Sunday, October 18, 2009

Horrorfest 09 Special Report: “The Strangers” and the Cinema of Brutality

After seeing the fascinating and disturbing picture “The Strangers”, I was struck by a new and somewhat disconcerting trend in horror over the past decade. There has been an increasing trend toward the depiction of brutality in cinema in general, but most profoundly seen in the horror genre. The connection seems obvious at first. If you’re watching a movie about a serial killer, there is going to be some level of brutality involved. But there’s a difference between violence and brutality, even graphic violence does not necessarily entail the depiction of brutality.

I enjoyed most of this intense thriller about a couple that comes home from a wedding reception very late at night. After a strange woman knocks on their door at 4 a.m. looking for someone else, a group of three people wearing masks begins to psychologically torture the couple. At first just working on their fears by making noises outside and trying to get in, but eventually much darker intentions are pursued and eventually the couple is physically tortured and then killed.

The majority of the picture is fascinating, skillfully made, and totally frightening. But in the final moments, when the psychological torture had given way to physical, I couldn’t help but wonder why I would want to watch this. Although the director makes it clear from the beginning of the film how it will end, the majority of the running time is filled with suspense over just what is happening to the couple. What terrible things do these strangers have planned for them? How will they remain hidden and protected from these vicious killers? How will they escape? How can they fight back? Will they get help?

But once they’ve been captured, the game is up. The final ten minutes of the movie is just a voyeuristic look at the brutal things terrible people will do just for the hell of it, and suddenly it is no longer a horror movie. Rather it is a snuff film, entering territory that is more like pornography than art. It’s something I get no excitement from. The characters ask their killers, “why are you doing this?’ and I have the same question for the filmmakers.

I’ve seen several films in this same vein during Horrorfest over the past couple of years. Last year it was both the original and Hollywood remake of “Funny Games”, and a couple of years ago it was the controversial movie “Chaos”. While Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” tells a similar story as “The Strangers” of some home intruders that torture and murder a family, it is an expertly told game for these murderers. Certainly not for the faint of heart, but the skilful filmmaking keeps the voyeurism above the level of exploitation. “Chaos”, although it was famously accused of being exploitation by Roger Ebert, is a much more structured story, that unfortunately sails off course in its final moments.

Then there are the “torture porn” movies like the “Saw” franchise and the “Hostel” films. For the most part these movies are structured as ridiculous games for the victims involved and therefore fall more along the lines of silly horror fantasies rather than as true disturbing voyeurism. But all of these films add to a sense that our culture is becoming more desensitized to the truly disturbing.

I would guess it’s the goal of these filmmakers to present this material to be just as disturbing as it actually is and therefore present a purposeful feeling of unpleasantness about murder and torture, but again I feel compelled to ask why would I want to see that. It isn’t that these are necessarily bad movies. As I’ve stated, several of them are skillfully—some even artfully—made, but there is a line where the entertainment factor disappears and what is left is merely depravity. Is that a line that should be crossed?

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