Warning: Horror Alert: The Strangers

There are people who will see this blog and think I’m out of my damn mind for even mentioning this film on a site about writing. To that I say: horror needs loving, too.
Box Office Rec: The Strangers This is easily one of the best written slasher films I’ve ever seen. It’s right up there with The Demon (1979) and the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. And yes, it’s technically a remake. No, that doesn’t mean it has to suck (see Chronenberg’s The Fly, located under the chapter titled: How to Reinvent the Wheel without Changing the Shape, Size, or Color).
What’s so great about the writing? Three things: developed characters, well paced story line, and reinvention of genre conventions. First things first: OMG there are actual characters with believable back stories played by competent actors that grow and change throughout the film based on challenges they face and lessons they learn. That’s special for any horror film. Bonus points for bringing empathy out for dialogue that quickly evolved to “Oh no there’s a killer why are you doing this why wah wah wah”. Not literally, but that’s the gist of spoken words once you get past the great build-up surrounding a really awkward sort-of breakup.
Bonus bonus points of course for making a really awkward sort-of breakup come across as real and believable. No clever quips or acts of God to provide just the right thing to say. It felt real because the characters were written that way.
Second: Well paced story line. A lot of it was the masterful editing and timing, true. But someone had to put all the “masked killer is seen in window by audience but not poor Liv Tyler” to the page, and that my friends is the writer’s job.
It was perfect Hitchcock suspense: we see the bomb set to go off any minute but the people on screen are still stirring their coffee at the diner. When done properly, in a story line that justifies these events, it creates unbearable suspense.
Third, and most important: breaking and providing genre conventions. To complete the list, all that was needed was a slut being murdered for having sex, a cat jumping out of a closet with a loud music cue, and a dark and stormy night. But they worked. There was even a really cheesy “based on a true story” message, with deep announcer voice narration, that should have ruined the film but worked.
Why? The old writing adage: show, don’t tell.
We don’t hear exactly why the couple would be having problems (No “As you know, Bob, my boyfriend is sleeping with my best friend” conversations here), it’s shown. You see it in the way the girl stares at the bath tub or the guy eats ice cream. It’s implied. It’s subtle. It’s stylish. It works. It goes even further. A well-versed horror fan knows that x is going to happen (let’s say the cat’s going to jump out of the closet).
The hallway is suddenly dark. Girl walks down asking if anyone’s there without saying a word (it’s in her body language, how she steps into this room and not that room, touches this picture but not that door knob). Maybe it’s her boyfriend come back home, she thinks, but the audience knows it can’t be him. She creeps closer and closer, and you know the door is going to pop open and the cat jumps out to scare everyone, but she goes to look at the dirty whiskey glass. She pours herself a drink then leans over to charge her cell phone. She walks back to the bedroom. She brushes her hair. She sits down on the bed and sighs. And then the cat pops out anyway. Did the character jump, scream, then scold the kitty for being naughty? No. She barely even registers the change.
And then 18 other cats appear on screen and make me throw up from the tension and almost leave the theater.
The Strangers is worth your ticket money. Get popcorn and a caffeine free drink. You might regret that delicious iced latte that made you jittery before the previews even began and only made your body work harder to feel the suspense in the film. When the Sketchy’s (obviously my personal awards ceremony) are announced in January, expect mention of The Strangers in screenplay and leading actress at the very least.

Labels: Box Office rec

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