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The Strangers bring terror the old-fashioned way

by Glen Baity

It’s not rare for meto get scared at the movies – I’m a big wuss when it comes down to it -but it usually doesn’t happen in the previews. When I saw thespot for The Strangers a few months back, however, I was absolutelyhorrified by what might be the most tense two minutes in the history oftheatrical trailers. I was convinced I wouldn’t have the fortitude tosit through it; as it turned out, the prospect was slightly less scarythan walking up to a box office by myself and saying, "One for Sex andthe City, please." Freshman writer-director Bryan Bertino bringsthe pain in this thriller, which is equally startling and rote in itsexecution. The Strangers is relentless, even if the set-up is dustierthan your grandma’s attic: Young lovers Jimmy (Scott Speedman) andKristen (Liv Tyler) leave a friend’s wedding and head to a secludedvacation home in the middle of the night. Waiting in the darkness is atrio of masked weirdos, who spend the hours before dawn stalking theincreasingly frantic young couple So you’ve heard it all before,but let’s be honest: It’s the rare major-studio horror film thatthrives on the originality of its plot. The beauty of this genre isusually in the execution, and Bertino, while not flawless, shows a lotof promise in his debut. He builds the tension slowly, kicking thingsoff with an interesting twist on the horny-couple-in-a-cabin motif.When we join them, Jimmy has just handed an engagement ring to Kristen,who handed it back with a tearful but firm "no." The summer house,meant to be the stage for a lot of celebratory sex, is showered in rosepetals, champagne and candles, which the two brush aside as they figureout whether their relationship will be able to survive the emotionalcalamity. These are pretty good characters in a difficultsituation, and Speedman and Tyler play them with a lot of heart. By thetime they hear that first ominous knock on the door, about 30 minutesinto the film, the viewer is already hooked into the sad story of theirobviously-crumbling relationship. This is smart of Bertino for tworeasons: First, it makes you care about Jimmy and Kristen just enoughto dread what’s coming; and second, it gets you on pins and needlesearly, making the tension to come that much more powerful. Thefilm’s final hour is a well-staged, exhausting cat-and-mouse gamefeaturing several standard nail-biter tropes. The killers, of course,cut the phone line – but wait, there’s an old radio out in the shed, ifI can just make it there! Also, these bad guys are well-schooled in theMichael Myers/Jason Vorhees method of never falling behind their prey,even if the prey is running and they’re walking. And just to keepthings interesting, the house seems to only have three light bulbs,none of them brighter than 40 watts. Bertino also makes theunwise choice of giving these three killers implicit superpowers. Theycan evidently disappear into thin air, teleport and communicatetelepathically, which is the only explanation for why they’re able toremain three steps ahead of Jimmy and Kristen at all times. It bringsdown an otherwise exemplary thriller when, over and over, one of thekillers emerges silently from the shadows, brushes up against one ofthe main characters and then… just… disappears. This isespecially relevant since the story, ostensibly, is "inspired by trueevents." Sure, that’s as meaningless a phrase as has ever been assignedto a film, but so much of the appeal of The Strangers is in how well itmimics reality. The music is minimal, the setting is unremarkable andthe stars look, as much as movie stars can, just like normal folks. Theimplication is clear: This could happen to you. Even if it almostdefinitely won’t, it’s a creepy feeling that follows you when you leavethe movie theater. So having this awful crime unfold in a mannermore grounded in reality could have elevated The Strangers to a placeamong the horror movie greats. We never learn very much about ourmasked lunatics, only that they seem to have chosen Jimmy and Kristenarbitrarily, and that they plan to do it all over again in some othersurburb. The film wants to make a point about random acts of violence,but it’s not a particularly compelling one, and it’s been made plentyof times before in a thousand other masked killer movies that findtheir protagonists in the wrong place at the wrong time. Still,for a first feature, The Strangers is surprisingly assured, and it’smade with a care and meticulousness these sorts of films seldom are.It’s also nice to see a horror film that dials down the gore anddoesn’t try to one-up the Saw franchise, relying instead on a moretraditional bag of tricks. As a whole, it’s not quite as revolutionaryas it sets out to be, but it undeniably contains some of the mostchilling scenes of any horror movie in years.

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