#27: The Strangers
No, this isn't the movie you were looking for.
-Why are you doing this to us?
-Because you were home.
Let me start by telling you a sad, sad story about how Netflix dupes me on the daily. Yes, I should have checked to make sure Beyond the Black Rainbow was still streaming. Yes, I should have made sure my queue was in the right order so The Haunting hadn't showed up two weeks late. But you know what? It shouldn't be this hard to watch good movies.
So it's eight o'clock last night and I'm trying to find a suitable Black Rainbow replacement. I realize quickly that every new DVD I have from Netflix this week is a found footage movie, and sort of inexplicably so - like, had I not read the descriptions? I start one anyway, quickly turning it off because nausea. This is 50% of the reason I just can't with nearly all found footage horror - the camera movements make me physically ill. The other 50% is that I find them unlikable, and well, I'd like the confidence during these 31 days of horror that I'm presenting you with something worthwhile - if not pleasurable viewing, than at least providing interesting discussion. This one wasn't cutting it for me.
But then I was determined. Surely there's a found footage option I can get down with. Blair Witch seemed an acceptable choice - but you've all been there, done that, right? (also, not on fucking Instant anymore). So I pull up this one I faintly remember finishing a few months back, and I see I've given it an unlikely four stars. That's the money number of stars, I think, let's do it! The beginning scene is WEIRD! I'm a little freaked out! This is going to work!
And then... it happens. It's not good. Where have all these stars come from? Was I really anxious that night? Did someone break into my account and re-rate all my movies (an actual nightmare I have). I decide to move on.
To four more Netflix movies. It was a long night of half-watched mediocrity - found footage, narrative, all of it.
When it got very late, I went to the trusty DVD case (no longer trusty, as it's leaning to the side and ready to fall apart any day now), and pulled out my copy of The Strangers. It's not found footage. Not even close. But I'm hoping this little pity-party story might help you understand why I'm about to write about The Strangers in comparison to its found footage counterparts. Because I couldn't get my mind off it.
A terrible story is always made more terrible when it starts terribly. In this case, the most innocuous, cuddly, and sweet of terrible things - a bad breakup. The Strangers begins its reign of terror with a relationship that has just dissolved before our eyes. The horror starts where they stop (yes, I do like that kind of silly, poetic shit - get over yourselves). And there's that impending sense of doom, growing from the moment we see Liv Tyler tear up sitting in the front seat of the car. More so when she sits, dress unzipped, waiting for the bathtub to fill so she can drown her sorrows.
It's so full of gloom, and doom, and sadness. I love it.
We already know I'm a sucker for pretty lights and nicely framed pictures. This movie has it in droves, along with a wicked skipping record player soundtrack and HUGE references to the Manson Family murders, which makes my hippie-dippie-60s-obsessed heart go all aflutter.
The atmosphere (like Don't Look Now) is a lot of what makes The Strangers scary. The house in the middle of nowhere. The fog seeping in. The giant double doors. The masks that look just human enough*. But it's also about shock.
*Check out the pretty solid list the A.V. club put out yesterday, which includes the history of super scary sack masks since the year 2000 (you'll find that part under #12, The Orphanage)
Found footage does shock. A lot. And I complain about it most often. Someone coming around a corner there, a bang back here, a flash of a guy with no eyes and a disfigured face - it feels a little cheap when it's the only thing you have to lean on. The Strangers is dependent on the incessant knock-knock-knocking on doors to make you jump, building to a brutal, slasher finish. Same thing, right? So why do I excuse it, even enjoy it, here?
I think it comes down to the camera as narrator. Basically, what kind of storyteller the camera wants to be. Consider that a found footage camera is inherently point-of-view. If the character holding the camera is not explicitly introduced to us, we recognize that there is one because the other characters speak directly to him/her/the camera, itself. This immediately introduces a level of realism that is otherwise up in the air in a lot of horror. The camera becomes a tool, a collector of evidence, an extension of a human being. That's interesting - but it's also problematic for those of us who require a little disbelief and a little distance to get a really good psychological, visceral scare. After all, a P.O.V. camera has the same level of knowledge as the person wielding it - and that virtually eliminates the possibility of dramatic irony. And I think to experience art-horror, we need that irony.
Per dictionary.com, dramatic irony is the "irony occurring when the implications of a situation, speech, etc, are understood by the audience but not by the characters..." If the camera is a character, and also our only viewpoint into the story, then we cannot be privy to something the characters are not. Unless that camera is left unattended (i.e. the security camera style footage of Paranormal Activity), dramatic irony becomes nearly impossible.
We also know from Noel Carroll's work (discussed in this post on Dead Ringers) that art-horror is one step removed from experiencing actual trauma - the ability to observe is key. Found footage doesn't let you observe, it inundates you in the story yourself. For some, this kind of "horror" may work. I think for those like myself, looking for that sweet little bit of "art-horror," it takes away the necessary step back that asks us to think about what we're seeing. The horror is in the thought of the thing, not the thing itself.
In The Strangers, like any traditional narrative film, we are allowed to forget that the camera exists. What we are seeing is what is happening, like the pages inside a picture book, for the characters inside it. They have no concept of a camera recording them, so we don't either. This allows for an artful use of cinematography and shot design, painting each frame with intentionality, adding another layer to potentially "art-horrify" the viewer.
But then why does The Strangers forsake the Steadicam and employ a shaky, handheld camera style like a found footage movie? (No worries, it's not nearly enough to make you vomit) There is no doubt that a handheld camera delivers a fallible, human element to the look and feel of a film. Where a found footage film does this ad nauseam (to characterize the camera as a literal part of the action it records), I find that it often eliminates any trace of the type of fear only a God-like, inhuman Steadicam can create - that of an omniscient and omnipresent narrator. The Strangers keeps the traditional narrator type to induce maximum art-horror, but uses the shaky camera artistically to call attention to the very human nature of the monsters responsible for the violence: there is no supernatural element here.
Of course, by sacrificing this post to the found footage vs. traditional horror Gods, I've slipped past all the wonderful things The Strangers does that deserve your attention outside my personal struggle. So, let's refocus a moment...
Kristin left alone in the house when the knocking starts. It's amazing to me that Liv Tyler hasn't done more horror movies - her screams are top-notch, and her facial expressions are even better. Girl can make her eyes bug out and jump in fright with the best of them. But I'm even more impressed with sound design - knocks coming from one corner of the house, then another. If we were to assess "The History of Things Banging on Doors" in horror movies, we could make a list pages long. This scene recalls the axe-swings of Jack in The Shining, and the ambient bangs of the ghosts in The Haunting. Even the elegantly carved double doors are evocative of Hill House's architecture - I find myself staring at them here, waiting for them to swell, too.
But of course, there isn't anything otherworldly here. And that's no more apparent than with the appearance of the sack-masked man in the left corner of the frame. While Kristin stares out a window, waiting for the knocks to come again, the man wearing the sack stands in the periphery unnoticed. A man in a ghost costume. He leaves when he wants to.
Other Things to Notice:
The many ways this calls to mind the nature of The Manson Family and their infamous series of home invasions and murders. The folk music on the record player references not only the time period, but the primary occupation of Charles Manson - wannabe folk singer. Also, the nonchalant, haphazard reasoning for the act itself is 99% The Family's motto - "Because you were home." The killing is out of curiosity's sake, because why not? Make chaos, be free - the end of the hippie era would echo the mantra that fueled them in the first place, along with that Sartrean expression, "Hell is other people."
I see all that embedded in the film here, along with a contemporary warning about just how "safe" our cell phones and supposed connectivity make us. The dissolution of the relationship first is part and parcel to this point.
If You Like It, Watch:
You're Next: This was not a personal favorite, but it is brought up so often lately by people I respect, I have to think maybe I missed something. What it definitely does is subvert the home invasion plot in a new way. If you like this premise, I'd suggest giving it a go. *Streaming on Amazon Prime
Bug: This is a home invasion in the sense that something is invading, though whether it's human, insect, or bad psychology is a little harder to define. This is Friedkin at his best, and Michael Shannon before everybody knew just how good he was at playing crazy.
And finally, a PSA for the Found Footage Society of America (that exists, right?):
I'm sorry I bashed your thing. But let it be known, I think there's a real argument for found footage. It certainly induces anxiety, and itss scares are akin to falling down the highest drop on the roller coaster- when they work, they work. But let's leave that discussion for a better day, and a different post, and in the meantime, maybe I can implore all those that love FF to please tell me what I'm missing. Maybe I'm watching the wrong ones. Maybe I'm looking at this all wrong. Enlighten me. I want to understand the subgenre that's taken over my beloved horror. Gift me your knowledge and your readings - I'll thank you for it.
*click for the trailer*