The Strangers bring terror the old-fashioned way

by Glen Baity

It’s not rare for me to 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 the spot for The Strangers a few months back, however, I was absolutely horrified by what might be the most tense two minutes in the history of theatrical trailers. I was convinced I wouldn’t have the fortitude to sit through it; as it turned out, the prospect was slightly less scary than walking up to a box office by myself and saying, “One for Sex and the City, please.”

Freshman writer-director Bryan Bertino brings the pain in this thriller, which is equally startling and rote in its execution. The Strangers is relentless, even if the set-up is dustier than your grandma’s attic: Young lovers Jimmy (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler) leave a friend’s wedding and head to a secluded vacation home in the middle of the night. Waiting in the darkness is a trio of masked weirdos, who spend the hours before dawn stalking the increasingly frantic young couple

So you’ve heard it all before, but let’s be honest: It’s the rare major-studio horror film that thrives on the originality of its plot. The beauty of this genre is usually in the execution, and Bertino, while not flawless, shows a lot of promise in his debut. He builds the tension slowly, kicking things off 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 rose petals, champagne and candles, which the two brush aside as they figure out whether their relationship will be able to survive the emotional calamity.

These are pretty good characters in a difficult situation, and Speedman and Tyler play them with a lot of heart. By the time they hear that first ominous knock on the door, about 30 minutes into the film, the viewer is already hooked into the sad story of their obviously-crumbling relationship. This is smart of Bertino for two reasons: First, it makes you care about Jimmy and Kristen just enough to dread what’s coming; and second, it gets you on pins and needles early, making the tension to come that much more powerful.

The film’s final hour is a well-staged, exhausting cat-and-mouse game featuring several standard nail-biter tropes. The killers, of course, cut the phone line – but wait, there’s an old radio out in the shed, if I can just make it there! Also, these bad guys are well-schooled in the Michael Myers/Jason Vorhees method of never falling behind their prey, even if the prey is running and they’re walking. And just to keep things interesting, the house seems to only have three light bulbs, none of them brighter than 40 watts.

Bertino also makes the unwise choice of giving these three killers implicit superpowers. They can evidently disappear into thin air, teleport and communicate telepathically, which is the only explanation for why they’re able to remain three steps ahead of Jimmy and Kristen at all times. It brings down an otherwise exemplary thriller when, over and over, one of the killers emerges silently from the shadows, brushes up against one of the main characters and then… just… disappears.

This is especially relevant since the story, ostensibly, is “inspired by true events.” Sure, that’s as meaningless a phrase as has ever been assigned to a film, but so much of the appeal of The Strangers is in how well it mimics reality. The music is minimal, the setting is unremarkable and the stars look, as much as movie stars can, just like normal folks. The implication is clear: This could happen to you. Even if it almost definitely won’t, it’s a creepy feeling that follows you when you leave the movie theater.

So having this awful crime unfold in a manner more grounded in reality could have elevated The Strangers to a place among the horror movie greats. We never learn very much about our masked lunatics, only that they seem to have chosen Jimmy and Kristen arbitrarily, and that they plan to do it all over again in some other surburb. 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 plenty of times before in a thousand other masked killer movies that find their protagonists in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Still, for a first feature, The Strangers is surprisingly assured, and it’s made 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 and doesn’t try to one-up the Saw franchise, relying instead on a more traditional bag of tricks. As a whole, it’s not quite as revolutionary as it sets out to be, but it undeniably contains some of the most chilling scenes of any horror movie in years.

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