Written and Directed by: Bryan Bertino
Starring: Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman
Reviewed by: Wes R.
“Why are you doing this to us?”
“Because you were home.”
“Because you were home.”
What does the phrase “random act of violence” mean to you? To me, it’s terrifying. The thought that someone or some group could suddenly decide (for reasons entirely of their own) to go out and harm a complete stranger is horrible. Though the statistics are on our side (stating overwhelmingly that most people who fall victim to murder are killed by someone they know) there is an alarming number of people every year killed by total strangers. The topic has been tacked before in a number of genre and non-genre films, but I think we have now found THE essential home invasion film… The Strangers.
When first we meet James (Scott Speedman), he has a hard look about him. Of course with eyes full of tears, his girlfriend Kristen (Liv Tyler) isn’t doing much better. James recently popped the question to Kristen and she turned him down because she wasn’t ready just yet. The two return to James’ parents’ old house, which ahead of time (and expecting a much different answer), he has decorated with enough candles and rose petals to make Cupid himself envious. The house is completely secluded in the woods making it the ideal spot for a romantic getaway… or perhaps, the perfect location for a trio of nameless psychos to terrorize the occupants. Interrupting an intimate moment between the couple, an abrasive knock is heard at their door. When they open the door, we see a young woman in shadow. “Is Tamara there?” she asks. The couple tell her she has the wrong house, and confused, she goes on her way. James leaves the house to go get something, and within minutes of being alone, Kristen begins experiencing strange knocks on the doors and windows. The young girl returns to the front door, again asking for Tamara. Then, the attacks get more intrusive and violent. When James returns, things get worse, as they realize that they are being terrorized by a very cruel and calculating band of psychopaths… who are willing to stop at nothing to get into the house and do harm to James and Kristen.
What a truly amazing horror film. The trailer for The Strangers looked promising, but it was even better than I had hoped for. This one is creepy, demented, mean-spirited, and just downright scary. When a film has a hardened horror vet such as myself looking over my shoulder on the way home from the theater, you know that it came to play and that it got the job done. This isn’t a soft PG-13 clone or remake written, re-written, and slapped together by a group of studio execs. No, this film actually has bite to it. For such a mainstream film, it holds a decidedly mean streak. Toward the end, the interaction between the three killers and their victims put into mind a combination of Halloween and Last House on the Left (sans rape, of course). Let’s face it, masked psychos are a dime a dozen in the horror film world. Thanks to the effectiveness of their unrelenting presence, the look of their masks, and the viciousness of their attacks, you truly fear these three masked psychos and you worry for the safety of James and Kristen. When they have their tender moments early on, you’re heartbroken that she won’t marry him, but you understand that it’s probably for the best that they don’t go that route just yet. It’s plain to see that they’re both crazy about one another. This level of character involvement makes the events of the film all the more disturbing and tragic. These aren’t killers that you root on and cheer for. These are sick lunatics that you fear and want to see proper justice carried out against.
The music of the film by tomandandy (Tom Hajdu and Andy Milburn) is very low key and effective. You may remember their work in P2, The Mothman Prophecies, and The Hills Have Eyes remake. Their score for The Strangers is one of the best horror scores to come along in a long while, and I urge all horror music fans to pick up the soundtrack album. Though sometimes all a scene has is silence, sometimes that’s all we need. The tension created by the music and by the lack of music is astonishing. The house in which the action takes place also comes complete with an old LP player, which provides some of the film’s most unsettling moments (you’ll never hear Merle Haggard’s country classic “Mama Tried” quite the same way as you did before, that's for sure!) The masks used in the film are suitably eerie (one a smiley faced type sack, one a doll’s face, and the other a little girl). After years of seeing direct-to-video flick after direct-to-video flick featuring uninspired or just plain ridiculous masks for their killers to wear, along comes this film that not only gives horror fandom one really scary mask to fear, but three! The antics of the strangers range from sadistic to childish. These people are enjoying this. Sure, they could probably move in for an easy kill, but they want to mentally torture this helpless couple.
Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler deliver flawless performances. Not too over the top, not too distracted. They are very believable as a young couple struggling in love and trying to stay alive. Actors Gemma Ward, Kip Weeks, and Laura Margolis had the truly thankless task of characterizing deranged psychopaths without the benefit of facial expressions or even many lines of dialogue at all. There is nothing to help us identify the strangers. All we have are their actions, mannerisms, and their very limited dialogue. That’s it. In all, the three strangers speak probably under five lines of dialogue, making the few they do speak all the more haunting to the viewer. Writer and director Bertino gives us no help as well. We get no radio or television warning about escaped mental patients or anything of the sort. No clichéd “this house used to belong to such-and-such family before my parents owned it, and a terrible murder once happened there” type of contrivance. No, the three killers here are quite literally, random strangers. They could easily be anybody of any background, and they could seemingly target anyone of any background. I don’t know about you, but to me, this is a frightening concept. The film opens on passing shots of random houses in a neighborhood. This is perhaps meant to emulate the killers’ selection of potential victims. Very unsettling to think back on, once you see the film.
Despite being written a full two years before the French thriller Them was made, The Strangers is often compared with it, due to similar plot elements (home invasion). Having seen both, I can tell you that Them isn’t even in this movie’s ballpark... although it was a fine film in its own right. Where Them falls the shortest is in the resolution/explanation of the killers. I thoroughly enjoyed Them, but even I had to admit that the conclusion was a bit silly and undermined the rest of the film. The Strangers doesn’t share this problem. The filmmakers of The Strangers wisely go the route of films like Black Christmas and Class Reunion Massacre, giving few small clues along the way, but no hard answers. The reason for this is simple: It works. It’s much scarier (in this viewer’s opinion) to not know. Are they part of a cult? Are they doing all this as part of some gang initiation? Are they just bored rich kids looking for kicks? You don’t know, and really, you may not want to know. The scope cinematography worked brilliantly in the film’s favor. Even fully lit, the interior of the house has plenty of shadows and darkness (which, is actually pretty realistic to how most houses’ lighting schemes are). The spooky white faces of the killers’ masks creep into frame in the most unlikely and startling of places. Tired of poorly conceived and just plain bad jump-scares? This film delivers several very well-crafted and genuine jump-scares. Some criticize jump-scares for startling the audience moreso than actually scaring, but I think a good jump-scare lends to a film a thrilling amusement park haunted house type of atmosphere.
The Strangers is one of the best made, most effective American horror films released in the last twenty years (if not THE best). It’s the rare type of film that completely ensnares the audience under its spell and doesn’t let them go until the end. Even then, the film holds a grasp long after you’ve left the theater. I found myself trying my best not to look out into the darkness of my back yard this evening, as I went to lock the back door for the night. If there was somebody out there wearing a mask as the killers in The Strangers do, I sure wouldn't want to see it. Yes, you’ve seen a lot of this type of stalk and slash fare before, but not quite in the way that this film presents it. Bryan Bertino has given the horror world a new breath of fresh air by crafting a film that will surely become a classic. He's a filmmaker to keep an eye on, for certain. I hope he sticks with the genre. Support this film. There may not be another horror film this good released for a long, long while. Go see The Strangers as it’s meant to be seen (in a theater, surrounded by a couple of hundred theater patrons who are just as jumpy as you are... and then go home, lock all your doors, and pray to God that life does not imitate art. Essential!
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