Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Modern American Horror Film: Subtext And Text: Part 15: The Strangers

When we have been talking about the horror films in the previous chapter I have taken a little time to note whether the film we were discussing was a film that preyed on social anxieties, or one that tapped into deeper more mythic fears. For 99% of horror films that classification is sufficient.

But there is a third kind of horror film. The rarest of the rare, a kind of film that strikes us more deeply than mere subtext, even deeper than the fairy tale. The type of horror for which no metaphor will suffice.

This is the kind of horror that drives deeply into our collective memories and taps into our most primal survival based fears that live like unexorcisable ghosts all the way down at the core of our lizard brain. The fear of being hunted. The fear of being eaten. The fear of our mates being taken. The fear of having our homes invaded. When these rare films that circumnavigate our cortex and strike right at the lizard jelly of our brains come, they tend to create a feeling more akin to revulsion than fear.

The Strangers is one of those movies.

In many ways The Strangers is the film that the opening of Scream promised all those years before. A genre film played with a heretofore unseen level of reality. The Strangers opens with at upper class houses seen from the point of view of a passing truck window (David Fincher would use a similar shot to open Zodiac). The houses are isolated, but not remote. Separated from each other by wide yards and deeply wooded lots. Already a feeling of horrible randomness is established, one might as well hear “Eeny Meeny Miney Moe” on the soundtrack.

From there we cut to later in the day, two children walk through the bloody disquieting aftermath of what’s clearly been a night of mayhem. This creates a feeling of fatalism, so closely linked to the random; we know the story will not have an happy ending. But just as importantly it creates a feeling of specificity. This could have happened anywhere, but it did happen here.

Finally we flashback to some hours before before. Ti West has spoken about how too many horror characters appear to be equipped to be in a horror film. Rarely have there been protagonists more ill equipped to deal with horror than these two. . Dressed in formal wear, speaking in hushed tones trying to dance around a new wound (she has just turned down his proposal of marriage) the two know each other intimately but not well. The first half hour  of the film could be a John Cassevettes or Richard Linklater film. One can easily imagine the characters dealing with their new emotional lacerations as they move around the house that he has prepared for a celebration as the morning of their first day apart slowly dawns. This is key, if West has claimed that the characters of horror are all too often prepared for horror, I would go one step further and argue that horror films are all too often prepared for horror. They tip their hand from the beginning. It is key to the film’s effectiveness that the horror in The Strangers is an intrusion.

Stephen King put it another way when he was talking about Jack Finney’s novel, The Body Snatchers, “I have used the phrase “off-key not” earlier on, and that is Finney’s actual method in The Body Snatchers, I think; one off-key note, then two, then a ripple, then a run of them. Finally the jagged, discordant music of horror overwhelms the melody entirely. But Finney understands that there is no horror without beauty; no discord without a prior sense of melody; no nasty without nice.” Bertano is one of the few modern horror directors who bothers to establish the melody.  Which is first interrupted by a knock on the door as the two are about to engage in some break up sex. A young girl, seen only dimly asks a mumbled question and then departs. It’s the first discordant note soon to be joined by many others. The attack begins subtly as an accumulation of wrong details (or discordant notes) a fire alarm moved, a door opened, a phone missing. Until finally they increase in number and intensity until the  film escalates into a pounding Bartok like assault. (Interestingly enough The Strangers is the rare horror movie that relies on incidental music instead of a score. The first song heard is a Joanna Newsom song. Literally a discordant note. As Tyler realizes she’s not alone for the first time the record begins to skip adding even more disharmony.) The film proceeds more or less in real time, and the sheer speed of the collapse is jaw dropping.  

The first of The Strangers is seen shortly after.  The woman has been left alone while her boyfriend runs to grab her cigarettes. The girl pounds on the door again and asking the same question. Unsettled but not yet frightened Tyler retreats to the kitchen.  Behind her is a perfect column of negative space, a discernable absence after a few moments, the lead stranger identified only as “The Man In The Mask” steps in. It’s one of the most perfect shots I know of in horror. 

The way The Strangers are shot has its own unique signature. The masks the characters wear, a doll’s face a cartoon character, and what is little more than a pillow case slightly darkened around the mouth and eye holes, rival Michael Myers for minimalism. Though we do get a fair amount of close ups (and Bertano isn’t above giving us a quick jump scare with one of their faces suddenly looming on screen) They are much more often seen from a distance. Or not seen at all, just places of negative space where they easily could appear as they did at the beginning. Even when The Strangers are in frame they are often out of focus. They are kept both literally and figuratively indistinct, allowing us to project all kinds of things onto them.

The film continues switching between elegance and brutality. There are no meaningless kills in The Strangers. No groundskeeper or shop clerk to rack up the body count (the only other person to die in the film is a distinct subversion of that trope). Thus the lives at stake actually mean something and the investment the audience has is much higher. Though we know the characters doom is a foregone conclusion, they crucially do not. Once they understand the nature of the attack they make smart decisions, arm themselves stick together. After all it’s not even as though they are outnumbered over much. Really it is only one ghastly piece of bad luck that keeps their plan of survival from working.

It doesn’t work of course. We already knew that. What we didn’t know was how it would end. Not with our heroes taken out in the heat of the moment, attempting to evade pursuit. But killed while tied to a chair helpless and hopeless. Fully conscience of what is about to happen. Crucially this sequence takes place in daylight, and before they are murdered the strangers remove their masks.

This two beat process in which our heroes are dispatched brings a clarity to the genre. It’s not a gag, it’s not a kill, it’s a murder perpetrated on two helpless people for no reason at all. When The Strangers take off the masks there is nothing outwardly horrifying underneath. No waterlogged undead face. No John Doe Sermonizing. No Hannibal Lecter philosophizing. No ghosts drive them. No demons possess them. They are only human. And that’s true horror.

Bryan Bertano has yet to make a film after The Strangers. A fair amount of his films, including a sequel to The Strangers (a prospect I’m ambivalent about but open to) and a film that was supposed to be executive produced by Sam Raimi, have wound up in development hell. And though a few of his screenplays have sold, including a found footage film at Universal and a non horror film called Plastic Jesus, which was directed by Erica Dunton. There are currently no films in production that would get Bertano back behind the camera.

If that never happens, then The Strangers will stand as one of cinema’s greatest one offs. But I can only hope it doesn’t. Frankly it would be a crime. I consider The Strangers to be the finest horror film that the decade produced. And of all the films we’ve discussed I would only rank The Fly and The Blair Witch Project above it. It is a horror film that strikes directly at the heart, which is exactly where the essence of horror lives.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Bonus Post: The Scream Opening Scene

(I posted this a while ago on my regular blog Things That Don't Suck. But I think it's worth another look.) 

The opening of Scream is without a doubt one of the most iconic scenes in horror. It's a sequence that embodies and to a large extent makes up for, much of the series. It does so by running directly counter to much of what the series does as a whole.

First off the sequence plays long. Probably longer than you remember. Certainly longer than I remembered (when I wincingly calculated how much of my image memory this post would devour). The first three minutes of this could play out as almost a straight romantic comedy. It takes it's time before tipping its hand to horror, making it all the more effective when the hammer drops.

Secondly you like her.

It’s always shocking to me just how far out of their way some horror filmmakers will go to make their characters unlikeable guilt free fodder. Sure the vapid bros who populate say The Friday The 13th Nu Metal Remake don't "deserve" their grisly deaths by any real world measure. But by movie morality Jason is nothing less than the swift hand of justice. They may as well have filmed the mandals wearing crew barbecuing puppies.

When you consider just how much more effective it makes a horror film to care about the characters the lazyness is even more unfathomable. When you actually do get a likable horror protagonist (ala Alison Lohman in Drag Me To Hell) it’s almost a shock. It’s all the more surprising as Drew’s part shows here how easy it is to do. She's not playing a particularly well drawn or deep character, just a deeply and instinctively sympathetic one. Underneath it all is the lie that if you’re bad bad things will happen to you and if you’re good vica versa. This is especially damning because this is exactly the opposite of what the great horror films tap into. The power of the random to strike you any time anywhere, that shadow on your lungs in the X-ray, that Vodka fueled driver crossing the center line. Nice person? Kind to animals? Good to your kids? Fate really couldn’t give a fuck.

I love that little pan. The all important first real note of discord in the horror movie. That swing evocative with just the right amount of dread. A horror movie pillow shot?

A nice little callback to Halloween with the butcher block even before Barrymore underlines it.

And God look at those beautiful beautiful VHS. A nice moment of nostalgia for the viewer while Craven get's to participate in a nice little bit of self congratulation "Was that the guy with knives for fingers? I liked that movie it was scary."

"Yeah too bad the sequels blew."

Uh huh...

"I want to know who I'm looking at." We're almost four minutes into the sequence at this point. It's a wonderfully creepy moment.

Arguably no horror film has gotten better use of the architecture of suburbia since Halloween. The warm modernist prairie home design, meant to be inviting also gives an almost unlimited amount of foreground and background for the killer to be lurking in.
"Hang up the phone again and I'll gut you." This is an ugly real moment. Meant to hurt and terrify.

And it works. What makes the sequence so effective is that Barrymore acts like a real person. She's scared and desperate I'm reminded of what King writes in the new introduction to Danse Macabre (Talking about the new The Last House On The Left) "-we know it's really going to happen, we are filled with rage and sorrow (and if there's an emotion more foreign to a Friday The 13th movie than sorrow, I don't know what is)". Scream if only in this scene is that rare horror movie acquainted with sorrow. The focus is not on the excitement on wondering what the next gore shot is going to look like. Or even the terror of the moment. It's on just how pitiful it is. On what a sad, lonely and undeserving way this is to go.

This is also the first time that the "rules" are mentioned. But note how they're used to mock and hurt. Not as an opportunity for a clever reference.

I'm reminded of The Outlaw Vern's comment on Smoking Aces, about how he was surprised to see the characters get sad when people they cared about started to die. Instead of the blaise reactions to death that had become the raison d'etre in crime films of the era. Here it's a similar reaction. Barrymore doesn't know she's in a horror movie. Up until ten minutes ago she was in a romantic comedy. As a result she is acting with actual horror. It should be remembered that the ultimate source of horror is the subversion of the norm. The unraveling of things. Most clumsy modern horror never even bothers to establish a norm to subvert.

Now for years film fans have been using the Scream films as an oppurtunity to prove just how much cooler and well versed they are in horror cinema than the imaginary people who populate the film (Witness the shit fits thrown about The Peeping Tom reference in Scream 4). Yeah! Fuck you fictional characters!!! (This dubious enterprise may have reached its nadir last night in a review that I will not name but to which I must just say, "Wow".) Ignoring the inherent insecurity in such a reaction, let me just take a minute to point out that ninety percent of the audience is likely to have less of a background in horror than you. And aren't you glad about that? I mean if you put all this time an effort into loving horror, aren't you glad that you know a bit more than the average joe? Does that mean the average filmgoer shouldn't get to watch the movie? I mean if they're not well versed enough to get Lamberto Bava or Jacques Tourneur trivia then fuck em right?

The whole point of the trivia segements is to put the viewer in the victims place. For that to work you have to ask a question that they could plausibly answer. Or more importantly in the case of this rather obvious Friday The 13th question, plausibly get wrong. Remember, this is 1996. The last Friday had come out only three years before. Jason was still very much in the cultural lexicon at this point. Mrs. Voorhees not so much. While it is unlikely that the average Teenager would have seen Friday The 13th "Twenty Goddamn times" she would have seen it. And Jason would have been the first thing to pop into her head.

This is an effective moment but it’s also a bit of a cheat. The classic rule of the slasher (one not exposited by Randy) is that if the camera cannot see the killer then neither can the characters. No matter how visible the killer would be in the victim’s field of vision the killer reserves the right to jump in to the foreground and background at will with the stealth of damn ninja. Here it’s the same rule reversed. We hear the kill before we see it, which is how it’s excused. But The Killer would still need Speedy Gonzales like speed to evade detection, by Barrymore as the lights are off for only about five seconds. But the camera cannot see him thus he is invisible.
"Guess which door I'm at." The nastiest part of this is that knowing what we know about Billy and Stu there is no correct answer for poor Barrymore to give. Say what you will about Williamson's script but Scream is the rare horror movie that is built to hold up in hindsight.

The knife, the smoke, Barrymore going from victim to Final Girl. Part of what makes the sequence so effective is that it feels much more like the end of a horror film than the beginning of one.

Our first glimpse of Ghost Face comes nearly nine minutes into the sequence. It’s another neat inversion on the old slasher trope. The fear of slashers traditionally comes from their omnipresence. No matter how hard you run, Jason and Michael will keep pace with you without so much as breaking into a power walk, The Strangers will lurk in the background no matter where you go. Ghostface in most of his incarnations takes the exact opposite tack. Even when he’s in pursuit you’re never sure where.

Oh that is a bitch. Another surprisingly lazy thing about much of horror writing is how it treats the character's deaths as forgone conclusions. A little hope can go a long way.

Let us now praise famous Ghostfaces. Say what you will about 80's horror but there was no shortage of memorable monsters from the era. If you mark the beginning of modern horror with Scream, Ghostface remains really the only truly memorable creation. Jigsaw is the only modern monster who can claim similar iconicism and ubiquity. Though it is a bit of a stretch to put those two ghouls in the same genus. Sadako from the Ring is another contender. But technically I consider her more of a trope and she's not American. The only other iconic monsters I can think of are The Firefly Clan and let's face it they're pretty ghettoized in horror fandom. You show a picture Otis Driftwood to a normal they're not going to know who the fuck he is. Most of the Scream copy cats were content to put the killer in a black slicker and have them chase the nubile.

Ghostface is another matter. Like all of the great monsters he's simple enough to pray on your sub-conscience, yet iconic enough to be instantly recognizable add that to the way his appearance subtly mocks his victims...

Yeah that's a great design.

I've written some unkind things about Craven in the past. But only because I've meant them.

One thing I will give to Craven is that his horror across the board has a physicality to it. There is never death without struggle in a Craven film, when he's at his best, it feels real.

The fact that Ghostface has to look and line up his knife before plunging it in, gives this moment the clumsy, unglamorized look that pushes it into the bounds of true horror.

Once again this isn't glamorous, this isn't fun, this isn't cool. No one would think to grin and call this a great kill. This is pathetic, lonely, cruel and sad.

And prolonged and desperate...

That last shot of Barrymore, desperately trying to call for her mother, without even the strength to get it through her brutalized throat, is one of the most purely horrifying images I know of.

In the last moment Barrymore pulls off Ghostface's mask. And reveals something much more terrifying then whatever continuity ignoring reveal the makeup men on the latest Friday The 13th cooked up. It synchs up with the moment that Barrymore wounds Ghostface in the window scene. From the very beginning it is shown that he is not the implacable, invulnerable, supernatural slasher of yesteryear. The face she reveals is a human face. That is terror, not just horror.

Her parents listening to their daughter die is the last underlier that this is a sequence about suffering. Not Fear. It's like something from a Gialli without the distancing effect of theatricality.

And there's the punchline for you. Scream? I believe I will.

Of course after the credits, Scream becomes an entirely different movie. Not a bad movie, as I insisted for awhile (After all I did mark another moment from the film as one of my scariest moments). But just another slasher, albeit a well written and directed one. Ironic for a movie (rightfully) labeled the post modern horror film that Scream should start with sequence of such unabashed reality. That was what Scream promised, a horror movie played real. It could have been great, it settled for good.

Of course a film played entirely at that level could well be unbearable. Think Funny Games but without the comforting distance of being an intellectual exercise. And it certainly wouldn't have sold enough popcorn to guarantee a fourth installment. But I can't help but watch this sequence with the mixture of terror and pity it arouses in me and wonder what might have been had Craven and Williamson had the balls to follow through on the courage of their convictions.