Editorial: Love, Strangers And One Hell Of A Relationship In Horror.
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Love Is Dead
by: Jerry Smith
I'm sitting here at a coffee shop on Valentine's Day, enjoying a coffee and going through various genre films which deal with love or relationships. This whole piece could possibly go in any direction, focusing on metaphorical elements like Zulawski's POSSESSION (which I highly recommend to you readers, if you have yet to watch it, do it) or Leigh Janiak's expertly written and directed film HONEYMOON. It could focus on those types of films but in all honesty, through my writing career to date, I've spent more than a few words on both films so I figured I'd talk about a different film that to me, is not only absolutely terrifying but also very, very heartbreaking. I'm talking about Bryan Bertino's 2008 masterpiece, THE STRANGERS. Spoilers are coming, so if you've not seen the film, do so before continuing.
What THE STRANGERS does and does with absolute precision is give us two very realistic and sympathetic protagonists, it allows us to not only get to know Scott Speedman's James Hoyt and Liv Tyler's Kristen McKay characters but also invites us into their recently fractured love. Having just set up a romantic weekend full of roses and big plans at his family's country home, James is devastated by the fact that just hours before, he did what a lot of us have done with terror in our hearts: proposed to his girlfriend (Kristen). It's such a huge step for anybody and when Kristen declines because it's just not the right time for her, we see the pain and heartache in the eyes and heart of James. It's that combination of great writing from Bertino and one hell of a performance from Speedman that sets up the film so well, that we're watching the unraveling of two young lovers whose relationship will most likely be over by the end of the night.
"There's no love without pain"
It's that emotionally bare first quarter of the film which allows us to really latch onto the film's characters because though most of us have not and will not go through the horror that James and Kristen go through during the rest of the film, we've all put ourselves out there in hopes of having that love returned. Anyone who knows me at all already has it figured out that I've spent quite a few years at the wrong end of love. I've always been a "spill your blood onto the page" type of writer and there's two examples of that. The first is my short film, "Love is Dead," which without doing too much self promotion here, was about two people who were at their absolute breaking point. It was a personal and devastatingly dark film for me and if you ever watch it, you'd get a good indication of how fractured relationships can turn out. The second one which plays into what James attempted (like so many of us) in THE STRANGERS, is a story that really turned my idea of love around and made me hopeful for the first time. Confession: The Grove in Los Angeles is my favorite place in the world. Everything from the outdoor vibe to the countless eateries, the three story book store, the theater and most importantly, the multiple colored water spraying in the fountain just makes the area as beautiful as it gets. I took a beautiful girl there once, showed her the sights, had pizza and eventually made our way to the fountain, where I asked her to sit down. Anyone with half a brain knows what's coming next, but as I asked her to marry me, strangely enough, the scene in THE STRANGERS popped into my head. Hopeful and optimistic about their future, James asks Kristen to be his wife and there's a changing of looks on his face as she declines. There's embarrassment, humiliation and an anger in himself that we can see, it's painful to watch. Thankfully, my situation played out very differently from that of Speedman and Tyler's, with my lady saying yes. It could have very easily went the same route as James and Kristen and that scared the hell out of me but I think that's what makes THE STRANGERS so effective: before a single antagonist shows up on screen, before the trio of masked intruders arrive to stalk and eventually brutalize the couple, we've already experienced true horror, the emotional kind. We're already defeated, so when the three masked killers do arrive and James and Kristen not only end up fighting for their lives but also for each other, it hurts even more.
Over the course of the single night played out in THE STRANGERS, we see the young couple begin on the verge of their relationship's end, when it should have been one the greatest nights of their lives. We see them placed in horrible situations as the trio stalks them, writing in their windows, taunting them with short piano notes and ramming their car with a truck. The two protagonists fight tooth and nail to survive and while doing so, learn just how much they truly love each other...though it's much too late.
If there's ever an example of a relationship drama disguised as something else, it's most definitely found in THE STRANGERS. By the end of the film, as James and Kristen are tied up and in their suit and dress and about to be repeatedly stabbed in Manson-esque fashion, James looks at Kristen's hand and she almost gives him a smile when he sees that she's wearing the engagement ring that she had previously turned down. It's sweet yet completely tragic moment which serves as not only a fitting end to the couple's story, but a full circle from where the couple began. Through one horrific night of fear, blood and murder, through fighting for their lives together, the couple realized how much they truly loved each other and are then killed (debatable as Kristen leaps up as a last minute jump scare), we have one hell of a love story in front of us and one which is, in this writer's opinion, one of the best love stories in genre film to date. Beautifully tragic and shocking and completely plausible, THE STRANGERS is more than your typical home invasion or slasher film, it's a brutally realistic look at the pain of love and how sometimes something is worth the pain that you have to go through to get to where you want.
So today, as I finish my coffee and pick up my laptop and walk into Valentine's Day, I'll be thinking not of THE NOTEBOOK or similar fare...no, I'll be thinking of James and Kristen and THE STRANGERS.