The Strangers has been a film I've looked forward to seeing for the past six months or so, back when i heard an interview with the writer/director Bryan Bertio conducted by the Creative Screenwriting Magazine podcast. From what I remembered he majored in film at the University of Texas - Austin and began working as a grip on films shot in the area. He had been submitting scripts to different contests during this time and eventually won with his strangers script. After flying in and out of LA a few times he was offered the directors position. One reason for this was his visual approach in which he stated that he didn't want the fake colors and highly stylized type of horror film prevalent today (i.e. Saw) and rather pushed for a more naturalistic method.
Now for some reason I have a deep love for these stories of first horror films, my favorite one being John Carpenter's Halloween. The reason for this is that horror is the one genre that requires an immense amount of creativity and ingenuity in eliciting terror within people. Money cannot buy fear or scares, rather it avoids problems by adding speical effects, extreme gore or large production sets. The low budget films Halloween and Psycho may seem gorey in content, but they actually have less blood than current television shows, yet people are convinced these movies possess what my mom describes as "all that blood and guts stuff." Because first time directors usually don't have access to the aforementioned equipment it requires the need to look towards other means to develop fear - Carpenter's amazing visual technique combined with a great plot, Wan's groundbreaking gorno devices, Craven's adoption of Eastern philosophy, Hooper's mastery of technique and ambiance - blogs could be written about any of these, and many other directors.
I want to talk about Mr. Bertino's technique - where he went right and how it lead to wrong.
The film opens up on a couple who have clearly just gone through a significant problem in their relationship. Given the fact that the man had this particular house in the country, it could be assumed that the problem was create by the woman. Did she cheat? Maybe they were just friends befor this point? Did she break up with him? (+1 pt for using visual rather than narrative to explain this).
Regardless, Bertino sucked us into the story of a relationship gone wrong, very similar in style to Cloverfield (where the first 30 minutes got me sucked into the subplot, almost forgetting a horror film was being viewed). It is because of this situation that the initial door pounding causes us to be so startled. While previous directors have adopted a style of either music, editing or composition in the frame to build up suspense, new horror films are now combining genres, drama and horror - sucking us out of what we intended to see and using this to their advantage.
When the girl appears at the door this also goes against our expectations as viewers. When a knock is heard within horror conventions, either no one will be there or it will be a friend or neighbor (Scream, Opera, I Know What You Did Last Summer, etc...) The idea of having a STRANGER asking if a particular person lives in the house located in the middle of nowhere at 4am is perhaps one of the creepiest things I can imagine (NOTE: look to the trivia on imdb).
So the husband leaves, and the wife sparks up the last cigarette; clearly wondering what the hell is going to happen to their relationship (+1pt for this because of its realism - although we know its a scary situation, Bertino knew that the woman's thoughts were preoccupied with other issues, and the knocker was not one of them...as most people would respond given the circumstances).
It is at this point that the creepiest scene in the entire movie tajes place. The woman goes toward the sink, leaving screen-left open. Yet no longer does this open screen leave room for a pop out, for its not only a MEDIUM-SHOT, its a MEDIUM-LENS within a MEDIUM-SHOT. Though I assume the DP created this idea considering his track record of belonging to the ASC, this was a genious experiment. I can just see him telling Bertino "Do not play with the COMPOSITION play with the DEPTH OF FIELD to establish terror, people have become desensitized to the composition pop outs, its been played out" (look at my previous Halloween entry part 2 for an example of this).
Suddenly the door starts pounding again for a marvelous sequence of heart-pounding action. She eventually reaches the bedroom and her husbands returns home just as the action stops. He's of course skeptical (as if her being frightened to death, bleeding and belligerent was all just a figment of her imagination...-1pt for this typical reaction). The scene then proceeds into what I thought was an amzing seuence involving the song Mama Tried by The Strangers playing while the best friend arrives at the house. It was a grat way to add a much more twisted element to the film, to the point that it provides almost a relief from the previous moment's horror.