Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Strangers' New Technique

Mama Tried to mess with my DoF and all I got was this stupid movie

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).

Sadly, we come to find out that he proposed to her and she didn't give an answer. Now this was told in a completely UNNECESSARY flashback! As if the audience could not have put together the fact that while she had an engagement ring and was not wearing it combined with the resentful attitude of the man mean that there was a problem! Oh my god, would no one understand this?! They literally slapped us in the face for not being able to put the simple pieces together by resorting to a single flashback. I can just see the producer being like, "Although most people seeing this film will have completed grade school, they just will not get these simple facts. Hmmmm...I know, throw in a flashback!" (-2pt for treating the audience like an idiot).

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).

The door in this situation is representing the unknown, or the hidden fear, and thus when the knocker reveals themself against conventions these hidden fears stand the chance of being wrongfully interpreted - in other words, either this person is crazy, lost, or drunk because with this house being in the middle of nowhere how else could this mistake be made? People are use to doorbells/knowkcing in horror films, but they are not use to the knocker being revealed as a creepy person. Bertino understands this fact and it develops an anxiety in the viewer. They want to answer the question of why this person knocked on the door and BOOM the anxiety seed is planted.

BUT, this is another problem I had with the movie. The establishment of the house in the middle of nowhere was TERRIBLY done. Instead of the stupid flashback they should have dedicated that time to build the selcusive nature of it. The only part of the movie that reveals the location of the house is the opening credit sequence where houses are being passed by and thus KIND OF, but NOT-REALLY-AT-ALL establishes the location. If they did this better, not only would the movie have worked out better, but the fear would have been established MUCH earlier.

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 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).

Many times in horror the frame for pop-outs will be a very shallow, 2-DIMENSIONAL field of focus to work with - see Loomis and the window in Halloween, woman below window in Tales from the Crypt (movie), etc... This scene is an experiment with THREE DIMENSIONAL SPACE, allowing the entire kitchen to be seen. And so it happens! Because of the medium-lens, the partially shallow focus eventually reveals a blurry, horrendous figure in a mask located in the background. Bertino even fools the audience into thinking that the woman might see her as indicated by her glance into the window. The shot then reverses as she turns around, goes back to the previous and the man is gone. (+5 pts. for this revolutionary technique).

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.

This scene I feel is part of the glorified violence neo-horror (gorno) as observed in Saw and Hostel. Although I was not at the theater to see this movie I can just imagine people on their edge of their scenes, their hearts slowing down from the previous scene. Now those hearts are picking up seed again, BUT with a smile developing on their face in anticipation of what is about to happen with the shotgun. In horror films, when the audience knows something the characters do not it creates A LOT OF TENSION. I can just see neighbors telling each other, "Oh my God, the man is going to shoot his best friend!" Not because the neighbor doesn't know, but because people love to figure out movies! Bertino yet again knew this, and combined it with glorified violence. We do not know the friend, we do not care for there has been no development. In othe words, they wanted to see him get shot! With such a great, catchy song playing Bertino invokes an EXCITEMENT in the audience. I guarantee that after the friend got shot the entire theater was uproarious with laughter. This was hands down my favorite part of the film and one of the best scenes viewed in a long time. (+10 pts for this scene)

I will stop here because as far as I'm concerned after this point the movie takes not just a turn for the worse, but an instantaneous free fall into shit. It proceeds into contrived, uninspired, typical horror schema that we have all seen countless times and I do not want to spend anymore time talking about it. (-9pts for this)
I'm not sure what I was trying to accomplish with assigning arbitrary points, and I'll probaby never do it again. In the end I just needed them to equal...
5/10 or...
// slashes

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