Take Rogue Pictures' Memorial Day release "The Strangers." The thriller's already frightening trailer and posters are made all the more disturbing by a tagline that insists it is "inspired by true events."
In it, a young, attractive couple is terrorized by three unknown, masked assailants simply because they happened to be home to answer a middle-of-the-night knock at the door of their vacation home. The audience is clearly meant to think that such an unfortunate couple must really exist, or have once existed in real life, may they rest in peace.
'Truth' open to interpretation
But what, exactly, is a "true" event to a film studio? And what does it mean when a movie sells itself as having been "inspired" by one?
That really depends, said Adam Fogelson, Universal Pictures president of marketing.
"I can only say that there is absolutely a distinction between 'based on' and 'inspired by,'" he explains. "'Based on' means there are specific events that are being used as the basis for the story. 'Inspired by,' well, that's a much looser definition."
Looser, indeed: In the production notes for "The Strangers," the film's writer-director Bryan Bertino explains just what "true events" the film is based on:
"That part of the story came to me from a childhood memory. As a kid, I lived in a house on a street in the middle of nowhere. One night, while our parents were out, somebody knocked on the front door and my little sister answered it. At the door were some people asking for somebody that didn't live there. We later found out that these people were knocking on doors in the area and, if no one was home, breaking into the houses. In 'The Strangers,' the fact that someone is at home does not deter the people who've knocked on the front door; it's the reverse."
So the "true" event is a decades-old childhood memory of an almost-burglary that didn't actually happen?
It could happen to you
Of course, "The Strangers" tagline hints at being inspired by far more recent and more gruesome headlines, such as the random rape-murder-arson home invasion that claimed most of the Petit family in Cheshire, Conn., last summer.
"This is a huge part of how we're selling it: Everyone is home, and hears a noise and what happens when it's not just a noise?" Mr. Fogelson said. "It's not a supernatural movie, it's not 'Saw' -- it's using a real fear and all of the very real incidents that have happened and been in the news."
Why the shift toward ripped-from-the-headlines horror?
"I think there is a fair argument that 'torture porn,' if it is no more than that, has played itself out," said Mr. Fogelson, noting that "Hostel 2" and "Captivity" flopped last summer.
But he quickly added that the suspense genre, however, remains far from dead: "Right alongside laughing, screaming is one of the single greatest things that can happen in a theater."