The Strangers

Movies Reviews Bryan Bertino
The Strangers

DVD Release Date: Oct. 21
Director/Writer: Bryan Bertino
Cinematographer: Peter Sova
Starring: Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman
Studio/Run Time: Universal, 88 mins.

Horror film doesn’t hold up

Ever since the Coen brothers pulled one over on viewers with the blatant but joking falsehood, “This is a true story,” thrillers “inspired by true events”—as The Strangers claims to be—have held less water. As Fargo coyly pointed out, it’s a base qualifier, and when a filmmaker flashes that credential, viewers should be alert. I suppose The Strangers could’ve been inspired by true events, inasmuch as violent crimes do occur, and sometimes they’re random. But with the film’s posters and opening credits presenting the claim, it’s clear that first-time filmmaker Bryan Bertino really wants viewers to believe it. Alone, this cheap trick wouldn’t be a huge offense, but in the context of The Strangers, it feels like Bertino is presenting it as a way to make an unscary movie more chilling than it deserves to be.

The film follows Kristen (Tyler) and James (Speedman) home to his parents’ vacation house after a wedding reception. Their relationship has taken a sudden, stressful turn following Kristen’s rejection of James’ marriage proposal earlier in the evening. The couple spends the next few hours staring weepily at walls and moving around each other in tense and saddened quiet. It’s actually an intriguing predicament: Why did Kristen reject him? How will James move on? They’re about to have teary break-up sex when the first knock comes at the door, effectively interrupting James’ last chance to score— and all character development. At the precise moment the characters start to become interesting, they’re suspended. Henceforth, they behave exactly like all victims of faceless psychopathic stalkers: that is, like panicky idiots.

It’s difficult to feel truly frightened by the three masked killers, both because we don’t know enough about the victims to get attached, and because there’s so little explanation as to why this group has decided to slaughter people they don’t know. The movie’s minimalist feel provides more than enough space to develop such plot elements, but Bertino shies away from exposition. To his credit, The Strangers doesn’t fall prey to gratuitous gore and horror, but the director’s hesitancy takes the film too far in the other direction. Minimalism works best in cinema when there’s something profound to highlight; in its simplicity, tree limbs stirred in the wind or the ticking of a clock can become haunting symbols of anxiety and fear. But in this
case, the ties between audience and character are so tenuous that it’s hard to make the viewer feel uncomfortable.

Perhaps Bertino’s attempt at a twist is the story Kristen and James seem to tell without words: In the last scene, Kristen is wearing the engagement ring, which she slipped on in a moment of contemplation before the stalking began. Perhaps the most disturbing thing about this movie is the realization that it’s hard to care about people you don’t know being tortured at the hands of other people you don’t know. But they’re suffering! Where is your heart? Not to say it isn’t a bit of a bummer, strictly in the sense that being tortured sucks, but beyond that the ultimate effect could be expressed by flipping off the DVD player, watching about 45 seconds of Clean House, and then wandering into the kitchen to peek in the fridge. You’ll be midway through your Olive Garden leftovers before you think about the fact that you just watched two people get tied up and stabbed. And then you’ll probably think the alfredo would taste better if you popped it in the microwave.

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