Something Old, Something New: Halloween, The Strangers
Something Old: Halloween (1978)
Something New: The Strangers (2008)
The Connection: Both feature the creepiest of horror creepshows, the lurky masked killer (or killers, plural, in the case of The Strangers)
Long before I had ever seen Halloween, Michael Myers scared the crap out of me. The iconic pictures of his blank white face, unmistakably human and at the same time utterly monstrous, the brief clips from the movie of him unhurriedly lumbering towards his hysterical victims; for me, Michael Myers was an exact representation of that thing that you suspect is lurking in your closet or following you down the street at night when you feel like you’re being watched. Michael Myers was, as young Tommy Doyle observes so astutely in the film, the quintessential Boogeyman.
But a terrifying killer does not necessary insure a good horror movie. And while I respect Halloween’s place in film history, and acknowledge that when John Carpenter made it in the late 70s, he was dabbling in uncharted territory, it just doesn’t quite gel for me. The movie opens with a six-year-old Michael Myers stabbing his older sister to death with a large kitchen knife while she babysits him on Halloween night. His parents arrive home shortly thereafter to find him standing on the lawn in a trance-like state holding the murder weapon.
Flash forward fifteen years to October 30th, 1978, and he’s being transferred from one institution to another under the supervision of psychiatrist Dr. Sam Loomis when he escapes, steals a car, and drives off in to the night towards his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois. Hiding out in his now abandoned family home, he spots high school student Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) on her way to school and spends the day stalking her and her friends, hovering around behind bushes and the like in coveralls and his sinister white mask. That night, while Laurie babysits the aforementioned Tommy Doyle and another neighborhood girl, Myers picks off her drinking, drug-using, promiscuous friends one by one until the final showdown between Laurie and Myers.
As I mentioned before, the slasher film motif of Halloween that is so standard-issue now was, at the time, revolutionary. Not since the days of Hitchcock’s Psycho had the genre been so reinvented, not had it been so well received; while Halloween was made for a measly $325,000, it grossed around $55 million upon theater release. But, despite its historical significance, it’s not very good. Aside from Curtis (who deserves props, for sure) the acting is ungodly terrible, the plot is chock-full of the usual horror stupidities (Why does Laurie send the kids out of the house alone while she stays in it with Myers?), the murders are downright boring, and the film kind of slogs along. While the soundtrack does an amazing job of creating a truly creepy ambiance, the action of the movie fails to live up to it, and I was left feeling ultimately impatient for the film to end.
The Strangers, on the other hand, is an exceptional film that starts off uncomfortable and escalates to full-on nail-biting intensity that barrels on right up to the movie’s last frame. It begins with a Texas Chainsaw Massacre-esque voice over discussing the high volume of violent crimes committed in the United States every year, and then transitions to a shot of two young boys entering a ransacked house.
While the camera pans around the scene, we hear one of the boys make a panicked phone call to 911 asking for help. Flashback to the night before when James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) proposes to Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) at a friend’s engagement party; though the specifics of the situation are not explained, Kristen declines and the two head back to James’ family’s secluded summer home where they’re staying for the evening. Forced to stay in the house together, the couple is in the process of trying to discuss the awkward situation when suddenly there is a knock at the front door – disconcerting, considering it’s after four in the morning.
They open the door to find an odd teenage girl asking for “Tamaryn”; she wanders away when they tell her it’s just the two of them there. Shortly after, James leaves to go for a drive/pick up cigarettes for Kristen, leaving Kristen alone. After a series of creepy events, James returns home to a hysterical Kristen, and then sh*t really gets buckwild. Three terrifyingly masked individuals make appearances both in and outside the house, progressively cutting off all means of communication with the outside world while playing mind games with the protagonists’ heads. Ultimately, the movie comes full circle and ends on an entirely satisfying and scream-worthy note.
Though one can tell that The Strangers is made by a first-timer (Bryan Bertino), the movie is surprisingly good. Tyler and Speedman, both good-looking in that believable, non-Hollywood mutant way, are well cast and do a damn fine job; Tyler is particularly adept at portraying believable, gut-heavy fear with understated actions. The storyline and script (also Bertino’s handiwork) are convincing as well without a whiff of the usual contrivedness that comes with horror flicks, and the eerie folk-heavy soundtrack is downright unsettling. But beyond all that cinephile crap, The Strangers is frickin’ scary.
While I was watching it in the theater, my fellow audience members were constantly jumping out of their seats, screaming, moaning at the impending horror that we know is coming but the protagonists are not yet aware of. This movie does the difficult job of being subtle and restrained yet still frightening in a way that sticks with you long after you’ve left the theater.
Halloween: Worth watching once to pay homage to its place in cinema history but is a little outdated for today’s savvy audience members.
The Strangers: An excellently disturbing first release from a promising young director.