Wednesday, September 10, 2008

2008: A Case Study

Recently if you've been to the pictures to see a horror/thriller, you'll have noticed a trend; everyone dies. I'd like to know when this trend started (I feel like I used to know). Anyway, what with torture porn running the game, apparently the kids are into everyone biting the dust by closing time. I found this sort of novel when the trend was new, now I feel like I can guess the ending before it starts. Two things made me challenge my assumptions this year. One was a gutsy little shocker whose entire budget went to it's stars, the other a claustrophobic tourists-beware film with twists to boot. It gives me a warm feeling to see a genre evolve in a few short months. It's a little like watching a robot learning how to love.

The Strangers
by Bryan Bertino

A couple having troubles get back to their summer house and after about an hour of unspoken resentment and half-finished sentences, someone knocks at the door. A blonde stands outside and she doesn't come close enough to the light of the house to show her. She wants to know if her friend is home. The couple are befuddled and lock the door. The boyfriend goes for a drive and the knocking resumes. Only now it's louder and it won't stop. The girlfriend panics, calls her boyfriend and then waits for him to come home. In the meantime things just get spookier and spookier. Noises and a horrible face appears at the window force her to hide under her bed before finally the boyfriend gets home. Now they need only get their phones and call the police. Except that the phones have been thrown in the fire and the chargers severed with a knife. Which means that someone was in the house. And that someone's just screwing with them. If they could come in at any minute, why don't they? Their move to the car is halted by the arrival of a big-ass diesel truck that lays waste to the small sedan. The boyfriend gets his gun; he figures he just has to wait for his friend to show up to give him the ride he was promised before any of this madness started. And there's always the radio in the garage. Shouldn't be too long, right?

The Strangers is easily the scariest and most ingenious horror film in...5 years? 10 years? The reason is that instead of spending money on effects, complicated traps or other torture-related set pieces, all that director Bryan Bertino puts on screen are three people in some of the cheapest masks I've ever seen and the noises they make. When Liv Tyler stands in her kitchen and the man in the smiley mask steps in, your heart just about stops. When she's alone in the yard trying to get to the garage, Bertino ingeniously turns the film into a game of expectations (Is she alone? Do they know where she is? When do they get her?). The masks are truly brilliant: a sack with a smiley face burned onto it, and two smiling clown faces. Why no one else has caught on to this is beyond me. You don't need elaborate scenario's or a vat of syringes, you need one guy with hulking shoulders and an enormous smile. Kip Weeks, who plays the gentleman in the mask, has perfect posture for the role. Gemma Ward and Laura Margolis, who play his female accomplices are just as frightening. Gemma Ward especially; she is one odd looking women normally, but here, with just brief glimpses of her face and hers being the only voice you hear, she in essence speaks for the trio of psychotic killers and she does a terrific job. Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman do convincing work as terrified nobodies, though I sometimes wonder what gets Liv Tyler into a film like this.

What really makes it hard to watch is the ending. It's slightly ambiguous, but it isn't good news for our concerned parties as the killers take off in urban legendy fashion. The Strangers is terrifying, but, what troubles me is that the ending is something of a copout. Bertino is clearly a smart guy because he's managed to cut all the mangy personality out of what could have been a more boring version of High Tension, but makes two irritating choices. In the first act when Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler show up at their house, they are clearly troubled by something. I was so excited because I thought he might do the audience the favor of not telling them what happens, but, sadly he doesn't. Had he never flashed back to the wedding party they'd just come from and explained where there problems spring from, he would be a genius on the level of George A. Romero or Roman Polanski. He still comes close, but, had he just moved forward this would have been even more terrifying. And it's even more pointless because the ending obviates all character developments anyway. When you have a bleak ending, it feels like the easy way out of what is otherwise a terrifying, simple, and smart film. Were it not for those two little things, I'd have no complaints. Though I do like the sort of last wound they deliver when a frightened Liv Tyler asks why the killers chose them of all people; harrowing stuff. This movie is excellent and leaves it's competition in the dust.

If you found yourself looking for intrigue of a similar nature, but maybe wanted a little joy with your tension, might I suggest something colder...

by Brad Anderson

A russian drug enforcement officer called Ilya Grinko investigates a crime. Seems a man's had his drugs stolen and gotten a knife in the back of his head for his troubles. Grinko doesn't seem all that concerned, tells the other detective present he's going on vacation. We then see an American couple, Roy and Jessie, getting on the Transsiberian express train from their church-organized humanitarian trip in Beijing to a hotel in Moscow to go sight-seeing. Things seem to be going ok for them; they argue a little, have dinner, flirt, don't have sex as they've differing views on raising a family (something Brad Anderson does pretty well at first), then go to bed, both slightly annoyed. When the wife wakes up, they've got two new cabinmates, a couple. Carlos, the man, (pretty hilariously referred to as a Spaniard whenever he's not around to hear it) is a flirtatious, hard-drinking, asshole, while Abby, his American girlfriend seems nervous and shady. Carlos clearly has dirty things in mind for Jessie, as evidenced by his attempts to get her alone, showing her a bunch of wooden matryoshka dolls in private, telling her to keep it a secret. At the next stop, the four get out and split up. Roy and Carlos talk about Jessie's checkered past, as do Abby and Jessie; this doesn't really further the plot so much as it does set up that Carlos is really turned on by Jessie and he's a bit of a creepy bastard.

About five minutes after the train gets moving again, Jessie notices Roy isn't on the train. She, Abby, and Carlos get off at the next stop to wait for Roy to arrive on the next train. It comes out during dinner that Carlos has been keeping his dolls a secret from Abby, as she marches off to bed in a huff at the very mention of them. The next morning Carlos decides to ramp up his seduction as he's clearly not sleeping with Abby. He gives Jessie a story about his shower being broken so he can get naked in her hotel room, and then insists she go out walking with him so she can photograph an old church. After he's brought her to a secluded spot and she's taken his picture, he lays on the charm and they almost have sex right there in the abandoned church. Complications ensue and Jessie winds up coming back to the hotel by herself. When Roy's train gets in, Jessie has a whole new set of problems to worry about. First is that people are bound to ask what happened to the horny spaniard she's been witnessed alone with. Maybe his girlfriend who she left in town by herself for example? Maybe Roy's new cabinmate, who turns out to be none other than Ilya Grinko on his way to that vacation he mentioned. Then there's all those dolls that Carlos slipped into Jessie's suitcase while she was out of the room. Things start coming together (while coming apart just as quickly) for poor Jessie and her husband convinces her to come clean to Grinko. Grinko and his terrifying partner confirm her fears - the dolls are made of heroin. She lies a little more about her trip into town and goes to sleep, the weight on her shoulders all but lifted. Things change in the morning, though, in a big, bad way.Transsiberian, whatever else may be said of it, works as a perfect foil for Bertino's film. We have an ordinary couple being thrust into a harrowing encounter with another small group of people and there lives are soon on the line. The difference is in the handling of the problem. Jessie and Roy are just as bourgeois and helpless as anybody, in fact Woody Harrelson puts in one of the best performances of his career as loving hayseed Roy, but they manage to use what little savvy they have to get out of their predicament. Rather than succumbing to the grimness of their tormentor's punishment fully, they merely glimpse it. Now the way in which Roy and Jessie slide past their troubles is a little much to stomach, but after some of the shit I've seen this year I'm willing to bend the rules this one time. I'm especially willing because it follows Brad Anderson's greatest trick in the movie. Right after the two hand the drugs over to Grinko in an effort to come clean and all seems well Anderson pulls the rug out from under us. I won't reveal what it is because it's the best moment of the film, but look out for it; it's Anderson's shining moment. The creator of such cinematic gut punches as Session 9 and The Machinist probably had more in him than this, but he has a few effective scares here. I personally would have liked to see the train take on a more central role, rather than merely remaining the setting throughout. For a film in which 3/4 of the running time occurs between walls about 5 feet apart, things could have gotten a lot more claustrophobic. I also would have preferred if Anderson didn't explain everything so clearly at the start of the third act. He reveals in no uncertain terms how the drugs were placed in Jessie's bag, something that anyone who was paying even the slightest attention to would have figured out anyway. When will writers start taking the audience's intelligence for granted?

Back to the performances for a moment. Ben Kingsley does an amazing job with the Russian Grinko (his Russian is just as good as his English and as his character is slowly revealed his menace just gets heavier and heavier. He's not an oscar winner for nothing, I suppose). Thomas Kretschmann, who plays his colleague does a pretty remarkable job as well. It's funny, after seeing him play elegant evil, and more cartoonish evil, to see him play a role that ordinarily would have gone to Vincent Cassel. Eduardo Noriega and Kate Mara are competent as the shady couple, but their characters aren't really interesting enough for them to do much with. Harrelson does a very good job as the clueless American, but the real star is Emily Mortimer. Her Jessie is all-too tiresome for most of the film's second act, but when she discovers the heroin dolls in her bag, that's when she comes alive. Watch her eyes as she listens to Grinko discuss drug traffickers and then later when she's questioned about the holes in her story; she's on the verge of collapsing the whole time. The film's tension lies inside her eyes. When she runs to her room during a search of the train with drug-sniffing dogs and finds Roy waiting for her staring at the dolls, she loses it in the best way possible; I've never seen so honest a collapse since Gena Rowlands in Opening Night.

So we have a couple who doesn't deserve it being stalked by three sociopathic killers for no real reason, and we have a couple who find themselves at the mercy of a number of psychopaths, only one of whom comes close to deserving it. Given the endings of each film, which do I like better? Well, The Strangers is ten times as frightening as anything else released in the last five years, and Transsiberian is smarter than your average thriller. It's a difficult decision; a pessimistic ending for a superior film, or optimism in favor of a more rudimentary one. I enjoyed watching both of them; how's that for a cop-out?

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