Monday, August 6, 2012
Cry for the Strangers
This movie is based on a John Saul novel. For those of you who don't know who that is, let me explain my experience with John Saul's books (which might help you understand why I enjoyed this movie, in spite of its many flaws). When I was a kid, I used to read John Saul novels voraciously. He's a trashy, pulpy horror writer, and of course I used to eat that stuff up in my early teens, but John Saul's books are noteworthy because my mom actually forbade me to read them after a few years, because they always put me in an awful mood and I'd be in a funk for days after reading one. Part of the reason for this pissy attitude is that his books are so dark. He sets up these main characters that seem like nice people and then systematically destroys their worlds and their lives for 400 pages until the book ends with everyone dead or crippled or broken and all of them damned to hell. Fun times! The other reason for this funky mood the books caused in me was that his plots were so damn frustrating. He'd set up this interesting premise, something spooky going on in a small town that might be connected to an ancient evil, and then he'd keep hinting and hinting and hinting at it throughout the book, but he'd never really explain what was going on, so when they book ended you knew just about as much as you did when it began, but now everyone you'd cared about for 400 pages was dead. It was a crappy feeling.
I know more about John Saul now then I did back when I was younger. For instance, when I was a kid I used to tell my mom that John Saul's books HAD to be written by more than one person, because the plots seemed so disjointed from one chapter to the next and the characters would act out of turn so often to advance the plot that there's no way one author wouldn't be able to keep his own character's motivations straight for long enough to finish one 400 page book. My mom looked at me like I was out of my mind whenever I said that, though. Well I now know that John Saul's books are written collaboratively by two different men, so score one point for 13 year old me figuring that out just by reading them (I was very perceptive back then, I guess). I also know that not all of his books are as disjointed, and his later books are more cohesive and not as frustrating as his earlier books, though still very dark and Gothic and depressing.
This movie is from one of his earlier books, and it doesn't seem to be very well known. It was hard for me to hunt down a movie poster to use in this blog to show you what the movie looked like, and I'm sure the movie frustrated audiences as much as his books used to frustrate me, so the movie must have faded into obscurity fairly quickly, but for fans who recognize John Saul's work, this movie has his signature all over it. I've never read the book upon which this story was based, but it's classic John Saul: a young boy sleepwalking during a thunderstorm wanders out of his grandparent's old house and onto the beach where he sees Indians dancing around a fire performing some kind of ritual. The next morning when he wakes up, he can't find his grandparents, so he wanders onto the beach and sees that they are dead, buried up to their necks in the sand and drowned with the tide.
The boy represses all these events, and years later when he's an adult and a psychiatrist and his wife come to rent the grandparent's old house from him, he allows them to move in. Not all is well in the small town, however. The new tenants soon learn that whenever it storms in the sleepy little town, something evil comes with the storm, and the next morning, someone from the town is found dead, just like the little boy's grandparents from years ago. Another young boy in the town is sleepwalking during the storms with no memory of what happens or where he goes when he leaves his house, and his parents take him to the new psychiatrist to try and figure out what is happening to their son and to their town. The psychiatrist tries to discover what's going on, creepy events ensue, but even after the movie ends, nothing is really resolved in a satisfying manner. Welcome to the world of John Saul.
The frustrating thing about this movie is that in a lot of ways, it works. The setting is eerie and fraught with opportunities to creep us out, the child actors are very good at what they do, the adult actors aren't half bad (even though their characters have to make a lot of boneheaded moves that have you questioning their intelligence at every turn). What works can't really redeem what doesn't work, however. The story is jumbled and it seems to have a lot of creepy elements thrown in for absolutely no reason (what do the Indians dancing around the fire really have to do with anything, anyway? It could have been anyone performing a ritual, but he had to drag Indians out of their natural homeland and onto the beach to further confuse matters) and it's pretty annoying how the movie ends and everyone acts like it's over even though the kids are still acting very creepy and things are obviously unresolved. The movie is a great setup with a big letdown, just like I remember from reading John Saul's books when I was younger, and I wish it were better, but it still held my interest enough to make me glad I checked it out. I even want to read the book now. I'm a glutton for punishment, I guess. Someone should probably call my mom and tell her to forbid me to read the book so I don't wind up depressed and angry for a few days.