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Untrue Crime

'The Strangers' isn't the first movie to fake it

By Steve Palopoli

ONE THING is clear to me after seeing The Strangers: the people making these recent home-invasion movies have really got to get it together. You know, fire up a conference call, throw some ideas up up on the wipe board ... oh, and definitely throw a slumber party where they can all curl up in their PJs and watch Scream.

The problem is that unlike, apparently, the creators of The Strangers (and its Euro-cousin, the French home-invasion flick Ils), we've already seen Scream. Thus rail-thin, almost frail-looking people in masks are—after the initial shock of seeing one creeping around your front yard or up against a window—not even remotely scary. I'm not saying there aren't a few jumpy moments in The Strangers, but as the stand-off between the young couple and the masked creepos starts to wear on, one can't help but imagine how easily the bad guys would be taken out in this situation. Scream reminded us that in real life, stalkees would fight tooth and nail to take out an intruder—Throw a vase! Throw a knife! Throw a bike! Throw every single object in the house! It's all good. Unarmed and prone to wandering around as if in a daze, the three attackers in The Strangers wouldn't last 10 minutes against the shotgun-armed, adrenaline-pumped James Hoyt (played by Scott Speedman), even if Liz McKay (Liv Tyler) couldn't recover from the shock of the situation. Like Ils, The Strangers drags on interminably long after the suspension of disbelief is gone.

And yet, The Strangers is a big hit, and it's not hard to see why. First, it had the best horror-film trailer in recent memory. Second, it pulled a fast one in the "true story" department. It's not just that it claimed to be "inspired by a true story"; the film even begins with the explanation "The film you are about to see is inspired by true events. According to the F.B.I. there are an estimated 1.4 million violent crimes in America each year. On the night of February 11, 2005 Kristen McKay and James Hoyt went to a friend's wedding reception and returned to the Hoyt family's summer home. The brutal events that took place there are still not entirely known." It's all a crock, of course. There was no Kristen McKay or James Hoyt. It's a lie pretending to be a truth pretending to be a lie. (The silly line about "violent crimes in America" is intended as cover, as pointless a formality as warning a hot-pie-eater that the pie is hot.)

As audiences, we don't seem to mind any of this; in fact, we eat it up. The web was abuzz weeks before the film came out with guesses about what the true story the film was based on might be. Random guesses ranged from the obscure Keddie Cabin Murders to the Manson slayings. Eventually, writer/director Bryan Bertino admitted there is no actual event the movie is based on; he got the idea from a memory of some guy coming to his house when he was a kid and asking for a person who didn't live there.

This may irritate some people, but actually there's a fine tradition of movies not based on a true story pretending that they are. Usually they're horror films. Neither Psycho or Texas Chainsaw Massacre has much to do with the story of serial killer Ed Gein, but they drummed up a lot of business suggesting that they were. The aforementioned Ils claimed to be based on a murder case in the Czech Republic, but almost all of the details were made up. Wolf Creek took elements from a couple of different Australian cases, but again the details and the characters are fictional. The Blair Witch Project was possibly the most successful fake "true story" in movie history—it wasn't even inspired by a true story, and yet it had people so duped that the producers were able to get the film's actors listed as "missing" on the IMDb.

But for my money the best true-story fake ever is the Coen brothers' Fargo. Joel Coen openly admitted that the movie's fictional characters and plotline were labeled as true simply because it was fun to make the audience think that they were. Nothing like Fargo ever happened in Minnesota. And yet the opening of the film plainly states, "This is a true story. The events depicted in this film took place in Minnesota in 1987. At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred."

Bullshit, yes. But who wouldn't want to believe that? And that's why filmmakers will continue to say their movies are based on true events as long as they can get away with it.

CULT LEADER is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback to [email protected]

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