Sunday, 15 July 2018

Xtro - and excess

Harry Bromley Davenport, 1982, UK

This was one of those VHS covers that promised so much when you held it in your hands as a youth in the video store. And it didn’t disappoint, having many moments that you could relish telling your pals about in simple gleefully shocked sentences. Not least of all a woman being raped by an alien and giving birth to a fully grown man. But there’s also the eating of the snake eggs, the panther, the… Well, ‘Xtro’ seems to pack so much random stuff in its primary location of an upmarket flat – even a naked Maryam d’Abo – that this is what makes it special: the idea that even on a meagre budget and limited location, all is possible.

The inspiration seems to have been not only to cash in on the extremism agenda of the contemporary horror movement and the fad for Scott’s ‘Alien’, not only to present a counter-‘E.T.’ (“Not all aliens are friendly”), but (according to Davenport) also to mimic some of the spirit of ‘Phantasm’. Davenport long disliked ‘Xtro’ and certainly, when reflecting upon its genesis, seems very much to have conceded with whatever leftfield idea was asked of him (“A panther? Sure…”). Now, having seen that fans are happy to follow its waywardness if not see it as welcomingly unpredictable, he seems to have made his peace with it (with Second Sights’ wonderful new release).

‘Xtro’ justifies its nightmare logic by having random psychic powers as the reason for anything and everything unsystematic that happens. Some find it confusing and messy, but when you accept that psychic powers mean that anything goes, there arguably isn’t a thorough need for logic, just inventiveness. In that, it follows the psychic terrors of films like ‘The Fury’ or ‘Carrie’ or especially ‘Harlequin’; but its Eerie Child angle also hints at ‘The Omen’. As a kid, I was particularly taken with psychic horrors like ‘Harlequin’, ‘The Shout’ and ‘The Medusa Touch’ where the imagination seemed to bend reality to its will. I found that scary (and perhaps The Twilight Zone’s ‘It’s a Good Life’ provides a great epitome of this). And if this sounds as if it’s strayed from an ‘Alien’ rip-off, the joy of ‘Xtro’ is watching it mash everything together in the kitchen sink and to go wherever the hell it wants. Apparently the producer wanted a panther in the flat, so there it is, and it doesn’t seem ridiculous but simply a highly evocative part of the madness (Davenport notes the panther in the white corridor as the film’s best shot, but there are many). Certainly the seemingly arbitrary built on the peaks of odd moments were the kind of narratives my undisciplined teenaged brain was making and that’s how I read ‘Xtro’, but rarely does such random plotting work as successfully as it does here: it’s a fun-ride of surreal horror and contemporary excess underpinned by a kitchen sink drama. It works as a portrayal of reality breaking down along with the family unit.

And beneficial, as usual in these B-cases, is that the lead actors Philip Sayer and Bernice Stegers take it all seriously and deliver above-average performances to ground the absurdities and accentuate them. Perhaps Simon Nash as the boy just waiting for his alien abducted dad to come home isn’t particularly good, his ‘Grange Hill’ volume and working class accent puts him at odds with everyone else’s naturalness. Nevertheless, he fits the special grubbiness and low-rent British Eighties-ness that can’t be affected and only gives a solid foundation for the outré incidents. It’s an example where that particular low-rent feel becomes an asset. The soundtrack by Davenport is at once unforgettable, a little hokey, quintessentially Eighties synth and somewhat resembles the Dr Who scores of the time (and included in Second Sight’s release; a real bonus). The effects are both tacky and vivid: yes, the man-sized birth is appropriately icky, horrid and in bad taste, but no less memorable are performers Tik and Tok as the Action Man come to life and as the alien – the alien that wastes no time in being seen, a simple, slightly stiff but unforgettable.

There are two endings to ‘Xtro’ and although Davenport thinks that the ending with the clones of Danny doesn’t work, I disagree: surely it fits the nightmarish and haphazard tone and provides more motivation for the alien visit; the other ending is more just an ‘Alien’-style shock that leads nowhere. So no, I can’t really say ‘Xtro’ is “good”, but it reaches places other more prestige films don’t and exists totally in its own realm, however much of a B-movie rip-off it was intended to be. I have always been very fond of it.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

What have you done to Solange?

Massimo Dallamano, 1972, Italy-West Germany

Italian gym teacher Enrico “Henry” Rosseni (Fabio Testi) is drifting down the Thames (apparently) and carrying on an affair with his student Elizabeth (Cristina Galbo) when she sees a murder on the embankment. But he’s too busy trying to have his way to believe her, insisting her protestations that she witnessed something is just a tactic to avoid intimacy (but he does take “No” for an answer, albeit much perturbed). Someone is killing the girls at a school run by somewhat skeevy white middle-aged men, who Elizabeth turns to after some time rather than the police. (Wait: why does she wait…?) The first thing that Inspector Barth (Joachim Fuchsberger) does is to show the school staff explicit pictures of the girl’s body with a knife in her vagina: “It’s a necessary formality,” he says (?) – and he doesn’t even seem to have spoken to the parents as yet; and when he does, he shows the x-ray of the killing to the father (!). Anyway, when Elizabeth is murdered too, Rosseni investigates the murders (as immigrant teachers are prone to do) – which includes roughing up potential leads in the style of tough-guy cops from the movies – even as he is in conflict with his frigid wife (Karina Baal). Well, actually she becomes totally sympathetic and lets her hair down when Elizabeth is killed and is told she was a virgin. And where would the police be without Rosseni turning up where dead bodies are? But he’s never under suspicion, really. And then in the third act, Solange (Camille Keaton) herself turns up in earnest and proves the key to it all - her hair long and unkempt and her finger permanently hovering at her bottom lip to signify she isn't quite all there but yet conveying some kind of broken innocence.

“Only sixteen and surrounded by secret boyfriends, petty jealousies, orgies and lesbian games,” Rosseni laments, apparently shocked and unaware that his own affair contributes to this tapestry of scandal. "I wouldn't be surprised if they were doing the drug scene too." Of course, this also reads like a checklist for a certain male fantasy. Adele of Foxspirit gives ‘Solange’ a more feminist spin: 

"Set in London, but using Italian dialogue, What Have You Done to Solange? chafes against the restraints of the typical Giallo by contrasting the conservatism of a Catholic girls’ high school with the sexually charged atmosphere of Italian cinema."

But I always found such analysis is left a little unreinforced by the text; that it doesn’t align with the mixture of silliness and salaciousness that typifies giallo. All the females here are a response to masculine priorities with their autonomy often dismissed by the generally creepy men: a little more substance to the women would have made this more a persuasive criticism of misogyny, but the all-round shallow characterisation has no gender preference. 

Mark Edward Heuck gives context for Dallamo’s “scared schoolgirls” trilogy – but not to worry if you don’t work out the mystery because Inspector Barth will helpfully explain it all in closing, even if it’s doubtful he would have worked it all out at that point as he’s been pretty clueless all along. What we get is a parade of pretty girls and a ridiculous police procedural that isn’t convincing at all as a killer goes around murdering girls in the most lurid manner. As Kyle Anderson says, these giallo films “exist in worlds where logic in narrative doesn’t mean nearly as much as shocks and salaciousness.” Giallo doesn’t exist in realism, but in an alternative realm seemingly made of adolescent horror and fantasy, grazing against nightmare logic but never usually competent enough to truly achieve this, despite the often excellent aesthetic. Of course, you have ‘Suspiria’ and ‘Footprints on the Moon’ as examples where this does work, but ‘Solange’ is more of that which is fun for the daft character outbursts and dialogue, for the sensationalism and exploitation. But it's most confrontational framing is reserved for the abortion scene and indeed it's whole tone is more like one big tut at the goings-on of the young with a bit of a lurid cautionary tale for girls to keep their legs closed. 

What this does have less of is bad dubbing which is often part of the fun: they are dubbed but the actors are speaking English so the incongruity between the soundtrack and the visuals are less likely to induce amusement. And of course the whole sordid enterprise is given oodles of credibility and atmosphere from Ennio Morricone’s dreamy score. 

Saturday, 30 June 2018


Ari Aster, 2018, USA

Of course, the blurb that’s it’s a modern ‘The Shining’, or ‘The Exorcist’ or whatever isn’t helpful at all and rather silly. How can a piece survive on its own with that kind of baggage? But it’s an exemplary entry in the Horror trend towards the slow burn, the more abstract; the kind offered by contemporary favourites like, yes, ‘The Babadook’, ‘It Follows’, ‘The Witch’, ‘A Girl Walks Home at Night Alone’, etc. The kind that Brett Easton Ellis doesn’t really like – despite himself being responsible for a fine example of art horror – and the kind that is likely to provoke those that like their genre less  obviously existential and  more schlocky and jumpy into boredom. But it does have jumps – well, it made the women along the aisle from me jump out of their noisy popcorn; and from reading and hearing comments from others it does seem to offer enough for the crowd for whom ‘The Conjuring’ represents horror. 

A family mired by grief over their unknowable Grandmother’s death starts experiencing an uneasiness that is more down to unspoken and unexpressed feelings than anything supernatural. This is where it is evident that this particular strain of horror benefits from demands for superior acting and ‘Hereditary’ certainly offers that. Toni Collette as the troubled and turbulent mother Annie, Alex Wolff as her suppressed and traumatised son (and Wolff can hold a lingering close-up) and Gabriel Byrne as the somewhat bemused and mild voice of normality are all exceptional. The dioramas Annie makes offer a lot of opportunities for surrealism that the film doesn’t dwell upon or much utilises for hints, scares or expression. Rather, these dioramas can be seen as part of her attempt to control as well as replicate her environment, but this too is vulnerable as hinted at by the opening unseen and omnipotent force gliding into the diorama of their domestic life via the camera (the artform of dioramas is infiltrated by the artform of horror).

And then there is the car accident. The build-up, execution and aftermath are so exceptionally well done that, for a moment, the film is pushed into something special (and it’s certainly one of my scenes of the year). The fact the film lingers on the shock until it blossoms into full grief stricken horror is masterful. So it is true that, afterwards, the steering into the kind of comfortable tropes that the first half has hinted at but avoided is where much of the disappointment from audiences surely stems. Here’s a mat as a clue; here’s a book of photographs to explain it all; here’s a voiceover, etc. Films such as ‘It Comes at Night’ and ‘The Witch’ – hell, even ‘The Shining’ – have surely proven that explanation isn’t really needed when so much else is working and – just like the Infomercial of Exposition in ‘Get Out’ – ‘Hereditary’s obviousness in the latter stages can only cause weakness and dissatisfaction, even if it does reach for satire and conspiracy theories.  But it does succeed as a tale of a family crumbling into more and more horror, where the very opening glide into a diorama points both to the artifice of storytelling and an omnipotent external force diving in to tear them apart. But right to the end, there’s enough twists, slight-of-hand and outstanding detail (such as the truly haunting and horrible disembodied head; or the fact that it’s not THAT on the ceiling you need to worry about but – as the camera pans – it’s something over THERE) to make this a little special; hence the hyperbole. The execution outweighs its weaknesses.

Its kindred spirits are ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ but also ‘Kill List’ where it becomes “actually you're watching THIS film”. But the film doesn’t have the conviction to follow through with the abstractions and ambiguities like ‘The Witch’ and ‘It Comes at Night’ and is ultimately happy to be something far more recognisable and more conventional. I certainly didn’t feel the same depth of disappointment that some have felt – because perhaps tropes don’t trouble me as much – but by the end neither did I feel it was ultimately quite as outstanding as it might have been, despite its frequent moments of brilliance. 

Sunday, 17 June 2018

One moment in: 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' and 'Jaws'

Stephen Spielberg
'Raiders of the Lost Ark', 1981 USA 
'Jaws', 1975, USA

I assume now that every pre-teen thinks ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ is a bit old hat and has seen the ‘Hatchet’ films at a sleepover, but when I was a kid it was hard to see contemporary horror. I always credit ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ as giving me my first “gore scene”. Of course, I mean the face melt of the Nazis at the opening of the Ark. No, I had never seen anything quite like that beforehand – maybe stills from ‘The First Man into Space’ in all his goopy glory that I had in a monster book came close (but I wouldn’t see that until much later). But here was a graphic melting face in all its bloody liquefying glory. All the credentials for a gore scene: just there because it could; graphic because it could be; a little outrageous; a moment to wrench and make you go “Wha? Oh –!!! Blegghhhh!” - but not necessarily in that order. And the hint that maybe you are watching something you shouldn’t. 

Of course, now I am thinking that it was notable what Spielberg was getting away with here and  in ‘Jaws’ which, in these moments, were just as full-on as the horrors, and were often more graphic once the horrors were cut up by censors. Even as a kid, I knew Bruce the shark chomping on Quint in the finale was silly and hints that there’s always a little condescending “Hey, they’ll swallow anything in the end” to Spielberg – but its excess works. This was 1981 and we were just on the brink of the Video Nasty panic that came with ‘81’s ‘Evil Dead’ – and the melting in both are kindred spirits – but even so, that was an ‘X’ (18) and ‘Raiders’ was rated PG, a family film. Gee, ‘Jaws’ is a PG too now, which makes me think that the censors have always had a blind-spot with Spielberg. And even now, these are treasured go-for-broke moments if not the initiation tests for gorehounds they used to be.

Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice - second watch

Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice
Zack Snyder, 2016, USA

A second watch of 'Batman vs Superman' and the first twenty minutes are fine. There’s the unnecessary recap of Batman’s origin in nightmare form with Snyder’s particular “opening credits” editing style that was so effective with the ‘Watchmen’ opening credits – but even that can’t liven up this well-worn origin – and some action and some spy-like shenanigans and that’s all good enough. It still seems to have promise. And then Jesse Eisenberg does his impression of Lex Luther as The Joker and it’s pretty insufferable – why conceive Luther that way? Go straight to Vincent D’Onofrio in the ‘Daredevil’ TV series. The films takes a true nosedive them, but it’s never badly made. It’s a mess and overloaded and the rivalry between the two heroes never really convinces, although it’s mostly based on Bruce Wayne being an uncompromising asshole. Jeremy Irons makes for a cranky and quite unlikeable Alfred instead of wry and dryly super-efficient. There’s a dream sequence that seems to be there just to allow Batman the fantasy of a different suit and using a gun and owing down bad guys; and make no mistake, he make not actually wield a gun but there’s so many explosions and physical violence that he obviously kills many by proxy. There’s a confusing appearance from The Flash in a vision of sorts. There’s nothing really wrong with Henry Cavil but this Superman … well, although we’re meant to be convinced that he’s conflicted and angst-ridden, it’s not truly convincing as colouring him in and perhaps going with the Good Guy God approach would have been more interesting, done right (like Peter Parker is better for being naïve and gung-ho). He’s not quite 2D in a way that captures the imagination. But a second watch shows that Gal Godot does much with little and that Doomsday is pretty cool for a CGI creation, if it would only linger a little. Oh, and there’s something about other superheroes too. And why leave a Kryptonite spear underwater where any bad-guy could trace it? And superheroes bonding over mummy resolves conflicts... But by then, true interest has been pummeled away by overstuffing the turkey with CGI, protesting too much forgetting to be fun.

But ‘Batman vs Superman’ does have one stand-out scene with Batman’s hand-to-hand combat with a gang of bad guys in a warehouse. That remains and is the one moment when it all comes alive.

Friday, 15 June 2018

"Waiting Firecrackers" - full album

Here's the album I made a few years ago, now on YouTube.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Heat - and that damned machismo

Michael Mann, 1995, USA

It’s slick and moody, swinging between a tinge of blue filters and bright city sun. There are many impressive set pieces, not least the opening robbery and a central shoot-out. This is why Mann is revered and rightly so. Surely the trend of a lot of Eighties thriller gloss can be credited to him: I remember ‘Miami Vice’ being very influential. He is not style-over-substance, but there’s a shallowness to his focus on troubled men.

But here’s what stops me from fully investing. The thriller elements are great but the boys’ criminality stuff often unintentionally funny when they’re being macho angst-ridden, which is a trait that defines much of Mann’s work. It’s half hour in and the manly tantrums and posturing begin and Pacino starts barking; it gets so they can’t walk into a room without throwing or slapping props.  “I have to hold onto my angst!” Pacino says. Mostly, male relationships are defined by pissing-contests and one-upmanship.* The much touted coffee scene with Pacino and De Niro is of course well played but they talk about family and dreams, which is pretty standard for this kind of thing, and they just come short of saying “Hey, we’re different sides of the same coin, aren’t we?”

There’s a lot of bullying of pretty women and a serial killer thrown in to no discernible effect other than making a repellent character even more so. All the women are defined by their men and are sympathetic to their faults; all the men are so wedded to their own vision of themselves that it crowds out any definitive space for the women. Indeed, should the women challenge this, the men respond with violence and temper-tantrums. It's like one of those Eighties "adult" moody ballads - the kind that bring so much atmosphere to Mann's films - where men are idealising some romance where the woman got off her pedestal, but the man still blames her beautyIt’s been this way since Mann’s 1981’s ‘Thief’ at least, and there is a sense that we are meant to find the men tragic and poignant for this. But it’s more like Mann’s protagonists are mostly assholes and the female actors giving their roles far more soul and complexity than they perhaps warrant; far more convincingly than the men (in this case headed by Diane Venora, Amy Brenneman and Ashley Judd). It’s the women  that sacrifice themselves to the men’s obsessions and unwillingness to change. 

It’s a sense that this all a boy’s game that keeps me from taking it all fully seriously: Mann’s films never quite call the men on their assholishness and the idea that they aren’t actually the tragic martyrs to machismo they would like to imagine themselves to be doesn’t seem an option as their overriding masculinity is the narrative ley lines. It’s this that keeps me at a distance, even as I’m admiring the mood and artistry.

·         Compare with Alan Clarke’s ‘The Firm’ where the men can’t see past petty rivalries and insulting one another; or the wry humour of Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Western showdowns. 

Monday, 28 May 2018


Coralie Fergeat, 2017, France

Out in the middle of nowhere in a luxury getaway, Richard (Kevin Jannsens) is planning on a dirty weekend with his girlfriend-on-the-side Jen (Matilda Lutz) before he gets married. She’s very obliging, acting like the archetypal pleasure girl, wearing skimpy stuff, looking continuously hot, dancing provocatively, etc. and generally playing up the “Lolita” vibe, lollipop and all. Then his friends turn up and this leads to her rape and her apparent murder. But she comes back from the dead as a spirit of vengeance.  

And your mileage may vary but that looks very much like a murder as surely no one could get up from being impaled on a tree stump like that. You may then spend the rest of the film in a state of disbelief and snorting at any pretence it may have to internal logic. Jem is first defined by a rotting apple from which she took a bite (which made me smirk at its obvious symbolism) and waist-high camera angles and then later with a phoenix print burnt into her stomach (which made me laugh out loud at its obvious symbolism) so subtlety isn’t really on the agenda. The latter implies that perhaps Jem is more a spirit of vengeance, much like Michael Myers becomes the eternal bogeyman at the end of ‘Halloween’, but the rest of the film plays out with at least a passing allegiance to the principals of realism so some kind of credibility is in doubt.

But Corale Forgeat directs with shine and flare rather than grit and realism - carrying on the French Extreme Horror tradition - and its place as fantasy is clear. It’s like a rape revenge reverie set in the world of car commercials (and that may be part of the point). It’s brittle with silliness as much as it’s lacquered with style and the symbolism perhaps hints that it’s taking itself too seriously. If it has proclamations to subverting the rape-revenge thriller, this is as much a cartoon as many of its exploitation origins and without much characterisation for Jem, it’s hard for us to take her more than a show piece and cipher. And the bad guys are equally shallow, given typical misogynistic dialogue and crassly juxtaposed with lizards. Arguably, Richard is the most interesting character being both abominable and at odds with his more overtly obnoxious mates. He spends the last act showdown naked and there’s great skill with how his nudity is filmed – plenty of rump for the Female Gaze – and maybe this subtlety and artistry is maybe at odds with the scrappy exploitation this is surely commenting upon. This finale where the house is turned into a slippery bloodbath is a highlight.

With its aesthetic swinging between both the flamboyant and the obtuse there’s much to enjoy in its surface pleasures of outlandish revenge-fantasy-over-substance, but it succumbs to an underlying daftness and doesn’t really grope much more. 

Monday, 21 May 2018

This Island Earth

 Joseph Newman, 1955, USA

One of my fondest film-watching memories is when I was living at my grandparent’s house as a preteen and getting to watch the b-movie season playing over months and months on television. I was about eleven or twelve and I loved getting into my pyjamas and watching these films on a Sunday evening before bed. I saw so many of the black-and-white creature features this way; my personal education to the drive-in horror and science-fiction era, as if I had been born decades earlier. I know for sure that I saw “The Beast from 50,000 Fathoms” and “King Kong” and “It Came From Outer Space” that way, as well as “It! The Terror Beyond Space”, “Earth versus the Flying Saucers” and “This Island Earth”.

This Island Earth” is kind of an honorary classic: it’s not a classic due to story and execution, for it has some of that workmanlike clunkiness and flatness of the era, but the whole is definitely greater than the parts. It looks and sounds like a tacky Fifties sci-fi, but it is much more if you play into it. It has decent and decidedly adult characters; it has a nice air of menace and mystery and a fascinatingly ambiguous relationship with its aliens. The aliens are the kind you are likely to meet in “Star Trek” – intelligent, humanoid and talky with over-sized foreheads so that they can seemingly pass for human, but they are more than typically two-dimensional. They are a threat in that they are a civilisation – from Metaluna –  on the brink of being wiped out by their enemies and both need Earth’s help whilst simultaneously plotting to colonise Earth. But they are desperate rather than cruel or megalomaniacal. The film’s classic status is surely down to the fact that it is quintessential Fifties-era pulp sci-fi and that’s a lot of fun and no bad thing. It also has a slow build-up that is rewarded with a fantastic if brief visit to Metaluna itself, a gorgeous cosmic vision with comic-book colours and mutants, one which rivals “Forbidden Planet”.

This Island Earth” is full of green rays, flying saucers, manipulative but super-smart aliens, decidedly square-jawed scientists (Rex Reason) and equally unlikely science. It looks and acts like something from an Astounding!” magazine cover, and that’s integral to its delight. The film worries about other cultures being smarter, more manipulative and colonialist, but trusts its American square-jaws and female vulnerability to get an Earthman through an extraterrestrial encounter. It is dated, but that doesn’t seem to do it any harm. It gets better and balmier as it goes on and has the good sense to throw in some alien mutants too to spice up things.

Yes: the mutants. These insectoid aliens gave me a nightmare that I have never forgotten. They were lumbering, soundless and – well, you can’t get much more alien than insects. They don’t have much screen time, although they are plastered all over the posters, but hey are unforgettable. I dreamt that I was on the spaceship standing inside the giant transparent tubes it had to condition people to different environments; my dream was paraphrasing the spaceship and a scene from the film. One of the mutants was going crazy on the flight deck, just as in the film, and I was stuck in the tube. The difference was that there was a gap at the bottom of the tubes so that feet, ankles and lower shins were horrible exposed. The alien came attacking the tubes and I was trapped inside and, eventually, it started to attack my feet at the gap at the base of the tube. I suspect I woke up during the attack. Oh yes, it was quite a nightmare and I’ve never forgotten it. For this reason, I have quite a soft spot for “This Island Earth”.

It remains a delightful slice of pulp hokum with an odd charm all its own. It doesn’t have the resonance and deep chills of, say, “Invasion of the Body-Snatchers”, but it is old school fun and possessed of enough intelligence and gorgeous alien scenery to more than hold its own.

Monday, 14 May 2018

The Strangers

Bryan Bertino, 2008, USA

A loving couple with relationship difficulties become under siege by masked tormenters in their holiday home in the woods. That’s it for plot and that’s fine. Isolated homes are a pretty regular stop for horror’s message that NOWHERE IS SAFE so this fits nicely into that particular paranoia.

As a slick fright machine, “The Strangers” does so much right. It falls on the same plate as “Vacancy”, “Ils (Them)” and, inevitably, “Funny Games” - the post-Manson home invaders - but somehow falters at the last stretch. It is a shame because in mood, pitch and pace, it is mostly an excellent lesson for how to scare with little more than knocks on the door, creaky floorboards and masked figures seemingly able to infiltrate the house at will (wait, how do they do that…?) Cinematographer Peter Sova films it all warmly and sharply: the holiday home is a cosy set, prettily decorated with scattered petals, an open fire and, inevitably, pretty and ironic vinyl music on the stereo (continuity issues with the albums here… the songs are a mixture of old and new and the player seems to turn itself off halfway through a song at one point…). Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman are convincing as a couple going through some troubles (she said “no”) and suitably scared when they need be, making the most of slender characterisation  and again showing that horror benefits tremendously from adult giving it nuance rather than always twenty-something cookie cut performances.

“The Strangers” has nothing to say other than shit happens, but that’s okay as that’s the genre’s domain. The film has no real commentary on the horror genre other than keeping its slasher tropes alert and functioning. It even has the nerve to open with a narration that both claims simultaneously this is based on reality and that no one knows what happened – but of course the Manson Murders are namechecked, which only adds to its ‘70s vibe*, although the unresolved nature of the Keddie Murders are perhaps a little more apt. As Kim Newman says,

"This shows only a relentless commitment to being no fun at all, which is vaguely admirable but ultimately self-defeating. The message of ’70s horror was that straight society was crazy; the 2008 version is that other people are shit - it’s a fine distinction, but makes a depressing difference."

As is dominant with home-invasion narratives the message is that the comfortable middle-class are always under threat from the dispossessed, although here that threat is not so clearly the underclass but more the natural endgame of youthful nihilistic pranksters. It is this nihilism and deliberate random cruelty (“Because you were home.”) that Roger Ebert found irredeemable but the lack of context is meant to add to the paranoia. It certainly leaves a hole. It’s just a sleek scare machine and it can’t find a way to open out its text into something socially aware like “Ils”, or as neatly tucked in at the corners as “Vacancy” even. It is, ultimately, one of those horrors perpetuating its own urban legends. (But it took a long time for a sequel to emerge.)