Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
May 2008

Different strokes

Two new horror films mine the same territory with contrasting results

The Strangers
Rogue Pictures
Director: Bryan Bertino
Screenplay: Bryan Bertino
Starring: Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman, Glenn Howerton, Kip Weeks, Laura Margolis and Gemma Ward
Opened May 30, 2008
(out of four)

Inside (À l'intérieur)
Dimension Films
Director: Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo
Screenplay: Alexandre Bustillo
Starring: Alysson Paradis, Béatrice Dalle, François-Régis Marchasson, Nathalie Roussel and Jean-Baptiste Tabourin
Not Rated / 1 hour, 22 minutes
Now available on DVD
(out of four)

Now here is a case study. Here are two movies cut out of the same mold. Different filmmakers, different countries. Two drastically different approaches. Two drastically different results.

This is the Home Invasion archetype. You may remember this subgenre came under scrutiny a few months ago when Michael Haneke's Funny Games, a deconstructivist rendition on the formula, was released. Surely both of these movies - Bryan Bertino's The Strangers and Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo's Inside - would be held squarely under Haneke's microscope.

But I am not Haneke, and I can love a good horror movie. What I see here as a case study is the contrast between these two films - one a carefully measured exercise in horror, the other an unrestrained self-parody.

Both films are the debut works of their creators. One is wiser than the other(s). As the Home Invasion formula goes, someone is attacked at their home, seemingly without reason, and tortured unmercifully for the better part of 90 minutes or so. At some point, we (or they, because we know better) get teased with salvation when someone comes to the door . . . only to be met with the harshest of physical retribution. The hero (or heroes) try to fight back, they trick or wound their captors, etc, etc. Sometimes we get an explanation as to why the person is being treated this way; sometimes the filmmaker veers toward a more ambiguous or nihilistic tone. Some are relentlessly violent; others keep it low-key until violence is absolutely necessary.

As you can tell, there usually aren't many options for this formula, but that doesn't mean there aren't decisions to be made. The decisions made by The Strangers and Inside, with the same basic set-up, are paramount, because one succeeds and one dramatically fails. To paraphrase what Roger Ebert always says, a movie works not because of what it is about, but how it is about it.

Both films use rather common victims to sucker us into sympathy. With The Strangers, it's a young couple in a big, creaky house out in the middle of nowhere. Inside goes with a pregnant woman . . . in a big, creaky house out in the middle of nowhere. Where the films go their separate ways - and indeed, these two are as dissimilar as they can be - is in the style of horror they choose to employ. There is no right or wrong answer, of course - but these results speak for themselves.

The Strangers - particularly the first half - is a masterfully crafted exercise in suspense. With his careful framing of each shot, his clever and haunting use of music, and his dogged insistence on emphasizing setting and character before anything actually happens, Bertino sets us up with the precision of a veteran filmmaker.

The characters, James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler) are already on edge; he's just proposed to her and she has refused. We're anxious for them already. And they're in the house, all alone, for the rest of the night.

Gradually, things start to feel a little bit . . . off. Bizarre knocks at the door. A cut phone line. People standing outside in the distance, staring at the house.

Oh, and they're wearing masks, too.

The events themselves are altogether unspectacular, but the icy, uncomfortable feeling the characters (and we) feel grows more palpable with every creaky step on the wooden floor, every look out the window, every pregnant pause.

Instead of acting like morons who suddenly realize that they're the stars of a horror movie, the characters proceed like normal, only gradually getting creeped out enough to barricade themselves in the bedroom.

Bertino knows how to craft this kind of scenario - that much is clear. His feel for shot composition is terribly impressive; with The Strangers, he creates tension with pauses, silences and disquieting long shots rather than rapidly edited close-ups. One character ominously peers out the window to the darkness outside and . . . nothing happens. At least not yet.

When something eventually happens at the window, the timing of it - and the amount of time Bertino holds the shot - is executed to perfection.

There is one sequence that plays out in a few long takes, and is one of the best scenes I've seen in a horror movie in some time. Kristen is alone in the house, already tense after the strange events of the night. She walks around the living room, walks toward the kitchen, lights a cigarette and stares ahead, caught in a daze. In the far background of the shot, out from behind a wall comes the first stranger, looking like the Scarecrow from Batman Begins, and he just stands there.

And stands there.

Nothing happens, and eventually he's gone. It has become the film's signature shot - even appearing on the one-sheet poster - but just the shot itself, or the brief clip of it from the trailer, doesn't do it justice. It's stunningly nerve-racking, and what pay-off the film offers a little while later is due largely to this one scene.

As I began to suspect, the second half of the film doesn't live up to the promise of the brilliant first half. Once things start escalating, they escalate to the point of no longer mattering.

Still, The Strangers is an example of undeniably well-crafted horror. The film is less violent than one would expect, the strangers opting instead for psychological terror long before they raise a hand to anyone.

I was reminded most of last year's Ils (Them), a low-budget French horror film in the same vein. It, too, utilized suggestive elements rather than blood, guts and booming orchestral scores, and there's a even a distinct parallel with the shot selection near the end of both films. In both cases, we idly see the perpetrators from a distance, leaving . . . and in both cases, the suggestion of an eerie alienation on the part of our intruders is done to hauntingly disturbing effect. It may be nihilistic, but that doesn't mean it doesn't strike some sort of chord.

Now then. The complete opposite of that approach is utilized in Inside. That's not to say that a bloodier, more blatant approach to horror is the wrong way to go. It's just that, in this case, it undermines itself.

The pregnant woman is named Sarah (Alysson Paradis), and she lost her husband in a car accident not long ago, leaving her alone and depressed on Christmas Eve, the day before she is to give birth.

Someone comes to the door late at night - someone who seems to know too much about her. Sarah tells her to go away, but the woman is resilient. She roams around the house, looking in through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Sarah is immediately disturbed, calling the police to check the area. No one is found.

Eventually, the woman (played by the infamous Béatrice Dalle) finds her way inside, and proceeds to . . . well, try to cut Sarah open and steal her baby.

But that, of course, is only the start of the terror for Sarah. She somehow has the strength to avoid that initial attack, and she somehow manages to lock herself in an unusually well-secured bathroom. (I've never seen a bathroom with that many locks on the inside. Oh, but I love the conventions of movies.)

The woman, billed only as "La femme" in the press materials, bides her time, but she will not be deterred. When a friend comes by to see Sarah (he's supposed to take her to the hospital in the morning), she tells him she's Sarah's mother. A believable story.

But then, of course, the mother comes by. Both of these problems will have to be disposed of.

And then there's the police. You knew they'd enter the picture at one point or another. If for no other reason, just to remind us that policemen in movies are the most incompetent of policemen. (At one point, when they've found Sarah in the bathroom and know what they're up against, the policemen get the bright idea to leave Sarah in the bathroom with a gun she doesn't know how to use, while they go out into the pitch-black house and look for the killer, who's hiding somewhere. Wow. Just . . . wow.)

Yes, as if you couldn't already figure it out from that anecdote, Inside is one of those movies that uses the most implausible of character motivations and the most obvious of plot holes to get from point A to point B. It's insulting, and no amount of splashing blood and impressively creative murder techniques is going to change that.

The self-serious tone the filmmakers employ here eventually makes it nearly impossible to take the film seriously as horror. As horror-comedy? Maybe . . . if it were actually trying to be a horror-comedy. But it isn't. This movie thinks that it's chilling and atmospheric. It thinks it's a savage take on the fears and desires of motherhood. What it is, in actuality, is cheap and old-hat.

Both Inside and The Strangers are pretty much devoid of any significant meaning. But only one of them actually realizes it. The Strangers isn't doing anything new, but it does what it does extremely well. Inside isn't doing anything new, either. But, like the Saw franchise, it overwhelms itself, overvalues itself and, when all that is out of the way, is content to repeat itself.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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