Alfred Hitchcock once famously predicted that in the future there would be no more need for movies: audiences would be hooked up to electrodes that would give people jolts of various emotions: suspense, fear, sadness, love. He was wrong. We just started making movies that replicated that process.
We see this most obviously in the big genre staples like action/adventure, thriller and horror. Many of which play like a piano-roll of random key notes with a few cardboard characters to make them seem as if they’re actually about human beings.
It’s an easy trap to fall into when making a slasher movie. But The Strangersis a noble attempt to avoid these pitfalls.
[I’m going to discuss the ending of this movie, so if you haven’t seen it yet… SPOILERS AHOY!]
The Strangers is not a bad movie. It is, for almost its entirety, the best slasher film you’ve ever seen: wonderfully subtle, chillingly eerie and scary as fuck without resorting to too much ‘BOO!’
One of the problems with setting up a horror movie is that first act of maybe twenty minutes where you have to set up your victims and give them enough humanity so that we care about them surviving the ordeal ahead. If you don’t set them up strongly enough, we don’t care about them. But we want to get to the scary action stuff quickly.
You can go the Teaser route and show the killer in action somewhere else and then cut to the Ordinary World, so we’re waiting for the two to collide. It’s a good technique and it’s used almost universally.
But writer-director Bryan Bertino chooses a different tactic. He gives us an ordinary couple, Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, but keeps us guessing as to what’s going on between them. They have returned from a wedding party to a remote country home. It appears to be his father’s place, not their own, but this is never explained. The beauty of the opening act is that there is no clumsy info dump to explain everything to us. It’s just this couple and some sort of problem between them that is never fully stated but appears to be a marriage proposal that has been rejected. The subtlety of it is extraordinary. It’s almost arthouse.
Then comes a knock at the door. It’s a young woman, her face in shadow, asking for someone they don’t know. It’s creepy. She seems a bit weird. She goes. And then the horror begins.
There’s definitely a zeitgeist thing going on here that any Daily Mail reader will recognise. Much like the recent French film Ils (Them), in which a middle class couple are besieged by intruders from the underclass, these speak to our elemental fear of our homes being terrorised.
I’m not a real aficionado of horror, but we all have a sixth sense for genre. We know at a very deep level what we expect to happen in a certain kind of movie – even if what we expect to happen is the unexpected.
Genres make a pact with the audience. You can bend them and play with them, but you betray them at your peril (or occasionally to bizarre success – but that’s another story). But it’s clear that where a certain genre has to deliver most is in its ending.
And that’s the only place where this brilliant film falls down.
For the entire movie, this couple are stalked and terrorised by three masked strangers (it’s kind of creepier that two of them are women) in a series of subtle but very chilling set pieces. And all the time your mind is racing: why? Who are they? Do they know the couple? Is the masked man actually Scott Speedman exacting some terrible revenge on this bitch who’s just rejected his marriage proposal? What’s the answer?
But, of course, in the end, there is no answer. It’s utterly random. They are three Manson-esque killers who have chosen this couple to terrorise before driving off to find their next victims.
All of which is fine, except that’s not the ending we’re promised. And we’re not even sure if they have killed the couple at the end despite stabbing them both. Liv Tyler wakes up screaming when she’s discovered in the morning, and Scott Speedman definitely blinks (I’m sure I saw it).
So the credits roll and you sit there thinking ‘Wait. There must be more. There must be some cathartic clue to give me a sense that I’ve been watching a story and not just a sequence of random electrode-delivered scares.’
But the credits roll on and on forever, and the usher stands there waiting for you to leave so he can clean the place. And there is no final scene to give you some meaning.
It’s probably the whole point. But I wish it didn’t feel so much like it was made with a sneer. Because this film, but for its ending, had all the makings of a modern classic.