Inspired by a true story, The Strangers
marks writer/director Bryan Bertino’s feature film debut and the first-timer does a decent job of capturing the tense atmosphere of a horrifying home invasion by three psychopaths. Bertino shows a lot of restraint in his rookie effort, letting the story build slowly instead of immediately leaping into the action.
We get to know the film’s central characters, a young couple in the midst of a relationship crisis, and see them as real human beings and not just horror movie fodder. That’s a key factor in being able to get wrapped up in their struggle for survival against heavy odds. And once all hell breaks loose, Bertino maintains the pulse-pounding momentum through to nearly the end.
James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) and Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) are obviously in the middle of a fight when we’re introduced to them in the beginning of The Strangers. As the story unfolds, the cause of the friction between the couple becomes evident. James proposed and Kristen didn’t say yes. James is the sort of guy women go ga-ga over – a handsome romantic who isn’t a commitmentphobe. He even went as far as to spread rose petals around his family’s vacation home, chill champagne, and set the mood for an intimate evening upon their return to his parents’ place after attending a friend’s wedding. But James’ romantic actions don’t turn the tide in his favor, and now the tension between the two is so thick you’d need a knife to cut through it.
Unfortunately, a knife is exactly what's about to be used to force the couple to forget about the proposal misfire. As they try and deal with the broken state of their relationship in the dead of night, a strange woman knocks on the front door looking for someone who doesn’t live there. Her presence signals the beginning of hours of absolute terror for James and Kristen.
Liv Tyler in a scene from 'The Strangers.'© Rogue Pictures
The ‘lost’ stranger isn’t alone. A slight woman wearing a Kewpie Doll mask and a man whose face is hidden in a burlap sack eerily reminiscent of the Scarecrow mask from Batman Begins
are her partners in crime, and the fearsome threesome have chosen, arbitrarily it would appear, James and Kristen as their unsuspecting and helpless victims. Their attack escalates from loud pounding noises to threatening messages on walls to physical violence, leaving James and Kristen no time to regroup and think out a plan of action. With the intentions of the strangers made clear, James and Kristen engage in the fight of their lives for
The Acting and the Bottom Line
What would you do if you were trapped in a house by a trio of psychos? Would you try escaping into the night screaming bloody murder? Or would you take refuge in one room, barricade the door, and do your best to stay alive until help comes? If you’re the victim in a Hollywood horror movie, chances are you don’t settle on either of those options and instead make the stupidest choices available - choices that if you were sitting in a darkened theater, you’d laugh at yourself for making.
Speedman and Tyler look suitably frightened throughout the action, and pull off a couple in distress admirably despite very limited dialogue. It’s definitely not their fault The Strangers
succumbs time and again to having their characters act in clichéd horror movie ways. Kristen is left alone in the house not once but twice, weapons are picked up only to be discarded shortly thereafter, and even after the home’s obviously been invaded, the couple seems to believe they’re safer cringing inside the front door than running for help. There’s even one laughable moment in which Kristen crawls across the front yard in plain sight while apparently under the impression she can’t be seen by any of her attackers. The only explanation can be that her grasp on reality is loose and she thinks she’s popped into a Harry Potter
movie and has donned Harry’s invisibility cloak. Why else would she crawl over open ground?
James and Kristen alternate between choosing the worst path available and actually acting as appropriately as possible for the situation. When they behave not like characters in a film but as if they were going through an attack in real life, then this creepy thriller is much more entertaining than the standard ‘random victims attacked by strangers’ movie. When Bertino settles for what looks best on film, The Strangers slinks into all too familiar territory and loses its edge.
Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler in 'The Strangers.'© Rogue Pictures
The house/set design does create the perfect atmosphere for the invasion to take place, with muted colors and a shadowy hallway providing just the right backdrop for the action to unfold. But sometimes the camera lingers too long on a particular item, as if to say to the audience, ‘This is important but without focusing extra time on it, you’re not sharp enough to pick this up as a clue.’ When that happens the first time, it’s possible to let it slide. The second and third times aren’t so easily overlooked.
The Strangers does have a few real deliciously scary moments; there are some genuinely frightening scenes in Bertino's debut film. But it's an uneven production with too many instances in which we're yanked out of the movie due to the characters implausible actions. Plus, Bertino lets down the audience by finishing up the film with a final scene that's a real disappointment. The momentum Bertino builds up over the course of the movie is deflated by an ending that doesn't match the rest of the film.
The Strangers was directed by Bryan Bertino and is rated R for violence/terror and language.
Theatrical Release Date: May 30, 2008