Critical Confabulations

a theatre, film & pop culture review

Masked Murderers

Masks are creepy.  Whether it protects a noggin from the effects of a fierce slapshot, hides those pesky facial deformities, or shields a

surgeon from a myriad of deadly diseases, donned under just the right circumstances, a mask is unnerving at best, terrifying at worst.  Actually,

it’s creepy any time, and The Strangers takes full and frisky advantage of this haunting horror flick staple.

James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler) are meant to have a romantic weekend away, but after a bit of a tiff that takes up too much – unnecessary – expository time, they find themselves unhappily stuck together in the family summer home that is conveniently located in the middle of nowhere, aka in a dark, scary wood.

And then, a knock at the door.

What ensues is an unexplained and brutally bloody harassment of the couple by three eerily masked individuals – “inspired by true events,” no less – as the estranged couple pluckily attempts to survive the night.  Bryan Bertino’s script (and direction) gamely accounts for any possible viewer skepticism of how the couple mismanaged to contact help and get away (land line?  cut.  cell phone?  burned, baby, burned in the cozy cabin fire), but the film fails to fully immerse the audience in the horrors portrayed onscreen.  The couple’s inessential backstory gives us little to grasp onto, and we never have an inkling as to why these carnival killers are, well, killing.  Is a complex and clever plot necessary for the average, jump-out-of-your-skin horror flick?  Absolutely not, and there are more than a handful of cowering, face-behind-hands (albeit, fairly predictable) frights accompanied by spooky, old-school recordplayer music that make The Strangers solid, good Friday night fun.  The question remains, however, that if that suited, strangely wheezing figure wasn’t capped with a ghastly burlap sack of a face, would his freakish image, or the movie he infiltrated, haunt and startle us so?

Then again…does it matter?

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6 comments on “Masked Murderers

  1. Aaron
    June 2, 2008

    Yes, it matters. We need those masks, otherwise it isn’t nearly as scary. Imagine, even the ugliest of persons in the exact same positions as those masked figures in The Strangers and you’ll see precisely what I mean. The mask is scarier. It’s otherworldly.

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  2. lilyseye
    June 2, 2008

    My mistake. What I meant was: does it matter that the masks themselves are exactly (and really *only*) what makes the movie so frightening? I mean, as long as the end result is creepy, does it matter if the film is a kind of one-trick pony?

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  3. Trent
    June 2, 2008

    Although I haven’t seen the movie, you mentioned a notable absence in back story for our monsters. Isn’t that in and of itself a “mask”? We don’t see their faces and we don’t see their lives. I like the idea of the horror of the complete unknown… the audience is left to project their version of a personal monster. It could be your dentist under that mask! The taxi driver! Your mother in law! Now that’s scary…

    Jaws is a “one trick pony” in a sense. It is how that iconic image is used, and what it does that horrifies us. So, to answer your question, it doesn’t seem matter if that’s all The Strangers is, if done right.

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  4. Evrim
    June 2, 2008

    The masks are absolutely not necessary; they are merely an addition to make the whole experience more terrifiying.
    Compare ‘The Strangers’ with say, the recent US remake of ‘Funny Games’ : the psychopaths there wore no masks other than the ‘unseen’ masks that they used in their sick and degrading games. The fact that they looked like you, me, that cute guy next door made the experience more palpatable, more terrifiying. I defy anyone to not be haunted, not be startled by their brutal ordinariness.
    This applies to more than just them though; the screen is full of violent perpetrators whose facade of normality never changes: not even when we finally see them cross over to the darker recess of the psychse and commit atrocious acts: ‘Henry : Portrait Of A Serial Killer’, ‘Man Bite Dog’ , ‘The Last Horror Movie’ and even ‘The Lost’.
    But I think the point in ‘The Strangers’ is the childishness of the whole ordeal: as you remark, the film does not look upon itself to provide a deep , meaningful reason for the slaughter and terrorising of this couple: instead you have a sense of play: as if these culprits are playing with them: are playing a game of some sort. And the masks enchance this: they are grotesque but at the same time, childlike : simplifying the reasons as well as the images.

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  5. Smichards
    June 2, 2008

    “Why are you doing this to us?” “Because you were home….” Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz………………

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  6. lilyseye
    June 2, 2008

    I agree with you all (even Smichard’s zzzzzzzzs in a sense. They were home? Well, Tamara clearly wasn’t, so go away). The film succeeds, but in a general, simplistic way. It’s an easy formula that works: masks plus killers plus deep dark wood equals creepy and, if done really well, terrifying (it was not done as well as it could have been in The Strangers). But it seems too easy to me, and that’s why it’s not a film that I ever need to see again, as it does not provide *any* other reason to come back to it. Jaws, of course, clearly does this — it’s full of *characters* and an enormous amount of tension/suspense that The Strangers generally lacks.

    And yes, the sense of meaningful play was more apparent and noteworthy in Funny Games. Because of this, The Strangers comes off as a somewhat cheesy horror knockoff of that political film.

    I had a good time. It’s just not up there with my favorite scary flicks, those of which are fuller (in every sense of the term) – The Exorcist, What Lies Beneath, etc. I want a bit more behind those masks.

    But that’s what *I* want.

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This entry was posted on June 2, 2008 by in Film Reviews, Reviews.

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