Friday, August 31, 2012

Because You Were Home

The Strangers(2008)
Director: Bryan Bertino
Cast: Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman, Gemma Ward

I'm frequently disappointed with the horror films of this century. I could be less reasonable and suggest that I am often disappointed with most films in this century, but this review is not the time nor the place for that. Every time someone suggests what they believe is a "great horror movie" from this era, I learn quickly how less disconcerting the average viewer is. Nearly every proposed "great" genre flick from the last decade came off as contrived, shallow and insipid. Films like The Mist(2007), Wolf Creek(2005), The Descent(2005) and Funny Games(2007), which the following film seemed to inspire heavily, were built up by the great unknowing, as imaginative and incredibly frightening films. The truth is, that while there may have been effective, isolated moments in some of these films(The Descent coming off strongest), these are still very mediocre films with limp characterization and poor direction, not to mention, an unhealthy, childish penchant for extreme violence that indicate the mentality going into these films.
Yet all of these, with the possible exception of the excruciating, Wolf Creek, cannot compare to the sheer ineptitude that is The Strangers. Few genre films have felt like such an utter waste of time as this one and fewer films still offer such little plot and characterization, causing viewers to wish the film would extinguish it's meager, banal existence. I pity the fools who actually paid to see this joyless, suspense-free cinematic travesty. I truly do. Even catching this on pay-TV was torture enough!

What makes The Strangers so awful? For one thing, it borrows heavily on cliches that were tiresome in the 80s and loathsome now. I'm preached before about how the slasher film played the biggest role in the dumbing down of the horror film back in the 1980s, so no need for reiteration. This film picks up all those tired tropes and plays them in full here, except the film is masquerading as a suspense picture and for such films to work, you need at least a semblance of character.
In slasher films, characters have always been secondary. The gore is prevalent throughout because that's what the kids have paid to see, along with the requisite sex and nudity. This new breed is no different, but has the pretension of being more "serious" and "sophisticated," even going so far as to suggest that this is actually "based on true events," proving that the spirit of P.T. Barnum(or was it Tobe Hooper?) is not dead and that this could(drum roll please)...HAPPEN TO YOU! Except there's a big difference, reader: You are not as stupid as the writers think you are and would never do what they make these sorry actors perform here.

The characters that Speedman and Tyler play are not remotely real, but merely the children of one very cynical writer's limited and cynical imagination. They portray a couple who go to a cabin for a romantic weekend and they have issues, including Tyler turning down Speedman's offer of proposal, but that's as far as characterization go. After that, the siege begins with the typical, annoying soft-voiced female stalker speaking cryptically to them at night, asking for someone who is not at their residence. Normal people would consider calling the police on such a weirdo or telling her to go to Hell, considering they are in the middle of nowhere, but not these geniuses.
From there on, cinema's most boring cat and mouse game begins, as Tyler believes that someone is in the house, as the phone lines are cut and her cellphone is tossed in the fire! Her boyfriend doesn't believe her, because this is a movie and that's what he's supposed to do. Shortly thereafter, two more people arrive wearing masks(including one borrowed from The Town That Dreaded Sundown(1976), s superior thriller) and the couple do the best they can at being stupid, including Speedman leaving Tyler alone, taking the only gun, and going outside to get a radio, as the stalkers have wrecked their car. This follows what was probably intended as the "big shock scene," which I will gladly reveal here!
You see, the best friend of Speedman arrives and finds the cabin wrecked, and the stereo blasting. Does he call the police or even call out his friend's names? No! Of course not! He walks slowly down a hallway through the deserted cabin, as one of the maniacs stalk behind him. Meanwhile, Speedman and Tyler are held in a room and have a shotgun ready for anyone who enters...of course, there's no way that Speedman would shoot his best friend, right? RIGHT???
He shoots him in the head as predicted and again, the audience's intelligence is brought to a primordial level as we are supposed to be "shocked" and "surprised" at a setup made so obvious, that Alfred Hitchcock must have been rolling in his grave. Just too bad he didn't return to direct this movie.

It's doubtful even a master suspense maker like Hitchcock could save a travesty like this, though. The horrid little film than drops Speedman from most of the film to focus on the blubbering antics of Tyler who goes through the 80s heroine in distress motions, by falling(repeatedly), losing her weapon, screaming and crying and because everything today has to be ultra-dark and hopeless, it ends in the traditional manner, which these moron filmmakers, don't seem to realize is cliche by now! Yes, like almost every horror film made today, everybody is killed by the faceless, boring killers, but a coda is added where two boys on bikes are delivering pamphlets for some church(Jehovah's Witness?) and one of the two girl killers takes a pamphlet and confesses that she sins sometimes. As the killers drive away, they claim that they "will get it right, next time," a cheap way in a cheap movie to suggest that the KILLERS ARE STILL LOOSE, even though no one really cares.
The NON-ending to this NON-movie has the kids discover the house and they find the bodies. Tyler is not quite dead and wakes up screaming for a quick scare that is both expected and stupid. If you end up yelling at the screen, it's okay, because you were not alone. The realization of having just seen this movie is a torture that no good person should suffer through and sometimes it's good to vent. Just be careful if you rented this and refrain from smashing will have to pay for this then. I'll bet that tempts some out there, willing to rid the world of this vile crapola, but save your money. Good movies exist out there. Read some other blog entries for a few better examples.

The Strangers is one of the most insulting films that I have ever had the displeasure of viewing. It has no entertainment value at all and virtually no plot to speak of. It relies on the same tropes that any tried and true horror fan has been through before, except never as poorly presented. This film has complete contempt for it's audience, never bothering to build believable characters that an audience can empathize and relate to, but instead builds sheep for the slaughter, as is today's idiotic, common practice. What many of these directors forget is that the scariest horror is that which is human and relative and this is certainly not. No one in real life is this vapid and one dimensional as the two morons depicted here.
If time and care had been taken to develop these people as anything human, the film could have been a powerful essay in human fragility. As it stands, it is a potent reminder of how inept modern film-making has become. Case in point: Notice the camera. In an attempt to capitalize on the "shaky cam" movement of the last decade, this film's camera is constantly shaking, as if the camera has had a few too many. The result is annoying and distracting and immediately takes the viewer out of the film, revealing the film's artificiality. There's no sense for any cinematography here, even though the work of a Steadicam has proven in the past, to be vastly more successful in the fright film(just ask John Carpenter.)
This is a picture trying to "keep up with the Jones", so to speak and as a result, it feels immature and amateurish, full of half-formed ideas with little regard for proper execution. The basic ingredients could have been effective, like when one of the killers are standing ominously in the frame without the protagonist aware of it's presence. This plays on a primal fear, but instead of using this and milking this by having the killer merely stalk and silently watch them building suspense, the picture opts for cheap scares and loud noises, which makes the film appear juvenile and one-dimensional. Most people that try to find something good to say about this film(including the film's promoters, if you see the release poster) mention this scene. However, it never works because nothing else in the film supports it and instead of subtlety, we get a series of inane and boring sequences that wear thin fast.

There's little point in examining the acting, because it's non-existent. These are not proper characters and do not deserve such analyzing, especially as I feel enough has been written about this film at this point. The Strangers is yet another in a long line of overrated and unmemorable, and worse, very simpleminded horror films that have proven popular today for reasons unknown, other than a possible IQ drop in the national film audience. It's not clever, it's not scary and there's just no earthly reason why anyone would choose such a film for entertainment, especially when there so many better horror films available, and for that matter, far more uplifting, intelligent films that remind us that the human race is not entirely a failure. This film is the type that may make you misanthropic and reconsider, so for that reason, I urge you all who have suffered under this film, to seek entertainment elsewhere. Not everything is as bad as this. Life may suck, sometimes, and be mighty unfair at other intervals, but I truly believe that life could hardly get worse than an evening with The Strangers, one of the worst horror films ever made.

*You too, may need a good bath/shower after viewing this crime against humanity.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

"Put A Uniform On This! Try To Make It Look Human!"

Tell It To The Marines(1927)
Director: George W. Hill
Cast: Lon Chaney, William Haines, Eleanor Boardman

Lon Chaney is largely recognized as one of the cinema's great actors. He is most remembered for his grotesque portrayals of villainy characters, which he gave life to, courtesy of his makeup box, which gave him the moniker, "Man of a Thousand Faces." Films like The Phantom of the Opera(1925), The Hunchback of Notre Dame(1923) and The Unholy Three(1925) are among his most memorable roles and all feature him buried under makeup. However, while Chaney's prowess as a makeup artist is unparalleled, and still enthralling, one of his thousand faces is almost always forgotten and that is his own.
Tell it to the Marines(1927) was a different sort of picture for Chaney. It did not deal with either the macabre or the gruesome and did not require heavy makeup. Instead, it offered Chaney a "normal" role as a Marine Drill Instructor and a plot that was to serve as the prototype for countless films through the decades. This was the plot that later inspired films such as Sands of Iwo Jima(1949) and To The Shores of Triploi(1942), which dealt with a tough sergeant who has to shape raw recruits into fighting soldiers. Everyone from Randolph Scott, John Wayne, Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood have played this role, but it was Lon Chaney that may have been the very best of the lot.

Tell it to the Marines concerns an overgrown brat named "Skeet" Barnes(William Haines) who chooses to sign up for the marines, so he can goof off and escape responsibility at home. Of course, he has a rude awakening when he encounters Sgt. O' Hara(Lon Chaney) who is determined to turn this snot-nosed kid into a fighting marine. He puts him through Hell, including having to use the "General's Car," which is really a wheelbarrow that carries heavy rocks and gets knocked about pretty good. However, Skeet also has a small romance brewing with Nurse Norma Dale(Eleanor Boardman) who also has the affections of O' Hara. This causes a further rift between the two and it takes Skeet a long time to get around to the sergeant.
As it turns out, O' Hara is a decent man, and a very lonely one, who is devoted to the service, but seemingly empty. Despite, his rough nature, he really believes in the kid and even helps him out of a very vicious scrap, when Skeet gets involved with a native girl at a base the marines are stationed at.
Skeet hates him and believes he has caused problems with Norma and him, but it's not true. It's not until they are deployed to China and asked to take on a group of bandits(led by future Charlie Chan, Warner Oland) that Skeet and O'Hara realize each other's worth and they fight side by side, heroically.
In the end, Skeet ends his tenure with the marines and goes off with Norma and O'Hara, his marines. There's a look of sadness on his face, maybe a tear, which in a nice final touch, the tough O'Hara glances up at the sky, thinking it's a raindrop.

For my money, this is one of the truly great films made about the United States Marines Corps. While at times it resembles something of an elaborate recruiting film, it works largely, due to solid direction and a gifted cast. The fight scene between the natives and Haines and Chaney is very gritty and exciting for the time, with close-up shots and frantic editing that seem very current. The ending action scene is not quite as impressive however, mainly due to a lack of proper build. If the film has any problems, it's with its climax, which never quite works. It probably would have been wiser had the film gone sooner to China and depicted the bandits and what was going on, rather than throwing in a last reel action scene. That build-up and the subsequent characterization, could have made this a Gunga Din(1939) type epic, rather than what is is. Not that this is a poor film, but there's room for improvement.
Haines is just right as the cocky, self-sure young soldier and you can't help but like him. He's a bit of a jerk, but the swagger and personality make him a likable sort and sets the ending up nicely. We know he will eventually come around to the right way of thinking and be responsible, but it's fun getting there.
Eleanor Boardman is hardly remembered today, which is a pity, considering the amount of classics she was in. The following year she appeared in what I consider to be one of the great movies, The Crowd. Here she is a well-rounded and sweet heroine, far better than many of her contemporaries and it's easy to see how Haines and Chaney fall for her.

Lon Chaney is perfection in this film, really acting as the hero of the story. His character is not the typical movie tough guy. He can get stuff done and fight better than anybody, but he's also a sensitive man and the scenes with him alone in his tent, having a solitary dinner are very well done. His moments with Boardman are also well handled and it's nice to see the real Lon Chaney for once, rather than another of his(admittedly wonderful) thousand faces. This is one of his best, and it proves that he was capable of doing more than be a menace. He is equally adept at comedy as he is action and it's a shame that these were not explored further into the sound era, which the great man barely was able to see, as he passed on in August of 1930.
I still think this was ideal for a sound remake and am confident that Chaney would have been great had they choose to redo it, which I wish had happened. Then again, I also with he lived to make The Phantom Returns, but that's what dreams are made of.

Tell it to the Marines is doubtfully ever going to be recognized as much as the actor's great chillers, but it should be. It's an enjoyable and fast-paced film with good characters and decent action, as well as containing one of Hollywood's greatest stars in one of his all-time best performances. I have heard that Chaney likened this as his favorite film and watching it again, I can well understand the sentiment. Chaney was the first civilian to be made an honorary Marine and when he passed away in 1930, he was even given a proper Marine funeral, such was his impact with this film.