23.12.08

HOW TO RUIN YOUR OWN MOVIE: The Strangers Edition

It may come as no surprise to longtime readers of the site (Hi, Phillipa!) that there's nothing that irritates me more than modern fiction's attempts to kneecap any ability it might have to create tension or anxiousness or yes, even fear, in their audience by flat-out telling that audience exactly how the film is going to end in the opening minutes. As I mentioned in my Swamp Thing Natsukashi Podcast, the one thing that horror films have going for them is that they're the only genre whose endings, even in big studio pictures, can't be easily predicted. In a horror movie, you don't know the good guy's going to win, you don't know the bad guy's going to lose, really, you don't know that they're not going to kill the dog and the kid and end the film in the most upsettingly abrupt manner possible.

This is how audience are kept on edge - if they don't know what's going to happen next, they become invested in the story. If they think the fate of each character is up in the air, they invest more emotion in those characters' struggles. In no other theatre will you find as rapt or attentive an audience as in one playing a good horror movie.

So why on earth would a movie, especially a horror movie, ever give away its most powerful weapon, the uncertainty of its resolution? If you're going to tell me how your story ends, why should I bother watching it? This is why Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning was one of the biggest disasters in recent memory - how on earth am I supposed to care about characters that have to die for the events of the first film to have even occurred?

With that in mind, I offer (in still image format), the opening minutes of the film 'The Strangers':

Right away, the film announces that it wants to rip off the Texas Chainsaw Massacre as closely as possible, putting a bunch of text onscreen and having a deep-voiced narrator read it aloud, Larroquette-style.
Well, first off, it's obviously not, but the fact that they make the claim is vital to understanding just how completely they ruin the rest of the movie with this intro, so let's allow that one to slide.

The inclusion of this statistic is just ridiculous. What is it supposed to suggest to the audience? Sure, 1.4 million is a big number, but are they really trying to say that this fact means that violent crime could happen to anyone at any time? Let's do a little math - there are roughly 300 million people in America. Simple division translates this statistic as, with the broadest possible interpretation, that there is a 1 in 214 chance of any American becoming the victim of violent crime at any given moment. In percentages, that's a 0.47 chance that, at some point this year you (assuming you're an American citizen) will have a violent crime committed upon your person.

As odds go, those aren't very scary, are they? Let's break them down further, though, and look at the specific kinds of crimes being discussed. Robbery counts for nearly 450K of those crimes, and while having someone threatening you in order to take your property certainly can be traumatic, it's clearly not what the movie is trying to bring to mind. Assaults count for the vast majority of the 1.4M number, at 850K incidences.

This means that the two most horrible crimes, rape and murder, all fit into that last hundred thousand crimes. And since this is an American horror film, as opposed to a French one, we can pretty much take rape off the table, and assume the filmmakers were trying to scare their audience with their chances of being murdered. So what are those, exactly?

There were just under 17K murders in 2007. Divided into the population once again, that means there's under a 0.000006 percent chance of any random American being murdered, or roughly one in eighteen thousand.

Wow. American television and movies really give a skewed impression of how violent that place is, don't they?

Now where was I? Ah yes, the movie was putting up a nonsensical statistic for unclear purposes. Next up is this little gem-

Well, first off it's nice to know that the two characters, Kristen and James, are only friendly with one of the people getting married. I wonder if it's the bride or the groom?

Naturally, that's not what I'm upset about. No, I'm upset with the fact that the film takes place in February, and subsequent shots will demonstrate an abundance of leafy trees all over the damn place.

Okay, I'm also kidding about that. Although the tree thing does bug me. No, the problem here is that with a single line, they've spoiled the ending of the enter gosh-darned movie! Let's look that line over again:

"The brutal events that took place there (in the summer house) are still not entirely known."

They're obviously sticking to the utterly false 'based on a really-real story' thing, so let's consider what we know about the plot so far. A man and a woman go into a cabin. Something brutal happened there, but the details sketchy at best. What have we learned to an utter certainty? That the main characters, James and Kristen, will not survive the film. How can we knows this beyond all reasonable doubt, just some 65 seconds into the film?

Simple logic forces us to conclude that if, in the alternate universe where any of this actually happened, James or Kristen had survived, WE WOULD KNOW WHAT HAPPENED IN THE CABIN THAT NIGHT!

Good work, movie. Slightly over one minute into the film (less then twenty seconds in, if you don't count corporate logos), you've told us how it's going to end. Amazingly enough, the movie isn't done ruining itself yet! Observe the following images as I tell you of the dialogue that is read over them.

First we start, for no discernible reason, with a series of drive-by shots of suburban homes:

I include these pictures for two reasons - 1) In the hopes that someone might possibly explain to me just what they're doing there.

And 2) To demonstrate how profoundly this film isn't taking place in February.

Look at those yellow and gold leaves in the background! It's clearly the fall. Take special note of the kid on the bike in the background. We'll be seeing more of him right now:

Over this and the subsequent shots, we hear Jordan, the kid at climbing the stairs in the above shot, calling 911 to report that he walked into the house, and was so horrified by the blood and carnage inside that he was moved to call the police to report it.

While I applaud this child's community spirit, I've got to wonder just where he and his friend (brother?) were headed on their bikes early in the morning dressed in dark pants and button-up shirts? We know it's early in the morning because in the previous shot (it's not so much visible in the screengrab) mist was coming off the car, suggesting that dew had gathered overnight and it was just evaporating in the morning sun.

They can't be going to school or church, since February 12th, 2005 was a Saturday - of course, that's assuming this is taking place the morning after all the horror. If it's not, their garb is slightly less creepy.

This shot isn't so important - the record player that gets left on and skips ominously is a fairly common horror movie occurrence.

This one gives a pretty big section of the plot away, though. The rose petals scattered on the floor in conjunction with the closed jewelry box suggest that James had brought Kristen back to the cabin to propose to her, hoping that she'd be in a romantic mood after the wedding. The fact that the case is closed suggests one of two things - either Kristen refused the proposal, or, tragically, the horror started before James even got a chance to propose. If she'd said yes, they would have taken the ring out of the box, and there would be no reason to close it again.

Or perhaps I'm just being overly romantic.

Here the filmmakers prove they're 'artists' by juxtaposing the red of the rose petal with the blood on the kitchen knife.

And now they prove they're shameless exploitationists by dropping in some gratuitous gore.

And there's a shotgun, which demonstrates that, perhaps because the film is specifically trying to piss me off, at some point in the running time characters with a shotgun will be defeated by characters without a shotgun.

The Strangers, with this two-minute opening montage, accomplished something that no terribly anticlimactic film before it had - it made me turn off the movie. There's hinting, there's audio clips with multiple meanings, and there's oblique images that only become comprehensible once their context is revealed. There are acceptable ways to tease the content of the film at the opening without giving away the whole store.

This isn't even close to one of those. This movie, just 65 seconds in, announces that the main characters will be dead at some point in the next ninety minutes. Having that information shoved in my face robbed me of all interest in seeing the rest of the movie.

To put this in context, I haven't stopped watching a movie since one of the characters in Funny Games (either Leopold or Loeb, can't remember which) told me that all the characters' deaths were my fault because they would only get killed if I continued watching the movie. So I didn't, and because I didn't, that family of Germans' fate is as yet undetermined, just like the cat in the poison box!

All of this isn't to say that I'm not going to go ahead and watch the movie at some point - I paid to rent it, after all, and if I'm unsuccessful in my attempt to get a refund on that rental tomorrow morning, I may break down and pop the movie back in the player - that's just how cheap I am. If I do get around to watching it, expect the review to be absolutely merciless. That's just how angry the opening of this film made me.

Oh, and by the way, who gets married on a Friday in February? They couldn't wait until Saturday so all their friends wouldn't have to take a day off work?

Those two should have been the ones getting murdered.

2 comments:

divemistress said...

Those kids are Mormons. If you bothered to actually watch the whole movie you'd know that.

Robin B said...

...
*small voice* My husband and I got married on a Friday.
...
But my sister and brother-in-law got married on a Tuesday YEARS ago and they're not dead, so we'll probably be fine.

But seriously, who gets married on a Tuesday? Psht.