The Strangers

Glenn Watson/Rogue Pictures
Bryan Bertino/United States 2008

The Strangers – a stylish horror film written and directed by relative newcomer Bryan Bertino – follows a young woman, Kristen (Liv Tyler), and her boyfriend, James (Scott Speedman), as they find themselves trapped in a house by masked pursuers. Kristen and James attempt to escape, while forging a new bond amidst the gore and violence.

The film opens promisingly enough. On-screen text and a deep-voiced announcer warn the audience that the movie is based on true events. Two boys on bicycles happen upon an abandoned house as the recording of a desperate 911 call plays in the background. We cut to a simple title: The Strangers. The introduction seems to mix a little psychological intrigue with the campy re-enactments of a Lifetime movie, and some creative audio thrown in. It’s fun and it’s enticing. Quickly we are introduced to Kristen and James, who are lovers in the midst of an argument on their way home from a wedding. Bertino allows the characters to develop through their movements and silences, their stilted conversation. Kristen sits in the car, eyes red from crying. James heaves a pained sigh. It’s clear there’s been trouble, but we’re allowed time to dwell on it and let our imaginations do some work. It’s understated, it’s subtle – in short, it’s a unique way to begin a horror flick.

The casting itself also merits some distinction. At 30 years old, Tyler is no bleached-blonde co-ed running around the sorority house in a tank top. The camera takes advantage of her realness, which is luscious and tangible. The cinematography is warm and rosy; everything seems to be lit by the fireplace and it only enhances Tyler’s beauty. James is blander, handsome in that all-American way, but Speedman still provides some depth for his character. Spending the night at his father’s old summer home, James turns on a record player and the couple tries to work out their issues. Their dialogue seems natural, their conversation punctuated by moments of humor and pathos as the scratchy record plays in the background. The turntable has a fairly prominent place in the film, alternating between songs such as “Mama Tried” by Merle Haggard and “The Sprout and the Bean” by Joanna Newsom. Some interesting choices and, again, unusual for the typical horror movie.

Unfortunately, the anomalies end there. After the first abrupt knock on the door in the wee hours, the film devolves into your average, predictable, cheap-fright shockfest, with an added dose of pointless torture-porn at the end. Kristen and James find themselves held attacked by three unknown “strangers” who take their time in scaring and entrapping them. Bertino must have taken a page from Scream (and Halloween and Friday the 13th and so on and so forth) and decided that masks are scary! And to make it creepier, let’s have two of them wear doll masks! And the other can just wear a bag with cut-out eye holes! Let the terror commence!

Thus begins an excruciating cat-and-mouse game within the confines of the isolated summer cabin, lasting the duration of almost the entire film. Bertino relies solely on traditional horror movie tactics: the killer appears in the background and then disappears suddenly, the heroine pounces when the door opens – only to be surprised when it’s her boyfriend. The outline of an axe in the toolshed indicates a missing weapon, warnings are written on the windows with red paint. The music patiently informs us when the next scare will be and the tricks grow tiresome.

Amidst the now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t scare antics, Kristen pleads repeatedly, “Why are you doing this to us?” The film never resolves this question, which is too bad, since it was the only thing that was somewhat engaging to the viewer. Supposedly the director was exploring the fact that “often violence can be senseless.” An interesting idea, but it bears little or no relevance to the actual content or the resolution of the film. While Bertino clearly has an ear for dialogue and music, as well as an eye for creative and even beautiful shots, he squanders it on a below-average storyline. The Strangers had the potential to be a smart and hip horror film, but sadly it can be summed up by two very noisy but perceptive women in the theater: “Those are two hours of my life that I’ll never get back!” and “Damn, I’m glad that shit was free.”

© 2008 Maggie Glass. All rights reserved.

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