Rogue Pictures' new shocker The Strangers, also known as "Let's Scare Liv Tyler to Death," shares much of its turf with Funny Games, Michael Haneke's arch European-style detournement of classic American scare films. Like Haneke's movie, The Strangers functions as a cautionary tale about the perils of owning or occupying a vacation home. Reason: they appear to be a magnet for psycho killers.
As skillfully laid out by filmmaking newcomer Bryan Bertino, the action opens on a lovers' quarrel. Kristen (Tyler, in full melancholic bloom) and her boyfriend James (Scott Speedman) are returning to James' brother's summer home, drunk and sullen and very late, after a party at which James has proposed to Kristen. She turned him down, and so the romantic decorations (candles, etc.) he's put around the house to celebrate their engagement are more than ironic — they're about to become a grim mockery.
Suddenly, while James is in the midst of eating a full half gallon of ice cream with a spoon (what kind of horror movie guy drowns his sorrow with ice cream?), there's a knock at the door. Anyone who has seen a Wes Craven movie or read a book by Thomas Harris knows better than to answer the door of a secluded, woodsy home at four o'clock in the morning. But Kristen and James are too preoccupied with their love lives to exercise much judgment, and so they get what's coming to them. "Is Tamara there?" asks the young woman at the door, who in the dim light resembles the Heather Graham of Drugstore Cowboy. They send the young woman away. Soon, the unhappy couple is visited by a man in a bag mask (à la The Orphanage) and his two female helpers, and all is lost.
On one level, there's a basic procedural impulse at work here. These people are not prepared to repel invaders. James doesn't know how to operate the shotgun and Kristen mostly just whimpers. She's so rattled she can't even manage to put a bandage on her hand. Like the upscale vacationers in Funny Games with their tennis rackets and golf clubs, they're mentally unequipped to face a threat. Haneke was making an obscure point about presumed American violence — as if Euros were immune to such crudities. But writer-director Bertino, a former actor now in cahoots with Rogue, specialist in such slasher and horror pics as The People Under the Stairs 2, just wants to scare our pants off, and succeeds admirably.
The bag-head man wheezes audibly, and underneath his mask he's wearing a suit and tie. Could he be an acquaintance of Kristen and James in disguise? We'll never know. The murderous trio remains faceless, if not nameless. The camera avoids their faces after they remove their masks, although the filmmakers can't resist characterizing them in the credits with brand names: Dollface, Pin-Up Girl, The Man in the Mask. They're now ready to join Freddy, Jason, and the rest of the monsters in Sequelsville, if to comes to that. It'll be easier next time.
Bertino also has smart fun with the incidental music. Inexplicably for a film set in 2005 (check the corny "statistical" disclaimer graphic in the opening sequence), Kristen and James play tunes on an old-fashioned record player — that effect was no doubt added so the vinyl disc could skip menacingly. Just when the going gets especially rough, the needle-drop changes from soft rock to Merle Haggard's country oldie "Mama Tried." What a bracingly bizarre choice. It's as "wrong" for the Gillian-Welch-fan yuppie couple as the killers' thrash metal was for their classical-music-worshipping victims in Funny Games. If you want to make these characters and their audience nervous, hit them in the face with unfamiliar music. Maybe something by Aerosmith. A further nice touch: the two Mormon kids who ask, "Are you a sinner?"
The Fall is being billed as a magical collaboration of David Fincher (Zodiac, Fight Club) and music vid wizard Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Björk, R.E.M.). Those two creative talents offered encouragement, but the film's writer-director, Tarsem Singh, evidently didn't need much prodding to come up with such a slender narrative hitched to such extravagant visuals.
Tarsem, as he prefers to be called, has made a living crafting commercials and their twin brothers, music videos, often set in his native India. In 2000, he directed a sci-fi head-scratcher called The Cell as a vehicle for Jennifer Lopez, but now he's ready to make an act of contrition: the story of the unlikely friendship between a movie stunt man recuperating from a broken leg in a Los Angeles hospital, circa 1915, and a little girl in the same hospital for her broken arm.
Roy Walker (TV actor Lee Pace) is feeling doubly pained, having been rejected by his girlfriend on the movie set and injured in a fall from a bridge while mounted on a horse during production. Five-year-old Alexandria (Catinca Untaru), on the other hand, is suffering more from social ills. The talkative child of immigrant parents (little Ms. Untaru herself is from Romania), Alexandria broke her arm in another fall — get it? — from an orange tree while on the job picking fruit with her family, shortly after her father was killed. Her mother needs her back in the orchards to help supplement their income, but naturally she prefers life in the warm and bountiful hospital. The two wounded souls bond when Roy, captivated by his young friend, entertains her with a fanciful story of superheroes and evildoers in a mythical landscape. It's a ruse to get young Alexandria to steal some morphine from the dispensary — Roy intends to kill himself — but the impromptu tale soon takes on a life of its own in the mind's eye of the little girl.
From the opening credit sequence, a magnificent black-and-white montage of Roy's stunt accident set to Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, we're dropped into the visual deep end. Roy's yarn sets Alexandria to dreaming about deserts, Dr. Seuss-style palaces, a princess (Justine Waddell), the wicked Gov. Odious (Daniel Caltagirone), and a band of warriors, all of whom have counterparts in Roy's life — it's their shared fantasy. What gorgeous settings. Singh ransacks the world for images: Bali, Uttar Pradesh, Prague, the Maldives, South Africa, and Chile are among the backgrounds. So what if the front story is a little contrived? Between Catinca Untaru's personality and Tarsem's travelogue, The Fall is more than enough to fuel flights of fancy in the romantic and childlike. Meaning you and me.
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