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Mouth to Mouth (2005)
Hippie style after school special
My two favorite topics of all time are cults and homeless teen runaways. I've written several stories combining the two. Other than Jimmy and Judy (2006), which sells its characters more as fugitives than homeless, I have never seen these two subjects merged on screen before. Mouth to Mouth should be my favorite movie.
The problem is that throughout the film I couldn't shake the feeling that writer/director Alison Murray was my hippie guidance counselor who had written this film after listening to a Henry Rollins spoken word album.
Murray does a good enough job of depicting the allure of cults for troubled youths. Mind you, this is not the kind of cult that I would like to join and their objectives are rather contrived and obvious, but the parties look fun all the same. And the film does look great. There are dazzling shots with fire and dual movement. But the fire and the actors (who, for the most part are all very good) are meant to remind viewers of Burning Man.
Relationships become overly sentimental while the film refuses to accept that it is anything but subtle. This turns out to be a real problem because the characters display intense and irrational behavior but, because they are not allowed to at any point explain their actions or emotions, they become unrealistic.
The film moves from presenting us with clever solutions for homeless teens to preaching to us about the dangers of cults too quickly. We are never given the opportunity to rationalize or justify Harry's (Eric Thal) actions. The switch is flipped from fun family (that is clearly a cult) to evil controlling cult. This again denies the film subtlety and realism.
This is both a coming of age movie in a fun setting and a sort of hip after school special. Audiences are told to use their imagination to find redemption in the ending and Ellen Page is back where she started after learning some 'valuable life lessons'.
But what are we left with for having watched this? If you don't like overblown coming-of-age flicks that promise more thrills than they deliver and you already know not to be seduced by a cult, then not a whole lot.
The Strangers (2008)
Scary prequel to a film that has yet to be released.
Does watching the Pistons lose a hard fought basketball game on a last second shot somehow go back in time and ruin the previous forty-one and a half seconds for me? No. I've already enjoyed watching the game. But perhaps that enjoyment makes the final seconds all the more painful. This is kind of how I felt leaving the theater after watching The Strangers the first time I saw it.
I read reviews criticizing this film for being "pretentious" and "nihilistic". I thought, "Hell, I really really liked Funny Games (1997) (2007). Pretentious nihilistic home-invasion thrillers are right up my alley." Reading that a modern horror film is nihilistic is about as useless as reading that it is bloody. It's good to know; but if it wasn't bloody and nihilistic it wouldn't be modern horror and I would have been able to tell from the previews. Pretentious is something different, and it is something that I don't completely object to in the context of horror. I appreciate it because for horror to evolve it needs a fair amount of experimentation with ostentatious premises and the like.
The Strangers is not pretentious. The Strangers is probably the least pretentious horror film I have enjoyed in some time. It is however nihilistic. We meet a couple who may or may not be breaking up on this night. They are terrorized by people in masks for an hour or so. They are captured and tied to chairs. Each of the three strangers take off their masks and insert their knives into the defeated man and woman. This is the story. It could be great, gratuitous, or excruciatingly boring or cheesy. First time director Bryan Bertino does an amazing job scaring us for the hour or so that the young couple is terrorized, so it winds up being a pretty decent film. It is necessary to show some blood at the beginning so as to promise horror fans blood and implore them to pay attention to this couple bickering. A flash forward is the most logical way to show blood, and cannot be considered pretentious.
My initial disappointment with the film was in its ending. The strangers coldly and cruelly murder their helpless victims. While they're driving away from the scene of the crime they stop two twelve year old boys and ask for one of their religious pamphlets. The boy asks, "Are you a sinner?" The young woman responds, "Sometimes." As the three murderers drive away one says to the other something like, "Don't worry, it gets easier every time." Yes, the audience has a right to expect an explanation for the death and pain that we have just witnessed these hip twenty-somethings cause. Does not knowing why they've done this ruin the first 89 minutes of the 90 minute film? We expect to hear something about revenge or psychosis. Even in Funny Games we know that the assailants are assaulting their victims for the pure joy of assault. Here we are given no explanation and are told that the victims were not sacrificed for the joy of killing; at least one of the murderers had a difficult time murdering.
What sets The Strangers above other well executed horror films, is its tremendous discipline. Bertino tells us absolutely nothing about his monsters. They look like cool scene kids when they aren't wearing their masks. One either smokes too much or has asthma (I'd guess he's a smoker). They do not have an easy time killing, but for some reason feel they must kill. There must be a sequel, and this sequel must introduce us to these characters and their motives. It is very ballsy for an unestablished writer/director to exclude this information from his first film, knowing that this decision would be criticized.
The film is fun and frightening. Not knowing the reason for the violence is difficult for the audience, and perhaps a slightly cheap decision on the part of Bertino. But America love J.J. Abrams for giving us intrigue instead of answers. Perhaps we owe someone who wrote and directed such a tense and scary film the same amount of respect
if he doesn't reveal motive during The Strangers 2, then I think we all have a right to be angry. But for now; I enjoyed myself, didn't you?