The Strangers – Dir: Bryan Bertino; *ing: Scott Speedman, Liv Tyler
Horror is a tricky genre. Firstly, it’s a head-scratcher trying to figure out what’s likely to scare an audience (and that changes from generation to generation). Secondly, it’s all too easy to fall on the wrong side of the fine line dividing horror and schlock. Whether you’re making a supernatural creep-fest or a blood ‘n guts slasher extravaganza – it’s a gambit that has historically gone horribly wrong more often than it has gone just right. For every The Exorcist, there are ten Friday The 13ths; for every Halloween, there are, well, its half-a-dozen inane sequels. So every new pretender is to be approached with some trepidation and outright suspicion. In recent years, it has been the torture-porn purveyors of the likes of Saw and Hostel that have made the most noise commercially (while it was the low-key The Descent that was far superior). But last year’s Stephen King adap 1408, and, more to the point, this summer’s supremely terrifying The Orphanage, demonstrated that creepy psychological scares work just as well, in fact, far better, than pints of corn syrup blood and latex guts. The latest entrant, The Strangers, unlike these other two, lacks an obvious supernatural element, but for a good part of the running time, at least, manages to scare up a fright or two (lame pun absolutely intended).
Plot-wise, there isn’t much to it. After a deliberately misleading (and pretty much untrue) claim that what follows is based on true events, we are introduced to our main characters: James (Speedman) and Kristen (luminous Liv Tyler), a couple in love whose relationship is nevertheless in turmoil. Returning to James’ father’s country cabin late at night after a wedding, the two are on the brink of breaking up when their personal problems are railroaded by troubles of another kind. Seemingly out of nowhere, three masked strangers appear and proceed to terrorise the couple. Phones, cars, and arms one by one put out of commission, James and Kristen have no one left to call, nowhere left to go, and nothing left to defend themselves with. And since the fake prologue told us at the very outset that the actual events of the incidents are unknown, it’s safe to say that things don’t look promising for the unfortunate couple.
So why watch it?
Well, because for the most part, it is a well-made film, and also for the stark, claustrophobic ambience that director Bertino conjures up. With a muted, ochre palette and minimal ambient sound (including prescient use of an old fashioned record player that eventually adds to the eeriness), the filmmaker pushes the paranoia card, and for a while it works, and works well. It was also a wise choice to build the tension slowly; instead of diving head-first into hysteria lane, Bertino takes the time to let his audience get a feel for and sympathise with his main leads, as well as their environment. As a result, when the (subtle) psychos of the title come calling, we actually care what happens to the victims, and, more importantly, share in their sheer, naked fear as well.
The film does start to run out of steam about half-way through though, when the action momentarily moves outside, and, in an embarrassingly predictable sequence, the victims themselves off a potential rescuer. Gaping holes in the script also start to irk: the tormentors are not ghosts or ghoulies, so how in the hell are they able to get in and out of spaces so smoothly? It is presumably their first time in this house, so why do they seem to know its ins and outs better than the regular occupants?
But such quibbles aside, there is a lot to recommend The Strangers to aficionados of the spine-chiller, and for followers of the history of violent crime, it has another angle as well.
“Why are you doing this to us?” Kristen tearfully asks her tormentors at one point.
“Because you were home” replies one of them dispassionately.
The initiated should immediately recognize the parallels with the infamous Tate-Labianca murders at the hands of the Manson ‘family’ in 1969. This, and the sympathy with which it treats its two protagonists, gives the film a wholly unexpected poignancy that helps set it apart from other, more exploitative entries in the genre.