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Wednesday, October 29, 2008
  DVD Review: The Strangers

The Strangers isn’t really a horror movie, in the traditional sense. As someone (I think it was the DP or production designer) says on one of the extras, it’s more of a “terror movie” than a horror movie. Which sounds like a strange (and nitpicky) distinction, but it’s very accurate. The Strangers plays on very real fears most of us share, some rational (fear of violence against randomly-selected victims) and some not (fear of the dark). For the most part it’s an incredibly well-made film, and is often very effective in what it’s trying to do. But it ultimately loses steam before its bizarrely anticlimactic ending.

The Strangers is the feature film debut from writer-director Bryan Bertino, and I vaguely recall reading something about how it was one of those movies that languished on the studio’s shelf for months (maybe even years) before eventually getting a release. This is typically not a good sign, but in the case of The Strangers, I’m guessing it had more to do with the way in which the movie is decidedly not your typical teen-skewing slasher flick or another Saw-esque piece of torture porn. And in this day and age where the above two choices, along with J-horror remakes (though thankfully the latter seems to be dying off for the most part), seem to make up the vast majority of horror movies released here, I can see how a movie like The Strangers would seem like a tough sell to studio suits.

The simple plot follows a young couple, James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) and Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler), staying at the Hoyt family cottage, when in the middle of the night, a random girl knocks at the door, ostensibly looking for someone. Shortly after they turn her away, a trio of masked….strangers (sorry, couldn’t avoid it) begin terrorizing them, evidently for no reason other than because they were home.

The premise of The Strangers is the foundation of the film’s scares. Horror movies typically work best when the viewer can put themselves in the proverbial shoes of the characters onscreen (usually, but not always, the victims), and have the scares come from that. And very little is scarier than the idea of being the victim of a random, brutal crime. The Strangers gets a lot of mileage out of its concept, using atmosphere and psychological terror to instill fear in the audience rather than “gotcha” scares, violence and gore. James and Kristen (and the audience) rarely even see their tormentors, and the glimpses we catch of the masked figures standing silently in the darkness are genuinely terrifying. Bertino also uses sound very effectively; a lot of the movie’s scariest moments are when Kristen or James is stumbling through the house reacting to weird noises in the night. The Strangers is one of the most technically impressive horror films I’ve seen in a long time, and Bertino and his crew do an excellent job of building tension and continually upping the ante in the opening half of the movie.

Another thing The Strangers does better than most horror films is ground the main characters in an emotional reality that better allows the viewer to identify them. When we’re introduced to James and Kristen, they’re returning to the cottage after some sort of formal party (probably a wedding reception, but it’s never made totally clear), and it’s clear they haven’t spoken for the entire car ride. In the next several minutes, Bertino cleverly reveals – again, without the characters explicitly stating it – that James proposed to Kristen earlier that night, only to be rejected. The strained state of their relationship doesn’t really add much to the story on the surface, but that sort of small but important detail makes the characters far more relatable than your average slasher-movie fodder. I actually found myself so compelled by the story of this couple as their relationship hits a crossroads that I was almost disappointed when the masked psychopaths showed up.

But this same grounding ultimately worked against the film, if that makes any sense. The buildup works so well that, like a lot of movies with killer premises, the resolution sort of can’t help but be a bit of a letdown. And personally, I found that letdown to be pretty huge in The Strangers. I’m obviously not going to spoil anything (which will potentially make this part of the review frustratingly vague, so I apologize in advance), but about midway through the movie there was a somewhat major event, a clear turning point in the film, that sort of took me out of it, and things never really got back on track. By about halfway through the movie, I began to tire of the masked trio just sort of messing with the couple’s heads, coming in and out of the house to turn on record players and write stuff on windows and bathroom mirrors and so forth, and realized one of the film’s other big faults – because Speedman and Tyler are the only real victims, The Strangers has to spend a lot more time than most movies like this showing them being stalked and harassed, and it begins to get old after a while. In a more traditional horror flick like Friday the 13th or Halloween, the pace can be maintained with a few minor kills here and there, but The Strangers lacks that. While The Strangers is short – the extended ‘unrated’ cut is still under 90 minutes – it still manages to drag in places.

The resolution of The Strangers was the part that left me the coldest. Again, without giving anything away, I literally shouted to my TV (I live alone, so this happens a lot, unfortunately) “That’s it?!?! What was the point of all that?” To call it anticlimactic is an understatement, and while I appreciate Bertino’s attempt to end the film a bit of a question mark in the final scene (another slasher movie staple), it’s far too little and way too late.

Overall there’s much in The Strangers that works, and it works very well. I’m not a huge horror movie fan, but I could definitely appreciate the craftsmanship on display. Setting it in a remote cabin gives the movie a sense of being simultaneously claustrophobic and out in the open, and the tiny cast and intimate set makes it feel almost like a play in places. But the whole thing loses steam midway through, and the ending is a major letdown. Horror buffs will probably be able to look pass the film’s shortcomings, and if you’re looking for some Halloween night viewing, you could do much worse than The Strangers, a flawed yet fascinating little fright flick.



There isn’t a whole lot of extras on the DVD for The Strangers. The disc features both the theatrical cut and an extended unrated version that runs a few minutes longer. The main feature is a brief making-of featurette that actually manages to cram a lot of information into under 10 minutes. There are also two short deleted scenes, both of which further develop the relationship between James and Kristen before things get crazy. They’re both nice little scenes, but with a film like The Strangers, I can understand the need to really get to the stuff people ostensibly paid to see as quickly as possible.

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