Permanent Midnight is a weekly Complex Pop Culture column where senior staff writer, and resident genre fiction fanatic, Matt Barone will put the spotlight on the best new indie horror/sci-fi/weirdo cinema, twisted novels, and other below-the-radar oddities.
No Rotten Tomatoes “Critics Consensus” line has ever infuriated me as much as this one: “The Strangers provides a few scares, but offers little else to distinguish itself from other slasher films.”
First off, as this Complex Pop Culture list from last October explains, that's just incorrect. But here's my biggest gripe: The Strangers is not a slasher film. To lump it into the same horror sub-genre as films like Friday the 13th and My Bloody Valentine is embarrassing for a website that bills itself as a end-all, be-all movie hub. If we must paint in broad strokes, The Strangers should be classified as a home-invasion film, but simply labeling writer-director Bryan Bertino's 2008 debut as “home invasion” is akin to marginalizing Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre—Bertino's biggest influence while writing The Strangers—as an “exploitation flick.” Bertino, only 31 when the film hit theaters, reached back to the same kind of all-consuming grimness Tobe Hooper tapped into back in 1974. Not even that Felicity pretty boy could kill The Strangers' deeply unpleasant vibe.
A similar frustration surfaces whenever I see someone dismiss Bertino's follow-up, Mockingbird, as "just another found-footage movie." Odd and vicious, Mockingbird is as experimental as it is inaccessible. Whereas other recent other first-person POV flicks merely repackage The Blair Witch Project's structure, Bertino goes for an Altman-esque multi-narrative approach, but ratchets up the bleakness. And perhaps that strange combination is why the film collected dust on the Blumhouse Productions and Universal Pictures shelves for over two years before quietly premiering on iTunes last week. Or, rather, dumped into the digital abyss. However you describe it, Mockingbird's release is especially unceremonious considering it's Bertino's long-awaited, six-years-in-the-making follow-up to The Strangers, a triumphant $53 million box office earner.
Told through three interwoven storylines and set in 1995, Mockingbird feels like a hybrid of Saw and The Strangers. Three operational and “On” video cameras show up on the different doorsteps: a husband/wife who live with their two young daughters; a single college girl who lives alone; and a chubby bearded deadbeat who lives with his overbearing and boozy mother. They’re each given the same instructions in cryptic notes and VHS tapes left outside their doors by unseen intruders who pull doorbell ring-and-runs, pound on the walls, and toss mannequins at windows. The instructions say things like, “Don’t Stop Playing the Game,” “Do Not Call the Police,” and “Keep Filming.” Whoever disobeys the commands dies. Mockingbird’s brutal and shocking opening scene confirms that these mystery disrupters will stick to their threat, too.
One viewing drives home why Blumhouse and Universal couldn’t figure out what to do with it. Mockingbird weirdly feels like someone's first DIY film, the kind of calling card that'd lead to something like The Strangers. That the opposite is true is baffling, but also adds to my fascination with Mockingbird. Presented as a series of vignettes, it's divvied up into sections introduced by cheap-looking title cards ("Let's Play a Game"; "Special Delivery"; “Surprise”). The tension and horror is derived from the film’s underlying eccentricities—the ominous phone calls and creepy taunts come in a voice that sounds like an evil circus clown speaking through an intercom; video footage of homicides and voyeurism are accompanied by Beethoven's 5th Symphony, perhaps a nod to A Clockwork Orange, and Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique (Dream of a Witches Sabbath),” a.k.a. the track heard at the beginning of The Shining.
What’s most striking about Mockingbird, though, is how much it feels like a movie from the guy who made The Strangers. There’s a subtle synergy to Bertino’s two movies, though on the surface, they seem nothing alike. “Because you were home,” that great line of shit-your-pants dialogue from one of the eponymous “strangers,” also describes the M.O. of Mockingbird’s villains. Both movies channel something Bertino told the podcast Movie Guys Unlimited in 2008 while promoting The Strangers and discussing the scariness of “random violence”: “We see obituaries and news reports all the time, and we have the luxury of knowing that guy was a drug addict, or, okay, that guy was a disgruntled employee, and he went in [to kill someone], but I always think about the fact that the people it happened to may not have been given all that information. They just might have woken up one night and there was somebody standing in their living room.”
Or, in Mockingbird’s case, a camcorder unexpectedly placed on their front step.
Bertino’s most interesting sensibility is his ear for sound design. The Strangers’ strongest scene—one that’s used amazingly in the film’s trailer (arguably the best horror movie trailer of the last 10 years, mind you)—thrives on the disorienting effect of Joanna Newsom’s folksy “The Sprout and the Bean” skipping on vinyl. There’s something so primal about hearing Newsom’s voice looped in such a Beatles-record-played-backwards way. Bertino has a keen understanding of how to funnel the macabre through the mundane. He goes for the same repetitious effect multiple times in Mockingbird, but with slightly inaudible cassette-quality sound-bites (example: "Pick it up... Pick up the box. Pick it up... Pick up the box. Pick it...") rather than a preexisting song. Like how Joanna Newsom’s discombobulated vocals affect The Strangers, those sound-bites turn otherwise routine moments of suspense into brief waking nightmares.
Mockingbird's climax unites the three camera perspectives in one location, a large suburban home stuffed with shiny red balloons and rigged with pre-recorded party conversations to drown out the other reluctant house-guests' whereabouts. Its children's-party-gone-terribly-wrong presentation ends Bertino's film on a visually chaotic note. His imagination operates on an excitingly peculiar wavelength, and even if Mockingbird's finale doesn't totally live up to everything before it, it's 100% Bertino's vision. His own messy vision.
With the one-two punch of The Strangers and now this, that's a vision horror could use more of, and, it seems, that'll be the case—eventually. Bertino is currently working on his third movie, There Are Monsters, starring Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss as a single mother who, with her young daughter, gets "trapped and tormented by a mysterious creature." Hopefully it won't take another six years to watch Bertino in action.
Mockingbird is now available on iTunes, before hitting DVD next Tuesday, October 21, exclusively through Walmart.