Thursday, May 29, 2008
The Strangers opens with the familiar title "inspired by true events," and a supposedly real 911 call. A couple of young Mormon missionaries arrive at a home that's a bloody mess. Flashback to James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler) leaving a wedding. They seem uncharacteristically sad for wedding attendees. When they arrive at James' remote family vacation home, we discover why. He has proposed marriage to Kristen and she has turned him down. Now the cabin with all its lit candles and rose petals is like salt in the wound for James. But as Kristen tries on the beautiful nightgown he has bought for her, the two experience a sudden surge of passion. Then there's a loud knock on the door. A strange girl asks for someone the couple says doesn't live there. The mood is broken and James opts to go off for a drive leaving Kristen alone. That's when the girl creepily returns and brings her two friends. The relentless assault begins and all Kristen can do is repeatedly ask "Why are you doing this to us?"
**POSSIBLE SPOILERS AHEAD**
Now I wasn't going to say anything about the answer the film provides but then I saw the trailer and changed my mind. The trailer, as is now the tradition, reveals almost everything. This must drive horror filmmakers absolutely mad. I remember the recent 1408 in which the best scares in the film were revealed in the trailer and prevented the film from having the privilege of delivering the jolt itself. Similarly, the "mystery" of The Strangers , why this mysterious trio chooses to terrorize this couple, should have been left to the film to resolve. But the answer is clearly revealed in the radio promos and trailers. And the answer is "because you are a home." Now on one level I can see why first time writer-director Bryan Bertino wanted to include this answer in his film - it lends a nice irony to the whole proceedings because James and Kristen are not a home, they are a couple struggling through relationship problems and possibly on the verge of breaking up.
One of the masked assailants in The Strangers. Will Dollface sell as well as Jason's hockey mask this Halloween? (Rogue Pictures)
Yet the irony gained by this revelation is not worth what you lose overall in the film. By allowing Kristen's question to go unanswered would have been a far more effective and chilling way to end the film. And it would have been one less thing the promo people wouldn't be able to give away. But answering the question and trying to give some background on the tormentors proves to be a detriment to the film and forces it into lame clich es.
Although The Strangers ultimately leaves you disappointed, Bertino reveals flashes of horror savvy. While he employs the predictable shaky-cam in the opening and in scenes that seem ill-suited for the technique, his camerawork goes surprisingly steady and still for the first appearance of the scarecrow-masked attacker. As Kristen putters around the kitchen and commands our overt attention, her soon-to-be attacker quietly emerges in the corner of the frame. No heavy-handed music punctuation or sound effect to announce his arrival, no frantic cutting. He enters and leaves, and some people may not even catch the fact that he has slipped into the cabin. The subtlety of this reveal is refreshing, as is the way Bertino introduces these three strangers. They don't immediately inflict violence but rather torment the couple with the threat of violence. In that way Bertino actually builds some nice tension.
A terrified Liv Tyler in The Strangers (Rogue Pictures)
There are also some nice touches in the unusual music choices - some novelty tunes and country songs that unexpectedly and incongruently play as the couple is being terrorized. They also deflate some of the clich es about macho posturing that often occurs in such movies. James is forced to reveal that his claims of going hunting are all lies and he has no idea how to use the gun in the family house. And later there's a scene involving an innocent person getting shot that goes to what the real horror often is and that's the horrible things humans are capable of doing when they are scared or fighting for their lives.
But these occasional inspired moments cannot make up for the overall sense of tired familiarity that the film creates. Like the recent Vacancy , it tries to revive a horror formula with a lean, mean approach to a stock thriller plot. But The Strangers isn't lean enough or mean enough to really impress. There are too many stupid things -- like the boyfriend insisting on two occasions to leave his girlfriend alone, or the 911 call at the beginning conflicting with the fact that all phones are quickly disabled and no 911 call is ever made. A lack of attention to such details & and to maintaining some kind of consistency can only hurt the film.
The girl that starts it all in The Starngers (Rogue Pictures)
The Strangers (rated R violence/terror and language) gets your hopes up with some smart filmmaking but then pretty much dashes them by the final predictable fade out. Similar premises were played out to more disturbing effect in films such as Straw Dogs and the recent The Devil's Rejects ; and in more dated but effective fashion in The Desperate Hours (the 1955 William Wyler-Humphrey Bogart version). But Bertino displays enough of a spark that I'll be curious to see what he does next.
Companion viewing: Straw Dogs, Vacancy, The Devils Rejects, The Desperate Hours, Funny Game
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