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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Strangers
The Strangers
Universal // Unrated // October 21, 2008
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Cameron McGaughy | posted December 6, 2008 | E-mail the Author
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"I hope that people are emotionally challenged by this movie, and saddened and frightened and terrified. To me, it's about connection: If I can connect with an audience so they feel like they went through this, that'll be the most important thing."
- director Bryan Bertino

The Movie
Five months ago, I left my bag unattended for about 30 seconds in the gym locker room when I went to wash my hands. That's all it took for a perceptive lowlife to steal my wallet. Despite realizing it was gone fairly soon, I spent a good 20 minutes in doubt, convincing myself I had left my wallet at the office or in my car--and wasted valuable time as I went to check. During that crucial period, the still-at-large criminal charged $4,000 at a Best Buy, $2,000 at a Circuit City and $11 at a McDonalds (apparently shopping makes you hungry).

What does this have to do with The Strangers? Nothing, although it proves the point that when faced with panic, people don't always make the smartest decisions. Common sense surrenders to doubt, clarity gets pushed aside in favor of chaos. My inability to think quickly and smartly proved to be a critical mistake, one that allowed some bastard to walk away with some pretty expensive electronics (I hope they're enjoying that HDTV I still don't have).

I kept thinking about my unfortunate lapse in judgment while watching The Strangers, a film that frequently had me questioning the actions of the two would-be victims. While fighting for their lives, these two people don't always make the smartest decisions. Directed by young first-timer Bryan Bertino, The Strangers is a nasty slice of '70s inspired gut-punch horror (the influence of John Carpenter's Halloween is obvious), a bleak, brutal and raw film. But it has the most in common with two recent genre efforts: Vacancy (2007) and the low-budget French feature Them, aka Ils (2006), which it has a lot in common with.

The Strangers has a simple structure and little dialogue, character development or plot: James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler) return from a wedding reception in silence. We quickly piece together as much as we can, and soon realize that Kristen has just rejected his marriage proposal. Emotionally exhausted and confused, they arrive late at night to his father's isolated family home in the woods. The two are soon greeted by a knock at the door--a young woman, her face barely visible, has an odd question: "Is Tamara home?"

She soon departs, leaving the couple confused. But when James heads to the store to get Kristen some cigarettes, she soon realizes she's in trouble: things start to go bump in the night, her cell phone disappears, the landline is cut--and she gets brief glimpses of a masked stranger outside the house. All hell breaks loose when James returns and the three mysterious figures start to toy with--and terrify--the couple. And that's pretty much it--at 79 minutes (in its unrated form), the film is short on words and plot. It's a survival story, plain and simple.

There are two ways to look at The Strangers: as a one-trick pony that quickly runs out of ideas, or as an entertaining thrill ride that relishes in its refusal to explain anything and just plunge you into the moment. There's no explanation given for anything (well, none that make sense), and the film doesn't need one--it's refreshing that it just lets things be without giving reasons (sometimes, people are just crazy).

The first half is beautifully constructed--it builds a genuine sense of fear with its isolated setting, vulnerable characters, stark visuals and simple construction. The ending also packs a punch, but it's the in-between stuff that gets a little lost. Some of the character and story decisions just don't feel right--especially a sequence involving the barn that hinges on a highly unbelievable one by James (ever hear of the term "safety in numbers"?), and a predictable demise to an unsuspecting intruder.

Those developments are clearly necessitated by the fact that this is a movie, and I kept telling myself that maybe nothing would make sense under these circumstances in real life. Maybe I'd be just as disbelieving as James initially was, scoffing at his girlfriend's paranoia. Still, his cavalier attitude made me want to strangle him, and you may scratch your head at some of the couple's lame efforts to fight back and survive (ever think of just stocking yourself up with weapons and running?).

Bertino tries to present the film as ambitious art, but the self-indulgent opening text and narration (ala John Larroquette in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) just comes off as pretentious. It states the film was "inspired by true events" (which I'm guessing means a stranger knocked on his door when he was a child) and shares a generic, meaningless fact about violence ("According to the FBI, there are an estimated 1.4 million violent crimes in America each year..."). It's all an attempt to scare you into thinking this could happen on any street, at any house, to you!!!

The film apparently underwent a number of reshoots and edits, which indicates a lack of focus and purpose--and that shows in the 25 minutes or so near the end. And for those of you that have seen Them, the film will seem even less original (some of the similarities are striking). Nonetheless, having seen the French film long before this one, I was still able to enjoy it. For me, the biggest mistake The Strangers makes its showing its hand too soon--you get a sense of hopelessness far too fast, a sense of inevitability at where it's headed.

But if you allow yourself to surrender to the film's simplicity, all of those problems are forgivable missteps. The success hinges on Tyler and Speedman, who are able to create believable, likeable characters with very few lines and minimal back story. They play people you instantly become emotionally invested in (their story itself would make a great romantic drama), people that you actually care for. That makes everything that happens more powerful and gut-wrenching, which might be too much for some viewers to take (for me, the biggest failing of Rob Zombie's Halloween was its inability to create sympathetic characters).

The Strangers also relies heavily on sound and utilizes it perfectly--we notice every audio intrusion on the otherwise quiet house, whether its chirping crickets, the chime of a clock, an owl, wind chimes, a scratching record and plenty other harsh, sometimes jarring noises. Tyler is fantastic at playing scared, and you can feel her fear as she reacts to the startling intrusions--just watch her eyes, and look at the skin on her neck when she hears one loud sound.

This disc presents the theatrical cut and the unrated version, which adds 2 minutes and 24 seconds to the running time. I only noticed one difference, a scene toward the end that was probably cut to strengthen the impact of the final shot. But I love the scene (it has one unforgettable shot that was included on a version of the film's poster), and think the film leaves a more lasting impression with it included.

I love horror films, but I don't scare easily--it takes a lot to get my heart pumping and my eyes transfixed to the screen. While The Strangers is far from perfect or original, it does a damn good job at being genuinely frightening most of the time--and that's a rare accomplishment.

The DVD

Video:
The anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer is a solid and intentionally dark presentation. The film frequently looks like it was shot through a bronze filter, a deceptively welcoming tone that the filmmaker soon shatters. Most of the picture is sharp, but so much of it is drowned in black--and sometimes there isn't enough definition in the surrounding parts of the darker scenes. For the unrated version, the menu has a note: "This function may affect playability on some DVD models." It played fine for me, but may be an issue for some.

Audio:
The 5.1 track is superb, and a key to the film's success. This is frequently a very quiet movie, but when the strangers come calling, the speakers are put to great effect. The audio track places you in the house and surrounds you with well-placed disturbances that are constantly unsettling, and even the more subtle sounds are rendered beautifully. The rated version of the film has a 5.1 French track, while both versions have English, French and Spanish subtitle options.

Extras:
For a film that was marketed like crazy, the bonus features here are surprisingly anemic. Up first are two short deleted scenes: "James Reflects at the Bar" looks like an alternate take, while "Bathroom Discussion" is a short conversation that delves a little more into the couple's feelings for each other, adding a little character development.

The Elements of Terror (9:08) is a behind-the-scenes feature that makes the most of its short running time. Director Bryan Bertino is joined by actors Liv Tyler and Glenn Howerton, executive producer Sonny Mallhi, production sound mixer Jeffree Bloomer, stunt coordinator Cal Johnson, make-up/prosthetics man Vincent Schicchi and production designer John Kretschmer, who notes: "This is more of a terror film as opposed to horror...it's an absolutely new approach to the genre." The segment takes an interesting look at the challenge of creating the film's tone with its sets and sound, including efforts to try and throw Tyler curve balls to get a more genuine reaction out of her ("I had never really screamed before or been in a situation of fear," she says, later nothing that she had to frequently run before scenes to get into out-of-breath terror mode).

"For me, it was about trying to ground the movie as much as possible so that the audience would believe that world," Bertino says. "And so we tried to find a house that your brother could have lived in or your father could have lived in, that you could have grown up in. And the way we lit it, the colors we picked, all trying to find something comforting, trying to find something inviting so that we could destroy that."

Sadly, Speedman doesn't appear in the segment. It also would have been nice if he, Tyler and Bertino contributed an audio commentary. You do get trailers for other releases, but the film's fantastic theatrical trailer is not here. What the heck?!

Final Thoughts:
If you've seen Halloween, Vacancy and the French film Them, The Strangers won't seem particularly original. Still, the simple survival story still manages to carve its own way. It does an amazing job at engaging your senses, building a genuine sense of isolation, vulnerability and fear through its stark visuals and discordant sounds. Leads Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman make you care for their characters--an impressive feat given minimal help from the script--and their emotional performances are crucial to the film's success. While The Strangers runs out of fresh ideas for about 25 minutes near the end, the first half and conclusion pack a gut-punch that stays with you. The '70s-influenced film is far from perfect, but The Strangers is genuinely frightening most of the time--a rare feat on the horror landscape. Recommended.

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