Tag Archives: Saturday Screamer

Saturday Screamer: The Strangers

The Strangers (2008)

“Is Tamara home?”

Writer/director Bryan Bertino creates an awful lot of terror beginning with that line.

A couple heads to an isolated summer home after a wedding. It was meant to be the first stop on their life together, or so we gather, but not all worked out as James (Scott Speedman) had planned. As he and what he’d hoped would be his fiancé, Kristen (Liv Tyler), sit awkwardly and dance around the issue, their very late night is interrupted by a knock and that immediately suspicious question.

Bertino beautifully crafts his first act to ratchet up suspense, with lovely wide shots that allow so much to happen quietly in a frame. This is a home invasion film with an almost unbearable slow burn.

Bertino creates an impenetrably terrifying atmosphere of not just helplessness, but sadistic game playing. The film recalls Michael Haneke’s brilliant Funny Games, as well as the French import Them, but Bertino roots the terror for his excruciating cat and mouse thriller firmly in American soil, with scratchy country blues on the turntable, freshly pressed Mormon youths on bicycles, and rusty Ford pick ups hauling folks in kids’ Halloween masks.

His image is grisly and unforgiving – part and parcel with the horror output of the early 2000s – but The Strangers is a cut above other films of its decade.

Yes, this couple makes a lot of bad decisions. Indeed, Kristen appears to be borderline mentally challenged. But in this particular situation, they probably just aren’t thinking clearly.

Unwanted Guests

Under the Shadow

by Hope Madden

A few years back, Aussie filmmaker Jennifer Kent unleashed the brilliant and devastating single parent nightmare, The Babadook. As much subtext as text, the film vibrated with the anxiety of a parent torn between resentment and the powerful fear that something demonic might harm her only child.

Fast forward two years, and first-time feature filmmaker, Iranian Babak Anvari, treads familiar ground yet manages to shift focus entirely and create the profound and unsettling Under the Shadow.

Here the social commentary sits even closer to the surface. The tale is set in Tehran circa 1988, at the height of the Iran/Iraq war and just a few years into the “Cultural Revolution” that enforced fundamentalist ideologies.

Shideh (a fearless Narges Rashidi) has been banned from returning to medical school because of her pre-war political leanings. Her husband, a practicing physician, is serving his yearly medical duty with the troops. This leaves Shideh and their young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) alone in their apartment as missiles rain on Tehran.

What begins as a domestic drama suitable for fellow Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi (A Separation) turns slowly into something else entirely as Anvari dips into the horror trope toolbox to shake up our expectations with familiar devices.

When a dud missile plants itself in the roof of the building (shades of del Toro’s Devil’s Backbone), Dora starts talking to a secret friend. Maybe the friend would be a better mommy.

Frazzled, impatient, judged and constrained from all sides, Shideh’s nerve is hit with this threat. And as external and internal anxieties build, she’s no longer sure what she’s seeing, what she’s thinking, or what the hell to do about it.

The fact that this menacing presence – a djinn, or wind spirit – takes the shape of a flapping, floating burka is no random choice. Shideh’s failure in this moment will determine her daughter’s entire future.

Anvari casts the political climate meticulously, as forces beyond Shideh’s control – some supernatural, some cultural, all dangerous – surround her.

Though the strength of the cultural context sometimes undercuts the spookiness of the ghost story being told, Under the Shadow builds a strong case for itself as a horror film. Bursts of creepy imagery punctuate the increasingly tense atmosphere. It’s here that Anvari’s film is most effective, as you realize Shideh is better off dealing with ghouls than turning to neighbors or authorities for help.