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.
Reader Feedback - 14 Comments
I hate to be "that guy" but in the first image above, the weapon James is holding is a shotgun not a rifle. 🙂
joel on May 30, 2008
Come on, Joel. Don't be that guy. haha
CJD on May 30, 2008
You can say Ils ripped of Funny Games, etc, etc. These types of movies of course sound familiar because they are! The set-ups are alike but the way the films play out are different. Its like a "chicken crosses the road" joke. Its the same set-up but a different punchline. However, all 3 of these films I would say see :).
Ryan on May 30, 2008
Does anyone think this is more or less a rip-off of 'Ils'?
Steve Jobs on May 30, 2008
Is it just me? Does his almost feel like a crappy re-deux of "Last House on the Left"?... thats the feeling I get... Pass til dvd or cable... 🙁
Lealand L on May 31, 2008
Vic on Jun 1, 2008
This movie sucked big time. A typical violent crime who cares. The people were dumb, completely dumb, you don't go back into the house, you don't call your boyfriend first you call the police. And the guy has a shotgun you stay, you always barricade yourself, and the brother should announce himself. These events in this movie would never happen, everyone has seen these movies or already know what to do. If it was me I would call the police and then start running down the road, are you going to tell me that the entire time not a single vehicle came by, where did the brother's jeep go, and I liked that the brother was Glenn from Its Always Sunny In Philadelphia. Someone could of told me that it was a Dateline special.
fish on Jun 2, 2008
I love horror movies but won't see this one b/c it doesn't look too original or appear that it leaves anything to the imagination. Last great one I saw was "The Descent"..when are they going to make good horror movies again?
CJD on Jun 2, 2008
i saw this it scared the sh*t out of me. best and scariest, scary movie i have ever seen.
nic on Jun 7, 2008
saw this today and about laughed myself to tears. its is the longest experiment in stupidity that has ever been recorded. brava!!
laze on Nov 2, 2008
okay, scary movie....but the ending?? so, who are "the strangers"? or..is this just another scary movie without a decent plot??
court. on Feb 5, 2009
the people terrorizing them just chose them, there really wasn't a motivation, the people were just home. personally i thought this movie sucked ass, it did not scare me in the least bit and was just an awful movie.
guh on Nov 11, 2009
@ nic....are you serious? that is really very sad, is this like the 1st horror (if you can even call it that) movie that you've seen? this is simply the worst and least scary movie i have ever seen, and i'm a HUGE fan of the genre
guh on Dec 17, 2009
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