Strangers, The (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Strangers, The Poster

We tend to think of our homes as places of safety and refuge. The illusory nature of such a belief is quickly dispelled in Bryan Bertino's debut feature, The Strangers. A chilling horror film about a home invasion, this movie doesn't break any new ground on a plot level, but its interesting cinematography suffuses the production with an overpowering combination of paranoia and claustrophobia. This is one of those rare horror movies that concentrates on suspense and terror rather than on gore and a high body count. By keeping the premise simple and making the small group of characters seem like genuine human beings, Bertino sets the audience up for a tense and uneasy 85 minutes.

It's 4:00 am when Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman) arrive at his cabin in the woods. It has not been a good night for them - Kristen turned down his wedding proposal - but it's about to get much worse. As they're preparing for bed and trying to figure out how to bridge the gulf that has suddenly opened between them, there's a knock at the door. This is the first of many such interruptions of the still night, and it isn't long before harassment develops into something darker and more dangerous. The woods, normally empty and serene, now hold the promise of terror and death.

Bertino has a lot of tricks up his sleeve to make this more than just another "danger at home" movie. He employs a hand-held camera and often shoots in close-up or from a character's point-of-view. He also allows us to see things the characters don't. We know long before they do that there's someone else in the house - we see a figure lurking in the background of a particularly chilling scene. (Cue audience screams.) The director also uses sound to good effect, whether it's an unnaturally loud pounding on the wooden front door or the jarring repetition of a record skipping in the middle of a country/western song. Every shot in the movie has a purpose - not merely to advance the plot, but to do so in a manner that will disconcert even the most jaded viewer.

The Strangers (there are three of them) wear masks. They are simple masks but, as we know from the lesson taught by Michael Myers, even a blank white covering of the face can be terrifying in certain circumstances. Bertino gets a lot of mileage out of these masks. The first few times we see them, they generate far more shock than a human face, no matter how disfigured, could. After a while, however, the effect wears off. Maybe that's why, before the movie comes to its conclusion, the masks have been removed. Their capacity to instill terror diminishes with increased familiarity.

The Strangers is not a perfect motion picture, but it's one of the horror genre's rare recent standouts. The melodrama at the beginning is weak, failing to connect us to the characters to the degree Bertino intends, and the final shot is a bit of a cheat. The Strangers shares a premise and some plot points with Funny Games, although with effective "boo!" moments replacing social commentary. It also bears a strong resemblance to David Moreau & Xavier Palud's 2006 French movie, Ils. (Whether The Strangers is a remake of Ils has been a topic of much debate.) There is a claim that this story has been "inspired by" true events - perhaps the Tate-LaBianca murders at the hands of the Manson Family or the Keddie Resort Cabin 28 kidnapping and killings.

Actors Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman accomplish what's needed for the roles - which is mostly to act terrified, do a lot of running and hiding, and express disbelief. This is not an actors' movie but the leads do nothing to discredit the film by being campy or overacting. They take the material seriously, and that's enough. Tyler also proves she can scream with the best of the modern scream queens. The Strangers are played by actors (Gemma Ward, Laura Margolis, and Kip Weeks), but hidden behind their masks and with minimal dialogue, there's not much for them to do.

The Strangers is so effectively produced that if you arrive home after a night showing to find the electricity off, you will have misgivings about going inside. Horror movies come in two categories: those that deal in supernatural creatures and those that have their roots in very real dangers. The escapism that often categorizes and distances viewers in the former is absent in productions like this. There's pain and blood in The Strangers, but the movie is more about psychological torture than the physical variety. It's intense but not necessarily fun and may disappoint less sophisticated horror fans. However, for die-hard supporters of unsettling peeks into the dark side of human nature, this is a welcome excursion.

Strangers, The (United States, 2008)

Director: Bryan Bertino
Cast: Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman
Screenplay: Bryan Bertino
Cinematography: Peter Sova
Music: tomandandy
U.S. Distributor: Rogue Pictures
Run Time: 1:25
U.S. Release Date: 2008-05-30
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1