I’m behind on the Halloween flicks that I watched within the last couple of weeks, so the reviews of The Strangers and Paranormal Activity aren’t going to help people much (unless they’re in the mood for a big Thanksgiving Day scare this year).
The Strangers (2008)
My dad told me The Strangers was worth seeing awhile ago, but I never got around to it. I’m honestly not a huge fan of most horror movies–Halloween and The Exorcist obviously excluded–not because I don‘t like to get the shit scared out of me, but because most of them are dull, dull, dull. Blood isn‘t scary, and half the time, horror films never give you the impression that their characters are in any real danger.
Okay, so I’ll gladly watch a killer gorefest every now and then (how can you pass up The Devil’s Rejects?), and I even like to take in a truly awful ‘80s scary movie from time to time (Tourist Trap, Motel Hell). Of course, I’m not watching those movies for a good scare, but to have a chuckle at how strangely, terribly amusing they are.
So, watching director Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers with a couple of friends, I was expecting something sub-par, praying that maybe it‘d be so bad I‘d at least be howling with laughter. Most of the critical establishment panned the film. But much to my surprise, I had a great time watching this one, and I must admit I jumped sky high from my chair a whole lot while watching it.
Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman) were boyfriend and girlfriend–that is, until he proposed at a friend’s wedding and she turned him down. Now they cruise silently back to his parents’ cabin ready to spend the night and forget about what’s just happened. They avoid the topic of marriage (and of the rose petals scattered all over the house) while waiting for the awkwardness to pass. Suddenly, there’s a banging at the door.
James answers. “Is Tamara Home?” the random girl asks.
Not an entirely successful lead-up–it kind of leaves us thinking the movie might turn out to be ungodly dumb. Thankfully, the harassment keeps up, and it gets way more interesting.
The Strangers won me over about two scenes after the introduction of the first killer. After some knocking, Kristen grabs a knife and stands, staring toward the door, waiting for another terrifying knock. Just then, the shot pans wide, leaving Kristen on the right side of the frame and presents a masked killer about fifteen feet back on the left. Nothing happens–he stands perfectly still, regarding her silently. I quickly looked at my one friend, and by the time I glanced at the TV again, the guy was gone. I was really scared and, I confess, entirely hooked.
And The Strangers continued to get better from there.
The key to the film’s success, I think, is that it never fully tips its hand in the first ten or fifteen minutes. The scares escalate slowly, making the audience increasingly tense. The film starts with a chilling knock, and the action escalates into broken windows, Shining-style axe destruction of walls and doors and an ever-growing sense of claustrophobia.
There are deadly silent moments followed by abrupt, sickening banging sounds, shattering glass and creaking footsteps. You know it’s a good film when, eventually, you start to look out your basement windows every few moments for unwelcome intruders.
Because The Strangers has an 85 minute running time, which is plenty long enough for a one-premise flick, it never wears out its welcome. The same type of scenes (where we see the intruder, but Kristen and James do not especially) repeats themselves, but never to the point of saturation. And the masks the killers wear are primitive but terrifying.
The Strangers is not a movie based around dialogue (thank God). Tyler and Speedman have a few select tasks as actors: grabbing kitchen utensils or well-hidden shotguns, looking terrified, and hiding behind doors and dressers. They rarely talk, but scream frequently (and, in Liv Tyler’s case, very well).
And by picking a house in the middle of the woods as his setting, Bertino has cultivated a terrifying atmosphere. The claustrophobia of the one-story ranch is tangible from the opening scenes and continues through the final minutes of the picture. When you watch Kristen and James run from one side of the house to another, you shiver, realizing that there is literally nowhere for them to go. Once they flee the cabin, you get the same feeling of dread in a totally different atmosphere–they can only run so far into the endless woods until someone catches up with them.
The Strangers is one of the more effective horror pictures I’ve seen in quite some time. Bertino’s made his mark on the genre, and the performances are about as good as one would expect from a movie of this nature. And, for a change, a shitload of people don’t die in the goriest, stupidest ways possible. You can at least praise The Strangers for not being a total cliché.
If there’s one problem I had with the movie, it’s the final scene. The quote, which is no longer much of a secret, is good enough at face value, but spurs a really dumb final cut that seems to belong in a lesser pic.
It’s a tough call: you’ll jump out of your chair during that last second (you‘re supposed to), but you might leave the movie feeling cheated. Regardless, if you enjoy a lot of scares in a short span of time, The Strangers is well worth checking out.
Paranormal Activity (2007; released in 2009)
Paranormal Activity is one of the creepiest movies I’ve seen in awhile. The fact that it was made on a $15,000 budget and scared the bejesus out of God knows how many audiences just goes to show that body count and blood do not equal an effective horror movie. Watched back-to-back with The Strangers, you’re going to be shit-scared to walk out in the dark afterward. Following the pseudo-documentary style of its obvious inspiration, The Blair Witch Project (1999), this film is about a woman who’s possessed and her husband who’s obsessed with filming her freak-outs, all of which happen while she‘s asleep.
We learn early on, as Katie (Katie Featherston) consults a psychic, that she’s been plagued by demons for most of her life. Micah (Micah Sloat), her significant other, seems less concerned about her and more interested in getting everything happening to her while she ‘sleeps’ on celluloid. As the psychic notes, the house isn’t haunted; Katie’s demons are going to follow her wherever she goes. Of course, he can’t go any further, because he’s just a lowly psychic. He recommends, straight-faced, that consulting a demonologist would be a grand idea.
If someone told me to consult a “demonologist” out here in the PA ‘burbs, I’d think he was batty. I guess in L.A., that shit’s en vogue. Of course, the whole thing concerning a demonologist is a major crack-up. One of Paranormal Activity’s hugest assets is that mild hint of humor hiding just beneath its chilling surface.
It’s really best to write little about this movie because, the less you know about it, the more this it’ll freak you out. But, I can tell you about its fortes. Chief among them: you really get the idea you’re watching a documentary when you view the picture, and that means it gives you chills well after it’s running time is through. These people look like they could be your friendly next-door neighbors. That, in turn, gives you the (perhaps irrational) feeling that the demons are around you at any time. Lights off when you re-enter your house after the viewing? You’ll be petrified.
Even if you know going in that you’re “not really” watching a documentary, you’re drawn into the picture’s approach so quickly you’ll re-convince yourself that it‘s happening to real people all over again. The use of hand-held cameras is essential to bringing about this feeling. The first twenty minutes, which are intentionally mundane, ease you into Paranormal Activity so that you’ll actually be even more terrified later in the film when the shit really hits the fan.
The actors are supremely effective. They’re not required to show magnificent range, but they’re so down-to-earth, we can’t help but believe we’re watching this stuff happen to a real-life couple. They manage to milk both the scares and the humor out of the situation, and in one extremely startling scene, we breathe easier at the end when Katie screams at Micah “Did you just go back to get your fucking camera?”
Paranormal Activity is also great because the scares escalate from start to finish. The film isn‘t just a series of “HOLY SHIT!“ moments spaced far enough apart to jolt us from our comfort zones. The things we see Katie doing early on are unsettling, while her actions later on are flat out petrifying–actions so unusual that they that stick with us a long after the movie‘s over. Watching it, you never, ever settle back down after that first jump-from-your-seat moment. And the ending minutes are blisteringly intense–I dare you not to scream.