The Strangers opens with Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman) suffering through what they thought was the most painful moment of their lives -- James' proposal didn't go quite the way he'd hoped -- but no, the worst had yet to come. The two of them roll up to his family's out-of-the-way cabin in the wee hours of the morning...the first leg of what was supposed to be a romantic getaway. Grinding salt into the wound, the cabin is still draped with rose petals, and there's a bottle of champagne on ice in the corner. It's after 4 AM when there's a pounding at the door, and a young, waifish blonde blanketed in shadow asks, "Is Tamara there?" She doesn't seem to want to take "no" for an answer, but James and Kristen have enough on their minds that it's quickly forgotten. ...and then there are more knocks. Things inside the cabin keep moving and disappearing. It's just enough to push Kristen to the brink, and as the night drags on, she leans just how right she is to be terrified.
The Strangers could've gone the Hostel route and slowly carved up its two victims, but no, it's more quietly sadistic. Their three masked attackers torment and toy with their prey, kicking the cage and watching the mice inside scurry around in terror. Its focus is aimed at nothing but tension and suspense....a bleak, nihilistic movie that's ultimately not about anything. There's no reason behind it. This assault isn't fueled by hatred or revenge. Kristen and James are being stalked because they were home. Nothing is revealed about the attackers: who they are, what they come from, what drove them to do this...hell, even what they look like, spending the entire movie in shadow, lopped off the edges of the frame, or hidden behind cold, expressionless masks. There's no characterization, humanity, or even any real dialogue once the torment gets underway, and that ambiguity is an integral part of the reason The Strangers is so disturbing. I also appreciate the fact that Kristen and James aren't some carefree, cheerfully happy couple at the outset the way these movies usually go. These aren't stupid people making unredeemably stupid mistakes, and they're not entirely helpless. There's just ultimately nothing they can do.
The Strangers never veers
The Strangers is lean, swift, and savagely suspenseful, and even as a lifelong gorehound who seeks out the most gruesome and depraved horror movies I can find, this disturbed and unsettled me more than anything I've seen in an extremely long time. It's a polarizing movie, but I'd rather watch something that evokes an intense reaction than just another indifferent shrug, and The Strangers made a hell of an impact on me. Highly Recommended.
There's a misprint on the packaging; it lists the theatrical version as running 86 minutes and the unrated cut as clocking in at 91 minutes, while the actual running times are 85 minutes for the theatrical and 87 minutes for the unrated. One extremely minor addition to the unrated cut is a few seconds of James rooting through the attackers' truck. The rest of the difference in runtime goes to a couple of minutes of additional torment as Kristen drags herself across the floor -- a shot that's even used in one of the movie's posters -- in the final moments of the film.
Video: The Strangers' handheld scope photography looks phenomenal on Blu-ray. The palette has a slightly skewed look that could've been nicked from half the '70s grindhouse flicks off 42nd St., and it's bolstered by deep, robust black levels. With virtually the entire movie set just a couple of hours before dawn, the strength of the blacks is essential. Definition and detail both impress as well. This Blu-ray disc is unusually lean -- just over 16 gigs -- and without a couple of the extras, Universal might've even been able to cram it onto a single layer HD DVD. Despite that unexpectedly small size, I didn't spot any compression artifacting, and the faintly gritty texture of the image hasn't been smeared away to help ease the VC-1 encoding.
Audio: So much of the intensity of The Strangers is wrought by its exceptional sound design -- that sense of disorientation...of claustrophobia -- and it's rendered flawlessly on this Blu-ray disc's 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. This is a movie that screams out to be experienced in surround sound. The attackers spend nearly an hour straight encircling and toying with their prey -- a harsh, scraping sound lurches across nearly the entire soundscape when Kristen hides away in a metal barn,
The theatrical version also includes lossy DTS 5.1 tracks in French and Spanish, and both versions of the movie feature subtitles in English (SDH), French, and Spanish.
Extras: The only extras are a pair of deleted scenes -- an extended glimpse of James and Kristen in happier times along with a somber discussion about the proposal -- and a short making-of featurette. "The Elements of Terror" (9 min.) briefly runs through the visual nature of the script, the set and production design, stabs at truly terrifying the cast throughout this physically grueling shoot, the limited make-up effects work, and filming a car crash. It kind of just skims the surface, although I think that's the point, taking the same cues as the film itself and not revealing anything. The five minutes of deleted scenes are letterboxed in standard definition, and "The Elements of Terror" is presented in 1080i.
The switch doesn't look like it's been flipped on for The Strangers' BD Live functionality yet, so I'm not sure if there's anything lurking in the shadows online or not. The disc comes packaged in a glossy cardboard slipcase.
Conclusion: There's no lingering gore. There's not a single over-the-top kill scene or some double-underlined moral message. Hell, there's not even a motive. Lean, savage, and unrelentingly intense, The Strangers strips the concept of horror down to bare metal for one of the most grueling, emotionally exhausting movies I've ever seen. Highly Recommended.