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  The Strangers

Starring: Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman, Gemma Ward, Keep Weeks

Directed by: Bryan Bertino

Produced by: Doug Davison, Roy Lee, Nathan Kahane

Written by: Bryan Bertino
Distributor: Focus Features, Rogue Pictures, Universal Pictures


     I have never tried to make a horror film of my own, but after watching dozens (if not hundreds) of them, I feel qualified to speculate on what the hardest thing about the process is. It seems to me, based on all of the horror pictures that I have sat through over the years, that the most crucial and yet most seldom accomplishment made by filmmakers in the genre is the act of properly balancing the moment and the inevitable. Horror movies, to a greater degree than any other type, must keep the viewer captivated by the suspense created by their villains while at the same time leaving the characters’ ultimate fate in said viewer’s mind. This balance allows the writer and director to evoke a sense of impending doom (or, in a select few cases, optimism) that aids their film’s sense of dramatic tension while still keeping the audience chained to its seat in a state of, well, horror.

     Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers not only accomplishes the aforementioned balancing-act, but takes it to a higher level. Not only does Bertino imbue a doomy, gloomy tone in his picture: he also confidently lets his viewer know the soon-to-be-terrorized protagonists’ likely fate in the opening scene. The film begins with a stark and monotone narration-sequence, not unlike that employed by Marcus Nispel’s 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The audience is informed that—as far as I can remember—couple James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) and Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) were brutally tortured in a manner that subsequent investigations were not able to make sense of. I say “as far as I can remember” because what followed—the real account of what happened to James and Kristen—jarred me and kept me transfixed to such an extent that I felt so caught up in the action that I never allowed myself a spare moment to stop and consider the opening. From my shaken perspective, I was existing alongside these two characters as they struggled to survive against psychopathic, masked killers terrorizing their vacation-home. And, even after watching the film’s ending and mulling-over Bertino’s opening-hint, I can’t definitely say if one of them lived or died. Bertino puts everything on the table and hides it at the same time and, in the process, forges a reason to care for James and Kristen through the surreal quality about the material developed therein, whatever the pair’s ultimate fate.

      Then again, others will undeniably read the movie differently than me and find it completely straightforward. In this very fact lies the true, rare wonderfulness of the movie: it’s not simply a horror picture, but a motion picture. The Strangers, while distinctly sticking to the traditions and structure of the films of the horror genre, is a “movie” before it is a “horror movie.” It offers an experience that is as emotionally-rattling and downright fascinating as any other one will ever have at a cinema.

     In the aforementioned realization of the picture’s rare ability to transcend mere categorization for all-intensive purposes, I have perhaps discovered that its magic doesn’t so much lie in its perfect contrast of climax and conclusion, but its mastery of another juxtaposition: that between expectation and reality. Indeed, The Strangers may look and feel like a standard horror picture, but it diverges from the core principles of the genre more often than it adheres to them. When the details of the story don’t exactly move in the way we expect them to, the exercise proves horrifying in and of itself, dramatic tension aside. Because Bertino tells us where the picture is headed and we know how other films of the sort have reached similar destinations, The Strangers attains a remarkable level of unpredictability when it strays from the norm. In deliberate contrast to what one might expect: the protagonists are afforded an entire first-act of character development, allowing them to evoke genuine sympathy in the viewer; there are no illogical or exaggerated plot-conveniences afforded to the protagonists or the antagonists, allowing the movie to take on a surprisingly realistic tone; and the central action, for the most part, occurs within the claustrophobic 100-foot-radius of James and Kristen’s vacation-home. Startlingly coupled with genre-standard high shot-exposure levels, handheld shots showcasing the protagonists’ vulnerable upper profiles, and climactic employment of ironically upbeat musical choices, the traits are effective in dumbfounding the viewer into their complete engrossment in the material.

     To aid matters, the villains and their victims couldn’t be better defined. Wreaking havoc on James and Kristen by attempting to frighten and murder them within the confines of their country vacation-home, the three masked antagonists are terrifying. The viewer is only able to see their lower-bodies until the very end of the film, a greatly effective strategy on Bertino’s part. What’s most striking about the evil trio for The Strangers’ first eighty minutes is the fact that they come across as distinctly modern villains. Fit in build and provided only a single line of clearly-spoken dialogue between the three of them, they are not the standard incestuous Southern hick villains that one is used to seeing in slasher-flicks. They are real people, and the fact that they are so insane as to inflict such irrational harm on James and Kristen within the confines of such perceived normalcy makes them all the more terrifying.

      Providing ample contrast to the malicious antagonists, protagonists James and Kristen couldn’t be more likable. The viewer meets the central two as they are presumably about to break their relationship off, having come from a gathering at which James proposed to Kristen to a painstaking rejection. It becomes all the more unbearable when they enter the vacation-home, which James had filled with rose-peddles expecting it to be the venue of a happier time. “I didn’t know whether you were supposed to put them in before or after you filled it up,” he poetically confesses to her in quiet desperation as she draws a bath in a peddle-filled basin. Both characters feel tremendously authentic and empathetic, especially during a heated moment in which they caress each other before break-up sex that is interrupted by the villains’ thunderous first knock on their dwelling’s door. Of the two performers, Liv Tyler is especially heartbreaking, both before the central action kicks in and during it.

     The Strangers has been compared to last year’s also-excellent horror-picture Vacancy by a sizable amount of critics. While the two films share the common premise of a romantically-challenged couple coming together when thrust into an extraordinarily violent situation, I can’t help but feel that The Strangers is in a higher league. While Vacancy was innovative in its own way, it had the advantages of a nifty set and further-explored antagonists, indulging in the protagonists’ attempts to escape from a murder-filled motel and delving into their opponents’ motivations for killing. This movie, on the other hand, is stripped down to the bare essentials of filmmaking, creating a situation that comes across as frighteningly possible in the ways that it manipulates limited space and convincing characterizations. In a cinematic day in which disastrously overcomplicated storytelling fueling plainly-obvious plots is the norm—especially in the horror genre—it’s particularly nice to see a picture that understands its ability to utilize the conveniences and innovations of conventional narrative-building to craft an emotionally-affecting abstraction of reality. Unexpected as it may be, The Strangers represents cinema verite at its finest.

-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 6.1.2008

Screened on: 5.31.2008 at the Edwards San Marcos 18 in San Marcos, CA.


The Strangers is rated R and runs 85 minutes.

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