It wasn’t until this past Saturday that I fully realized just how strong of a film THE STRANGERS (review) is. Seeing it in theaters elicited seat stirring and all manner of other audible audience discomfort, but seeing it in a home theater was an entirely different experience.
We regularly host movie days and less than twenty four hours ago THE STRANGERS entered the lineup. Of the 10 people in the room, at least one refused to even watch the movie. After much coaxing, however, she was at least willing to remain in the room, albeit with her gaze averted most of the time. What happened next I was not expecting.
Over the years I’ve shown all breed of films at our movie days. Nothing has come close to grazing the reaction THE STRANGERS got. [REC] had people literally pulling their hair out, but even it was not as universally effective as Bryan Bertino’s film. I cannot recall the last time a film merited such discussion. Not post-coital examination of what worked and why (my crowd could care less to this regard), but full on mid-film murmuring. It was not out of disinterest in the film. No, not at all. Grown men were chattering like school girls in an attempt to diffuse the tension. Several even pointed this intention out, begging for people to start talking again whenever the home invasion film struck the crowd to silence. I was reveling in it, proud that a studio picture could work such a number over on a crowd as large and as diversified as those in my basement.
It wasn’t until the picture ended and someone jumped up to turn on the lights that some began to decry the film. Its moronic test-screening infused last grab for attention, while not a deal killer, was a lame after taste memorable enough to overpower everything that had come before. Fortunately most were able to acknowledge that the film worked, worked better than they were expecting it too. I was amazed at how easily two plastic masks and a sack could get under the skin of an entire room full of people. Why though?
I’m not entirely sure. Obviously THE STRANGERS taps into a very prescient fear, particularly one for those living in suburbia or, diametrically, relative isolation. Hell, I think it would work even on the most hardened of city folk (maybe even more). I posit that it doesn’t matter where you’re from or what you’re experiences are. THE STRANGERS works so well because it plays into the exact formula of what most expect a horror film to be. It plays to the rhythm of fear, a rhythm all of our hearts have been indoctrinated to squirm to since childhood, when watching horror at slumber parties was a cross generational, cross cultural experience. There is a cinematic language of anticipation, a language coded by John Carpenter and carried over through the intervals by other slavish students of the rhythm.
Now the wheel has come around once again. Not since BLAIR WITCH has a filmmaker exhibited an elite ability to penetrate the imagination of as broad a spectrum as possible. Not unlike the innovative WITCH, THE STRANGERS is/was an experience that all felt and reacted to simultaneously before reaching a conclusion that could scapegoat the genuine intensity that had come prior. BLAIR WITCH featured an end that was brilliant and iconic in its defiance to sate the mass crowds need for completion. On the other hand, THE STRANGERS, while denying a look at the titular killers, featured a final sequence so moronic that it undercut most of what proceeded. It is this ending that I think, from a devout standpoint, seals THE STRANGERS as a tampered vision versus the cohesive mystery of BLAIR WITCH. Never mind my take on the matter, though. What matters is the general crowd. The crowd who don’t strike up a horror blog for shits and giggles. The crowd that want a thrilling distraction from the real world without pondering any of the effort that went into creating it.
To that crowd, I further posit that THE STRANGERS is the most effective horror movie in just slightly less than a decade. For the record I do not think that it is, by my measure, the best horror film of the millennium, but it is hard to ignore its pulse pushing power. Not even THE RING pulled the pants wetting stunts THE STRANGERS did, a surprise considering THE RING is the only movie I’ve ever walked out of because the audience was too damned raucous (we went back to a later showing when all the 13 year olds would be in bed). I think [REC] (review) could have pulled a coup on the American studio system were it not for the subtitles and our nation’s generalized indifference to reading.
Anyone have a better title to take the crown? I can’t think of one. I wish I could.
Tags: THE STRANGERS