Kevin's Review: The Strangers - An Unsettling, Yet Ironically Familiar, Scare
by Kevin Powers
May 30, 2008
From the "inspired by true events" tagline on the poster to the documentary-like intro, Bryan Bertino's first feature, The Strangers, contains painstaking efforts to achieve a patina of realism. The film partly succeeds, delivering a spectrum of fear that is as subtle and disquieting as hearing footsteps at your back door and as suffocating as having a plastic bag over your face. At the same time, The Strangers is all too familiar in its shortcomings, never reaching the height of something truly scary.
The film opens with James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) and Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) arriving home from a friend's wedding. In short time, we learn that the two are in the throes of a failed marriage proposal. None of this is actually stated so clearly. Instead, Bertino places you in the scene, intimately, so that you connect more with the characters by trying to understand what is happening to them as opposed to simply telling you. Up-close, shaky shots of clenched hands and tear-traced cheeks give the film a private sense of realism - privacy that is shattered by the banging of a stranger at their door.
The knocking is really just foreplay, as we soon understand the unsettling truth that the taunting, masked strangers can pop in and out of the house undetected and with relative ease. They leave evidence that tells Kristen and James they're vulnerable - a moved smoke detector, a missing cell phone battery. As intricate and believable as the movie tries to be, the completely muted movements of the invaders feels a bit disingenuous. These are psychopaths, after all, not ninjas.
Bertino relies heavily on this creepy, creeping effect, slowing revealing the intruders that lurk in the shadows behind James or Kristen. To be sure it's a well-cooked scare, the device (and its overuse) isn't very realistic and therefore feels contradictory to the film's intended direction. Equally unbelievable are Kristen's actions as the couple tries to logically understand what is happening and plot an escape. As much as Bertino invests in a real-world tapestry of invasive sounds, distant footsteps and oppressive anxiety, he drops the ball when it comes to the couple's behavior.
Inevitably during this film, given its concerted attempts at defining a real sense of space and experience, you're going to ask yourself, "What would I do?" Topping that list would arguably be putting on your shoes. You know, in case you need to run like hell. Kristen, oddly, never does. She also manages to knock over an impressive number of fixtures and frames as she's supposedly trying to quietly make her way through the house, while James manages to do little with the only firearm in play. Shortcomings like this aren't at all foreign to films of this genre, but they're particularly noticeable and more egregious here.
We're presented with an overabundance of questionable actions such as this, since the strangers are more like sharks that take their time circling their prey; they don't actually out-and-out strike. So as you witness the conspicuous fumblings of the couple, you get the feeling that you're just waiting until the bad guys decide to really make a move. It becomes a bit frustrating, even at a short run-time of just 90 minutes. While Bertino's attempt at terror is impressive, he falls short of presenting his intended real-world scare, instead giving us a film that is, especially in the final scene, ironically too familiar.