• Mon. May 20th, 2024

Movie Curiosities

The online diary of an aspiring movie nerd

Henceforth, the year of our lord 2024 shall be known as the year of The Strangers. Next month, The Strangers: Chapter 1 is set for release, quickly followed by Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 later this year. Yes, it’s a trilogy of films all shot back-to-back by Cutthroat Island visionary director Renny Harlin, made and marketed as a prequel to the horror classic.

…I know, I had to go back and look it up too.

This franchise (yes, it’s apparently a franchise) started in 2008 with The Strangers, which picked up a middling critical reception and an $82.4 million worldwide take against a reported $9 million budget. Naturally, such a significant profit margin meant that a sequel had to come out… seven years later. The Strangers: Prey at Night came out in 2015 to another mixed critical reception and a significantly lower box office take, earning $31 million worldwide against a reported $5 million budget.

To put those numbers in perspective, Saw V (that’s five movies into the franchise, to be fair) came out in 2008 and scored $113 million worldwide against a reported $10.8 million budget. Jigsaw came out in 2017 and scored $102.9 million worldwide against a reported $10 million budget.

All of this leaves me perplexed. Here I had thought that The Strangers of 2008 was a footnote in film history, swept away by the likes of Kung Fu Panda, Iron Man, Wall-E, and The Dark Knight. Hell, even Speed Racer, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, The Incredible Hulk, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull were all highly consequential movies in their own ways. Looking back, the summer movie season of 2008 had a seismic far-reaching impact in mainstream pop culture, with ripple effects that continue to play out over 15 years later.

Could it be that The Strangers was another such movie in its own strange way? Let’s take a closer look. I even checked out the unrated cut for good measure.

The Strangers comes to us from writer/director Bryan Bertino, a gaffer doing odd jobs in L.A. while he was still an aspiring screenwriter. Long story short, his script came to the attention of Universal, who agreed to purchase the screenplay. In addition, Bertino requested to be hired as director — with ZERO prior experience directing anything — and a $40 million budget. Universal hedged their bets and agreed to let him direct with a $9 million budget.

The movie opens with a title card, telling us that the film is inspired by true events. The narrator tells us of James Hoyt and Kristen McKay (here respectively played by Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler), who were found murdered under highly unusual circumstances that were never completely resolved. Here’s the problem: None of that is true. There is no evidence whatsoever that James Hoyt, Kristen McKay, or their murder case ever actually existed.

In fact, the “true events” that inspired this film happened when Bertino was a young boy. Long story short, some strangers came knocking at his door and asking for somebody who didn’t live there. Later on, it was revealed that these people went around knocking on doors, looking for unoccupied houses so they could break in and steal everything. So many years later, with a few additional details cribbed from the Sharon Tate murders for flavor, Bertino asks the question “What if those same people had been looking for occupied houses so they could break in and kill everyone?”

Anyway, we lay our scene at a summer cabin for James’ family, where James and Kristen are staying for a wedding. It’s late in the night (more like early in the morning, in fact) when they come back, so they’re cranky and tired. Especially since James took the opportunity for this huge heartfelt marriage proposal (at someone else’s wedding reception, which is pathetically uncouth) and Kristen said no. Awkward.

The two of them are just about to kiss and make up when three masked intruders start knocking on the door and threatening them. Hilarity ensues.

The Dubya years might’ve been winding down by 2008, but this is unmistakably a post-9/11 work of horror. This was absolutely made by someone whose idea of horror is the existential certainty of knowing that he’s going to die just because he got on the wrong plane. Someone whose personal bogeyman would make a gruesome ritual out of cutting his head off, and no amount of begging or bartering or reasoning is going to stop what’s coming.

In the Dubya years, it was fear of the next 9/11 or whatever terrorist acts the Muslims might pull off next. In the Trump/Biden years, it’s fear of mass shootings and racial violence committed by white people. The details are different, but the broad strokes are the same. I need hardly add that low-budget films made by experimental auteurs has more or less become the standard for the entire horror genre nowadays.

By the sound of it, this movie really shouldn’t have aged all that poorly. On paper.

See, these same post-9/11 fears of being tortured and killed by a psychopath are exactly the same fears that led directly to the likes of Saw and Hostel. The problem is that those movies and their respective sequels gave us memorably spectacular kills. With The Strangers, our antagonists don’t really do anything until the third act. Aside from some moderate property damage — just enough to keep our main characters from going anywhere — our “slashers” are always careful not to do anything that might seriously hurt or kill our leads until the climax. And even then, the kills are lamentably dull. Hell, the climax is damn near broken entirely by a dummy that’s clearly and pathetically fake.

Another huge problem with our villains is that no matter what our main characters do, the slashers are consistently ten steps ahead. In fact, through most of the film, the heroes are led to injure or even kill each other with only the barest of effort from our villains. More to the point, the villains are hyped up to be so terrifying, so unknowable, so utterly unstoppable that they don’t even register as human anymore.

Put simply, the “strangers” are Mary Sue villains. I get that the filmmakers are trying to make a statement about the evils of an unknowable psychopath who only kills for the lulz and can’t be dissuaded otherwise. Even so, this movie demonizes the concept to the point where it comes off as insurmountably monstrous. If anything, it glamorizes the metaphorical evil by arguing that we should damn well be afraid because there’s literally nothing we can do to stop it or protect ourselves from it. And considering how this comes off as a Dubya-era metaphor for Islamic terrorism, that’s kinda problematic.

Sure, Michael Myers is depicted as an unstoppable killing machine with no capacity for human empathy, but at least the Halloween movies (to varying degrees) lean into the prospect that he might actually be a supernatural terror. For that matter, at least the Halloween movies bring up some manner of tension by entertaining the notion that our main characters might somehow make it out alive or at least temporarily stop Michael until the next movie. And again, the Halloween films are good enough to space out their kills and make them fun to watch!

One crucial point in the film’s favor is that the script is quite good. Even if the horror sucks and the villains are boring, I genuinely appreciate our two main characters. I like how their romantic drama plays out. I like how the film explains and explores what’s going on with them. I really like how the characters (usually) make common-sense decisions without making too many overly stupid mistakes. It really speaks volumes about the quality of the script that this no-budget movie with a novice director was able to wrangle such an absurdly overqualified actor as Liv Tyler.

Unfortunately, whatever praise I give to Bertino as a screenwriter, I have to take right back as a director. Yes, I know it’s a shoestring budget. Yes, I know that handheld shaky-cam was all the rage back in the late ’00s. But the shaky-cam here is obnoxious to the point where it actively works against whatever mood the filmmakers are going for. Moreover, I need hardly reiterate that a competent horror director would’ve done a better job pacing out and presenting the various shocks and kills.

I can safely say that I don’t get the appeal of The Strangers. In the race to mine pop culture for any kind of IP that could be refreshed and/or turned into a franchise, this looks an awful lot to me like rock bottom. Why Lionsgate would be here when they’ve got Saw XI on the way and that franchise is somehow still going strong, I have no idea.

Expanding this movie into a series is a particularly bad idea all around. More entries just means more hapless houses and families for our masked trio to terrorize until the premise gets older than it already is. What could be even worse, the upcoming prequel trilogy promises to flesh out the identities and origins of our slashers, directly undercutting the mysterious and unknowable nature that was their entire purpose in the original film.

The one upside here is that for better or worse, Renny Harlin is a seasoned journeyman director with decades of cinema to his filmography. He’s bound to be a more capable horror director than Bertino. Even so, if the goal here is to try and replicate the success Ti West had with his X trilogy, that would be a long-shot goal even if West himself wasn’t capping off that trilogy with Maxxxine this year.

I don’t see any upside to making this trilogy and I can’t imagine how it’ll end well. Then again, there are many good reasons why I’m not a professional film producer and stranger things have certainly happened. Let’s see how things shake out with The Strangers: Chapter 1 on May 17th.

By Curiosity Inc.

I hold a B.S. in Bioinformatics, the only one from Pacific University's Class of '09. I was the stage-hand-in-chief of my high school drama department and I'm a bass drummer for the Last Regiment of Syncopated Drummers. I dabble in video games and I'm still pretty good at DDR. My primary hobby is going online for upcoming movie news. I am a movie buff, a movie nerd, whatever you want to call it. Comic books are another hobby, but I'm not talking about Superman or Spider-Man or those books that number in the triple-digits. I'm talking about Watchmen, Preacher, Sandman, etc. Self-contained, dramatic, intellectual stories that couldn't be accomplished in any other medium. I'm a proud son of Oregon, born and raised here. I've been just about everywhere in North and Central America and I love it right here.

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