Friday, May 30, 2008

Sex & Screams

Welcome to the mother of all "girls night out" weekends. Thanks to Carrie and Co. there hasn't been another summer opening weekend in the history of American box-office quite like it. The premieres are over, the ads have run and the trailers unspooled. As our post is being written, it's a fair bet that more cosmos are being collectively poured than ever before in the history of pink cocktails. Sex and the City has bet it all on the big screen this weekend and the hype machine of Warner Bros. Pictures has ground to a temporary halt to hold it's breath. Can women really make a major movie release a mega success. Our call: yes and no. We've no doubt that the numbers will be impressive but is this anything more than a one shot? Ladies, you have the screen, dazzle us.

But as can be the case with sex, it may not be over till the screaming stops. That is, there's more than one movie opening this weekend and if the screaming is loud enough, there may be more than a few moans from the Warner camp. The Strangers also opens in wide release this weekend, and may very well create plenty of excitement of it's own. We'll dispense with all of the sex double entendres and stick to what counts, what's worth seeing.

While we're sure Sex and the City will attract a loyal audience and big numbers, our instincts were tingling a couple of months back when we caught the first trailer for The Strangers. At first glance, all of the trappings for a pretty generic horror thrill pic were in place, and only Liv Tyler's presence, in a role that would typically play for any pouty unknown, seemed unusual. Then the timing choice to release against the Sex and the City opening, provided the first example of clever counter-programming of the summer. A barrage of trailer variations, poster takes and teaser peeks followed, continuing to build the psychological and marketing tension. By the time the final advertising run was hitting earlier this week, it was clear that anyone planning to take in a movie this weekend had a very different option to hanging on the conversations of four women dripping in Vogue fashions and scarfing down the very latest in fruit juiced blends of vodka.

The Stranger, starring Ms. Tyler and Scott Speedman and directed and written by Bryan Bertino, has also gotten solid advance reviews and we're calling it the best alternative to "the" event flick opening yet this summer. This is an interesting film in at least enough ways for us to be taking notice. First, it is a first, in that it's the debut of Bryan Bertino's directing abilities.

Next, Liv Tyler, who has never heard her name whispered in sentences that include "Oscar" or "riveting dramatic performance", is hearing her name prominently mentioned as great casting here. She's also seeing her name in some fairly glowing reviews. Next, there's that issue of timing. In the glut of summer movie releases that has studios like Disney bemoaning it's decision to release Narnia sandwiched between Iron Man and Indiana Jones rather than against The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep last Christmas and Speed Racer getting thrashed by better timed and far better made movies, Universal and Rogue Pictures got the timing of The Strangers right, and the numbers on Monday may very well signal that they got the timing nearly perfect. The point here is that someone at the controls was paying attention instead of putting the release schedule on ego auto-pilot.

Last is the film itself and it's take on a genre that has spilled copious amounts of blood all over any hope of a coherent (dare we say, intelligent) script. In these days of gore and gimmick defining horror movies, a film that tells it's story through a slow and relentless build of psychological terror harkens back to the true (and sadly long gone) masters of the form and the confidence that a story well told can send an audience home worrying about sleeping with the lights off. Even the villains of the piece, though wearing garb that screams of cliché, are rendered simply in order to be effective, the device appears to work.

In a time when psychological terror is the stuff of nightly news casts and global politics and personal danger is credibly threatened by the fear of random violence, The Strangers also strikes effectively within the culture that is it's target; it's release may well be more timely that it's producers could have ever planned.

Tonight, the girls will be chatting ad nauseam about dresses, shoes, wedding gowns and Mr. Big while the wine and the cocktails flow as easily as the laughter. We agree that the four women of Sex and the City are indeed four women to be reckoned with and the original HBO series smash deserved a shot on the big screen. But our hunch is that over in the other theater, Liv Tyler's blood curdling screams may be signaling a far more important trend in the future of the movies that will be making their way to your cineplex, the return of the smart horror movie.

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