Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Double-Feature: Them (Ils) (David Moreau & Xavier Palud, 2006) and The Strangers (Bryan Bertino, 2008)

As with all of these horror film entries, this contains spoilers.

I've been in a bit of a jam when it comes to picking the latest horror film to blather on about. I've been trying to find a balance between "Top Shelf" horror films and "Personal Faves," often seeking that middle ground where they both meet. However, I'm also trying to deal with movies that aren't talked about too much. There's a reason why I've avoided writing about such fare as Alien, The Shining, Carrie and The Exorcist, since they've really been talked about to death; do you really need me to explain to you how Alien is a "haunted house in space," as if you've never heard that phrase before?

Also, movies that are "so bad they're good" have to go. Granted, I love Plan 9 From Outer Space, Manos: The Hands of Fate and Count Yorga, Vampire, but I'm not going to try to convince any of you that they're scary. Or, well, good. Which isn't to say that cult movies are out of the running; just ones that have been (or would have been) mocked by the cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000 may not be eligible.

And with The Onion Av Club's "New Cult Canon" column, God bless/damn/bless them, they've made some of my choices obsolete. Yes, I was planning on doing entries for both The Blair Witch Project and Near Dark, but those brilliant and lovable fuckers beat me to the punch (they even got to praising that awesome synth score by Tangerine Dream!). Fortunately, it appears as though I beat them to the punch with Audition (take that, you lovable bastards!).

Yes, these are the thoughts that plague me when I'm trying to pick my next film to talk about. I never said I didn't need psychiatric help.

So, it was with all of these neurotically self-imposed criteria to keep in mind that made me decide to just quit my bitching and offer you a double-feature to make up for my irrational foot-dragging: David Moreau's and Xavier Palud's 2006 film, Them and Bryan Bertino's 2008 film, The Strangers.

Although Bertino's film has received some flack for being an unacknowledged remake of Moreau's and Palud's (and it very well could be; both movies have the same plot and use the same methods to scare its audiences), The Strangers is effective enough to be given its due, though perhaps doesn't quite stand alone for me to just write about it alone, hence this double-bill offering. Also, both are equally effective, although I'll admit that Them has a much more satisfying and coherent ending than The Strangers. (it feels as though Bertino didn't really know how to end his film once it was time to wrap things up).

Both Them and The Strangers deal with the horrors of home invasion and being watched and tormented in the supposed comfort of one's own house, and (for the most part) use tension and suspense rather than gore for effect. Both also claim to have been inspired by true events, though considering this is an age-old trope in the horror genre (and considering would-be witnesses of such events are killed in both films), this should be taken with more than a grain of salt.

Them sets the mood perfectly with its tangential (but straight-to-the-point) opening: a mother and daughter driving along a deserted country road in Romania at night. As they bicker, a figure appears in the road. The mother swerves to avoid him/her/it and crashes into a wooden post. She gets out to check the engine while her daughter waits in the car. The daughter eventually gets out of the car and sees that her mother is gone. She calls for her mother and her call is repeated from the surrounding woods by a whispery voice. Scared, she gets back into the car. Suddenly, noises come from the woods around her and mud is thrown against the windows. The young girl tries desperately to contact the police using a cell phone but she is strangled to death from behind. In a way, it's opening serves as the argument for the film: a condensed version of what we're about to experience.

Later in the movie, Clementine (Olivia Bonamy), a schoolteacher, drives home from work (passing the mother and daughter's crashed car) to her boyfriend, Lucas (Michaƫl Cohen), a writer. After the two settle in for the night and go to bed, Clementine is awakened by music and loud crashing noises inside and outside the house. From this moment, the filmmakers give the audience a sickening feeling of dread and discomfort that never lets up until the poor couple's demise. I can never shake that idea that there's someone or something malevolent just beyond the camera's frame. Before long, they realize that there are people in - and immediately around - the house. And they don't intend to play nice.

The scene that causes the most tension is the one where Clementine climbs into the attic to find an escape route. As Clementine searches the attic one of the hooded intruders grabs her from behind, she fights him off and pushes him off the balcony. Several other hooded people then surround the intruder's body.

Clementine and Lucas escape the house and hide in the woods as the invaders run past. They're forced to split up (due to Lucas's injury), so Clementine heads for help and spots an isolated car and runs to it. She tries and fails to start the car as the attackers close in.

Lucas limps toward the direction of Clementine's screams and finds the car, but no Clementine. He kills one of the attackers and discovers it's a young boy. He follows Clementine's screams and finds an open manhole. In the sewers, he finds Clementine being tortured by a teenage boy while another sits nearby telling the torturer to stop as he's hurting her. Sneaking up behind him, Lucas kills him. With the help of the younger boy, the two escape through the sewer system. However as the attackers catch up on them, the boy turns on them, causing Lucas to fall as they try to escape up a ladder. Clementine watches in horror as Lucas is dragged away. As Clementine is about to kill the boy with a large rock, he turns to Clementine and asks, "Why won't you play with us?" Clementine throws the rock at the young boy and begins her escape through the remaining tunnels to the surface. Clementine eventually finds a sewer entrance leading out onto a highway, but a locked gate blocks the tunnel, and she is dragged away and killed.

The film ends with a group of hooded kids hopping on a school bus. Just before the credits roll, title cards reveal that the bodies of Clementine and Lucas were found five days later, that the intruders were children between the ages of 10 and 15, and that upon interrogation, the youngest of the group explains, "they wouldn't play with us!"

With The Strangers, well, we're given the same story, with only some cosmetic differences: there's a subplot involving the man (James, played by Scott Speedman) planning on proposing to Kristen (Liv Tyler) and instead of psychopathic children, the invaders are a novice Manson family-style trio of murderers. But essentially, it's about a couple in a house isolated from other neighbors that get stalked and terrorized by unknown intruders. They hear loud knocks on the door, rustling within the house, and are eventually attacked by masked assailants.

Watching The Strangers (which I saw a few months before Them), I realized that this is a film that would have probably traumatized me had I seen it when I was 10 or 11, as it taps into a very acute and personal fear I had around that age. Living in a big colonial house and spending much time alone in a house that constantly creaked (there was a three-hour gap between the time I would get home from school and my parents would get home from work), the feeling that I wasn't really alone was something I couldn't quite shake during adolescence (I also wasn't - and am still not - quite convinced that my parent's colonial home in New Hampshire isn't haunted).

The terror of The Strangers is exemplified in this scene where Kristen is in her kitchen, a bit on edge, but nonetheless unaware that she's being watched (which regrettably doesn't look nearly as impressive on a computer monitor as it does on the big screen):

Again: considering this was a fear I had when I was a preteen hanging out alone in my house, had I seen this movie at that age, I'm pretty sure I would be traumatized.

Scott Tobias put it perfectly in his review for The Strangers in The Onion AV Club:

"The Strangers could be labeled 'torture porn,' because there's really nothing to it beyond watching ants squirm under the magnifying glass. The difference is that it's mostly psychological torture porn, and the biggest dive-under-your-chair moments come from how skillfully Bertino handles his sadistic cat-and-mouse game. Bertino makes particularly brilliant use of the widescreen frame, slipping the tormenters in and out of view, preying mercilessly on his heroes' vulnerability-and ours. It isn't particularly original-for one, it owes an unacknowledged debt to the French film Them-but as an exercise in controlled mayhem, horror movies don't get much scarier."

Both films do make the audience take huge leaps of faith in the intruders' abilities: the intruders seem to be able to appear and disappear at will, perfectly able to predict their victims' every moves. (How did those kids know about the attic?) At first, this adds to the horror and tension: are these people, or supernatural beings? Which is not to say it's a letdown when you realize in both films they're ordinary mortals (though the intruders being children in Them is more chilling than the budding serial killers in The Strangers)

So which one do I recommend more? It's hard to say. Personally, I think Them has a tighter and stronger ending, but I found The Strangers, mainly do to its effective use of sound, to be a more intense experience until its conclusion (if only by a hair). Maybe it all amounts to a coin toss or reference of English language films versus subtitles (if you don't speak French). Them and The Strangers are prime examples of effectively using minimalism to frighten their audiences. And both are pretty gosh darn effective at scaring Yours Truly. I'm just glad these films didn't come out when I was an adolescent, since I wouldn't be able to resist seeing them and would end up being a mass of nerves and tics.

Double-bolting the door,

James "Shut-In" Comtois

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I actually thought both films were only so-so, even though the premise scares the bejesus out of me.

I appreciated the amazing long shots in The Strangers, which were VERY Michael Myers.

1:49 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Oh wow. Yeah, both films work for me. I distinctly remember having a sinking/sickly feeling through most of The Strangers (which I saw first, and in the theatre, which may have helped).

Also, both movies cater to a weird personal fear/trauma I have. The idea that I wasn't alone in my house was something that took me years to shake: I was always convinced that some intruder was just out of my line of sight.

1:52 PM  
Blogger DPS said...

Just watched "Near Dark" the other night on a whim. So glad I made that purchase.


10:03 AM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

I'm not sure it's still on, but someone posted Near Dark in its entirety on YouTube (well, in ten-minute chunks, obviously). So freakin' good.

10:05 AM  
Anonymous Ian Mackenzie said...

Ya know. I really liked The Strangers until [SPOILER] they got tied to the chair and the thugs took their masks off. I turned the TV off right there without seeing the ending. I rarely turn off a movie so close to the end . . . but I don't know . . . where's the hope?

12:14 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

That's the turning point for me, too. It's not so much as there's not any hope so much as it feels like the director doesn't know where to go after building the suspense and tension, since the whole point of the movie is to create said tension. Yeah, it doesn't quite seem like Bertino knew how to end it.

3:21 PM  
Anonymous Ian Mackenzie said...

So how did The Strangers end anyway? [MORE SPOILERS] I'm guessing the thugs knifed the tied-to-their-chairs couple to death and then Bertino rolled credits? Was that about it?

Feel free to spoil it for me. It already spoiled itself.


5:03 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

That's exactly it. They stab the couple to death, then hop in a truck and one of them says something to the effect of, "The next time will be easier."

5:05 PM  
Anonymous Ian Mackenzie said...

Good times my friend. Good times.

5:21 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

In a, "bring the whole family" sorta way, yes.

12:16 PM  

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