I don’t remember being particularly wussy about horror movies before June 15, 2008, when I saw Bryan Bertino’s “The Strangers,” which ruined a) my life for 86 minutes (give or take end credits recovery time) b) my appetite for all new horror movies. “Paranormal Activity” wouldn’t come out until the next summer, so the “Saw”-dominant horror paradigm hadn’t yet shifted. Bored people on the internet were still screaming at each other about the (de)merits of torture porn, which I’d only sampled in the form of the enjoyably retributive “Wolf Creek.” I went to see that Christmas day 2006, in my usual foul humor induced by the forced jollity of the season, and enjoyed watching a bunch of spring break-y Australian idiots get killed methodically by a surprisingly moralistic outbacker.
“The Strangers” has no sense of morality, retributive or otherwise; when poor Liv Tyler asks the title characters why they chose to come specifically to her house, the unreassuring answer she gets is “because you were home.” The movie made me feel sorry for Liv Tyler, a doe-eyed, perpetually vacuous presence associated with Ben Affleck’s animal crackers and all nine annoying hours of “Lord Of The Rings.” The other star is the wooden Scott Speedman, who isn’t quite an automatic source of annoyance, but not someone I’d normally mind seeing offed.
Beginning with a scare from late in its narrative just to let you know it’s always go time, “The Strangers” then flashes back to provide a few brief moments of token character development. Tyler and Speedman return to their remote house, and there’s some tension in the air. It seems he’s proposed and been rejected or something along those lines; it doesn’t really matter. There’s a momentary movement towards reconciliatory sex. Intercourse, we know, means death and shortly thereafter the jolts begin. First it’s just extremely loud, sudden knocks on the door but soon all manner of sharp objects and masked people come out.
There’s really nothing to the film but a grueling series of scares, beginning from a dark corner or doorway, a window with a curtain in front of it, or some other situation easily recognizable as the setting for the next scare. Dumb horror movies try to scare you by just randomly throwing a screaming ghost face with no warning or some such, and the sheer unexpectedness is good for nothing more than a laugh. I know that because for work I recently watched “The Haunting in Connecticut,” and if there’s anything that may cure me of my “Strangers”-induced-scaredy-cat attitude towards genre film it’ll be that laughably inept film.
Instead of throwing in random jolts predicated on noise alone, Bertino plays absolutely fair, showing a recognizable cue to menace, attenuating it beyond reason, then delivering a horrifically loud blast of sound. Knowing what’s coming doesn’t dispel the tension of the moment, it just makes the dread more intense. I can’t argue with people who think this is fun or bracing, the cinematic equivalent of downing sweat-inducing peppers or cannonballing into a cold body of water, but I was strung out, dispirited and utterly drained by the time it was over. There’s no subtext, except maybe that meaningless death is a certainty latent in every moment (“because you were home”) and that visual darkness contains sonic menace.
It’d be tough to convey what a number this did on me: there isn’t much more to the experience, but I was pretty traumatized afterwards, pretty much perpetually freaked out by sudden bursts of noise. That’s too bad, because I hear the horror movie is better crafted than ever these days: that James Wan has done interesting things with “The Conjuring,” that at least that some of the “Paranormal Activity” films are worth checking out. Horror is even bigger business than usual currently, and the humble shock-cut-scare’s regained a surprising measure of critical respectability. But I won’t find out: as it is, I barely made out it out to “Scream 4,” which is a shame: it was funny, dyspeptic on the subject of Kids These Days And Their Social Media (which I appreciate as someone who reluctantly works on the internet), and I could abstractly appreciate the cleverness and timing of the scares a second after they happened instead of quivering in a jelly-like fashion. But I couldn’t drag myself to John Carpenter’s “The Ward,” despite him being a personal favorite. I heard it was way too loud.