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New Releases for Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The Strangers: Collector’s Edition

Genre: Horror

Directed by: Bryan Bertino

Run time: 87 minutes

Rating: Unrated

Format: Blu-Ray

The Lowdown: It’s time we faced facts and openly acknowledge the truth: The Strangers is a damn near-perfect home invasion thriller.

Released in 2008, well before the genre became bloated with killers-in-masks copycats, writer-director Bryan Bertino bucked every conventional template imaginable in crafting one of the most intense, hair-raising, gut-churning exercises in modern horror.

Shout Factory! has wisely plucked The Strangers for a deluxe collector’s edition that includes both the theatrical and unrated, extended cut. I highly recommend watching the unrated version, which exists on its own, separate disc.

When the film first came out, the marketing campaign elicited chills by focusing on the masked, anonymous Strangers, the trio of kill-happy antagonists who terrorize Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler’s doomed lovers. And I remember vividly the anxiety in my stomach when I first saw the film in theaters because I kept waiting for the first moment those masks would appear.

Ten years later, I’m finally able to fully appreciate just how masterful Bertino was in playing to his audience’s anxiety.

Consider that for the first 20 minutes, The Strangers is all character building with zero scares other than a sense of impending doom. Bertino focused exclusively on the disconnect between Speedman’s James Hoyt and Tyler’s Kristen McKay, showing them as a loving yet flawed modern couple trying to navigate a night of epic disappointment after Kristen rejected James’ proposal.

It's a ridiculously long lead time to wait before any action takes place, which is why it's so important to note because most horror films – hell, most movies in general – gloss over their central characters or paint with a broad brush. Bertino gets up close and personal, and takes his sweet time making sure his audience feels their pain and their love, which is not an easy task.

The other brilliant stroke by Bertino was to limit the orchestral score and utilize ambient noise for many of the scariest moments. This too is important because way too many movies today alert viewers that something awful is about to happen, which spoils all the fun.

For his first direct introduction of the lead Stranger, known only as Man in Mask in the credits, Bertino uses a wide shot to frame the kitchen where Kristen is heating up water in a kettle. You hear the noises she makes closing drawers, putting the kettle on the stove, etc., but otherwise it’s eerily quiet. As viewers watch with horror, Man in Mask appears out of the shadows near the edge of the frame, well out of view at first from Kristen, until he ever so slowly begins to approach. Bertino keeps his camera trained on the wide shot, resisting the urge for an Argento-esque close-up, and it pays off amazingly well.

The Strangers plays to our most primal fears about isolation, the safe sanctuary of a home being violated and the steadfast belief that truly bad things don’t just randomly happen. By remaining steadfast in his decision not to leave viewers with a neat and tidy ending, Bertino cements his film's place in horror history by delivering a pitch-black denouement that proves bad things can, indeed, happen when you least expect it.

I love, love, love that the only line uttered by any of the three Strangers throughout the entire film (while they are in masks) is when Dollface responds to Kristen’s sobbing question, Why are you doing this?

“Because you were home,” the killer says, her voice devoid of emotion.

It’s as chillingly effective today as it was back in 2008, and it leaves you breathless, as if Bertino himself had leapt from behind the camera and suddenly driven a dagger straight into your heart.

The Stuff You Care About: Hot chicks – Liv Tyler is smoking hot.

Nudity – Brief. Gore – Yes.

Drug use – No.

Bad Guys/Killers – Who are the Strangers?

Buy/Rent – Buy it.

Scorched Earth (Cinedigm, 96 minutes, R, DVD): I think it’s time we all faced the cold, difficult truth: Gina Carano was an OK mixed-martial-arts fighter, but she’s a terrible actress, no matter how many crappy action movies Hollywood tries to shoehorn her into.

Her latest starring vehicle, Scorched Earth, is just bad. Like, whoa, bad.

Worse, it doesn’t even try to feign having an original idea.

Scorched Earth is like a cracker-jack box of post-apocalyptic, dystopian thrillers filled with nothing but peanuts and lacking any semblance of a prize.

Carano plays Atticus Gage – her name is cool, at least – a bounty hunter who combs through a barren wasteland that once was a lush planet Earth after the sun has basically baked all life into submission. There are fist fights and gun fights. Some other stuff happens. None of it matters a whole lot.

Trust us, skip Scorched Earth and re-watch Mad Max: Fury Road instead.

Curse of the Mayans (VMI Worldwide, 88 minutes, Unrated, DVD): Curse of the Mayans showcases the best, and absolute worst, of well-intentioned, low-budget filmmaking.

The sci-fi thriller has a decent set-up: What if December 2012, the alleged End of Days foretold by the ancient Mayan calendar, wasn’t exactly the end of civilization, but a warning that a far worse future was about to be revealed?

Enter an American archeologist, Dr. Green, who scouts out a top-flight subterranean dive team, led by Danielle Noble (Carla Ortiz, who also serves as co-producer), to help him explore a network of underground canyons where an ancient secret is believed buried.

The secret is telegraphed early on and given away by the DVD box art – it’s aliens, farking aliens, who apparently went into hibernation underwater after bestowing gifts of technological advancement on the Mayan people, and who have lain dormant for decades waiting for the Mayan calendar to expire so they can once again be released by possessing and taking the human form of whoever sets them free.

To get to the aliens, however, Curse of the Mayans spends an inordinate amount of time on useless subplots involving romantic entanglements, a jungle militia, the pretty fiancé of one of the divers, Eli (Olga Fonda, The Vampire Diaries) and some fairly nice underwater cinematography. The film reportedly was shot on-location at the site of actual Mayan ruins.

But once Curse of the Mayans gets to the good stuff (the farking aliens), it completely loses its moxie. The aliens, which appear to have been practically rendered, are shown in quick, jump edits or pseudo-flashbacks. The camera never lingers long enough on them to allow viewers to feel scared, awed or unmoved.

There’s a bunch of swimming in the dark, underwater screaming and a few shots of red-eyed divers (which means they’re possessed) menacing the uninfected. And then it’s over. Kaput. Done.

I’m sorry, but if I was going to make a low-budget movie about underwater ancient aliens wanting to possess humanity and take control of the planet, I would probably want to spend as much time as possible showing those aliens doing awful (and cool) alien things to a bunch of hapless explorers.

Call me crazy, but Curse of the Mayans is a big missed opportunity, especially considering the acting and story are surprisingly strong for this kind of direct-to-DVD fare.

Also Available:

Wonder Wheel

The Breadwinner

Aliens Ate My Homework

The Man Who Invented Christmas

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