MMFF review: 'The Strangers'
MANILA, Philippines - The Strangers is released in the wrong season. It's good it made it to the MMFF, but it would have been great if it were released during Halloween. It’s not the best or most affecting horror flick, but it shows off some chops and makes for an interesting entry in the festival and an entertaining hour and a half.
It begins with a premise we all know too well:
A family heads to the province. They are on vacation, celebrating their twins’ 18th birthday. Then they hit a snag in the road, literally. And they experience car trouble. The family splits up, some heading off to find help with the car. The rest are left there and found by people from a nearby village. Then mayhem ensues as aswang begin to attack.
There’s also a side story with a young married couple who are attacked by aswang, which plays into the bigger story eventually.
What I like about this film is that it takes its time introducing us to the characters. It’s a small set of main characters — mother, father, twins, grandfather, along with driver and personal nurse. Throw in a few key villagers and an aswang hunter.
We spend a fair amount of time with the family as they bicker and reveal their issues with each other. I particularly enjoyed the griping between father Johnny Revilla and grandfather Jaime Fabregas. It creates a very real tension within the family. In that part of the film, I would have been fine to follow them and explore this realistic issue, especially with the way that they were pushing it.
Cherry Pie Picache plays the mother who is stuck between these two alpha males as well as her kids who are also fighting. All of them going at it in the confines of the van make for a powerful set-up.
The escalation happens with the car breakdown. The driver disappears after making a frantic call about being chased by something. Then villagers arrive to escort the family to the supposed safety of their village. It’s at this point that the film sags. The middle portion lacks the tension of both early and latter parts, but it serves as exposition and an opportunity for a few back stories to develop.
Then we get to the good stuff. We have a twist to the whole aswang in the provinces cliche. It isn’t the most brilliant thing out there, but at least The Strangers is trying to do something different. There are attempts at pushing further than the usual horror movie. What I appreciate most is the attempt to tell a family drama at the beginning. It unfortunately drops this when the aswang story starts developing, but at least it’s there and in the time that we have it, it’s effective.
The horror sequences are well executed. The movie makes good use of its setting: lots of trees, lots of foliage, lots of darkness.
The interesting side-story with aswang hunter Enchong Dee feels like a point that could have been played with a lot more. At times I felt it could have branched into its own film. Dee plays the character with real commitment, and you see the gaps that his sanity might have fallen through. Since his back story kicks off the flick, it might have done well to show a little bit more of it in relation to the family’s back story (it’d be a spoiler if I said anything more than that).
The 3rd act of the film tumbles into familiar horror territory. The dark. Growling. Roars and screams during an attack. There’s a fair amount of chasing and that type of thing. People getting mauled by the bad monsters. It’s the expected thing, which means that it delivers what audiences might want. (Though I think that they could have done a lot more with the foundation that they had already built.)
Also, the film overplays its twist, shooting for irony, when it might have done a little more work with foreshadowing and explaining. The twist necessitates the holding back of information. But then there should have been more foreshadowing. It goes into the process of myth-building with Dee’s aswang hunter, and I think that there should also have been more myth-building with the aswang beyond the stories that are told as part of the dialogue.
Despite my nitpicking, I really liked the movie. It’s perhaps my liking of it that leads to my finding fault, because I can’t hide my disappointment.
I feel like this could have been a really brilliant horror flick, instead of just a good one. It brings together a strong cast and it launches on a retelling of a familiar tale, which they try to bring new life to.
The Strangers is a strong entry to the MMFF, and one that I hope a lot of people give a chance. It seems smaller than a lot of the other movies, but it does not lack for ideas or ambition.
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(Carljoe Javier teaches at the UP Department of English and Comparative Literature. He has written a few books, most recently the new edition of The Kobayashi Maru of Love available from Visprint Inc. and the upcoming Writing 30 available as an ebook at amazon, ibookstore, b&n and flipreads.com.)