for a movie with so little obvious big movie moments on the page? I'm perplexed by this-- having seen the actual movie, I know it was a good script. But how could anyone have read something so sparse and seemingly underwritten and realized it was good? I suppose they just had faith in the director (who wrote it) to deliver at what was barely hinted at on the page.

As far as horror movie stupidity-- there are only minor stupidities. Here they are:

Our cellphones don't work! This one is simply obligatory. Horror requires isolation, and isolation requires getting rid off the cellphones, often in contrived ways. There's really no alternative whatsoever-- so you can't even hold this one against the movie at all. It's simply a prerequisite if you're to have a horror movie in the first place. With cellphones, you don't have a horror movie. You have a call-the-cops-and-out-of-danger-in-20-minutes movie.

The psychos are human, but seem gifted with Light-to-Moderate powers of invisibility, teleportation, and clarivoyance. I stress "light to moderate," though. Yes, there are a few cases where they seem a little too good at this creepy terrorizing thing. But only a little bit, and it really doesn't become anywhere near ridiculous. More of a nit than a criticism. Most of the movie we don't see them -- we just wonder where they are -- so we don't know what they're doing off-screen.

But really, they are very good at creeping around and appearing menacingly in background.

The main characters do something very stupid. Overall, they don't act dumb, but they do do one thing that's absurd. After finding a shotgun and holing up against a wall with the gun trained on the door, Scott Speedman gets the great idea that he will go outside to the barn to try to make a call on the old radio there. And, um, he insists that Liv Tyler remain in the house (where they already know the psychos can enter at will) alone and without a weapon.

Instead of joining him, where he could protect her, and she could provide a crucial second set of eyes.

Okay, that's stupid as hell. But hardly the worst case of stupidity in a horror movie.

With those exceptions, not really anything here to mock as stupid. And even those are pretty mild.

Anyway, scary stuff.

Moviegique... thought it was less scary and more familiar than I did, but he still reviewed it favorably.

I guess basically the movie is those first ten scary minutes of Scream, played with a lot more understatement and without the big Hollywood moments, made into an 80 minute movie. That might sound like a lot of padding, but it's not as it turns out.

NRA Propaganda: Heh. Yes, as some point out in the comments, this is pretty much an 80 minute long commercial for owning a shotgun... and taking an NRA self-defense course so you don't do stupid things with it.

Delayed Gratification: (Vague, technique-related spoiler.) One clever thing the director does here is to avoid the obvious scares early. Four or five times Liv Tyler and/or Speedman are looking out a window into the distance, looking for their tormentors.

Now, this is obvious the place for a pop-up -- one of the masked freaks jumps up from beneath the window, right in their faces, to scare them.

But the director avoids that, mostly. But the effect is you're still waiting for that inevitable pop-up, so you're still on edge the whole time, knowing it's coming.

But it doesn't. The scare is so obvious, so utterly obligatory he doesn't even have to actually provide it-- just by setting up the obvious, you anticipate it, and get 90% of the scare even when it doesn't come.

Except... well, not to give a spoiler away, but at some point in the movie he does something along these lines, though he disguises it so you don't see it coming. (I didn't, at least.)

And when he did finally pull the trigger on that one -- the one I had been dreading for most of the movie-- well, that's when I turned it off. I had been anticipating that pop-up for a long time, and he finally did it when I wasn't expecting it.

TV off. That was the one.

He does this sort of thing at other times, setting up an obvious jump-out or pop-up or grab-through, etc., without actually delivering. In a way maybe this is a scarier way to do it -- if he delivers on the expected, there's a feeling of relief of tension. Hey, you saw it coming, it came, so you kinda feel like you're on top of this. But by repeatedly failing to pull the trigger on the really obviously set-up Here Comes the Scare moments, it leaves you without that feeling of released tension.

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posted by Ace at 04:31 PM

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