by Jason Coffman
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2008 seems to be the year for home invasion on the big screen. The Strangers, postponed from release in summer 2007, joins Michael Haneke’s remake of his own Funny Games and the domestic release of the terrifying French film Inside as the third major film this year to feature characters terrorizing people in their own home. While Funny Games is, in a way, a reaction to this sort of film—and the original, a seeming prophecy of the sort of sadistic entertainment American multiplexes would soon be showing—both Inside and The Strangers have more traditional aims in mind. While The Strangers is heavily indebted to numerous films that have come before it (most notably the recent French thriller Them), it still comes out as easily the scariest American horror film in recent memory.
James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) and Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) are returning to James’s childhood summer home after a wedding reception. When we are introduced to them, there is clearly something wrong. We soon learn that James has proposed to Kristen and that she has turned him down, leaving the two in a difficult, uncomfortable place in their relationship. Unable to sleep, they begin to talk things over when a girl (Gemma Ward) appears knocking at their door at four in the morning asking after “Tamara.” James assures her she has the wrong house and sends her on her way before leaving to pick up cigarettes for Kristen. While he’s away, the girl returns and the sadistic taunting begins, ratcheting up from leaving messages and destroying their cell phones to the final act of violence that ends the film where it began.
The storyline is completely barebones, but it works. The establishing scenes of James and Kristen’s characters are done very well, and the performances by both the leads are solid. The appearance of the “Strangers” is very creepy, and their behavior is terrifying. What seems at first like disturbing pranks quickly escalates to real threats. The film wrings its best scares out of quiet scenes where the audience can clearly see the Strangers but the characters (plausibly) cannot. It’s also worth noting that the film’s sound design lends tremendously to its atmosphere and tension. The last film I can think of that gave such careful attention to sound design is Nacho Cerd’s The Abandoned, which similarly used the surround sound space to maximum effect.
As genuinely scary as the film often is, however, there are legitimate complaints. The film opens with a set of pointless “based on a true story” title cards made even more pointless by a ridiculous voiceover reading the text. This is just one more thing that makes The Strangers feel like a near-remake of Them (Ils), another film about an isolated couple terrorized by unknown assailants. The film’s characters often make foolish decisions, a problem that usually comes standard-issue with this sort of genre film but is disappointing nonetheless. Finally, the film relies a bit too much on cheap jump-scares, the absolute worst of which is lazily shoehorned in at the end of the film. Cutting the film’s first minute and last two minutes would have improved it tremendously.
Despite these complaints, The Strangers is still a seriously unsettling film. It’s definitely a step in the right direction for American horror, and the decision of the studio to give it a theatrical release is refreshing in the face of the continued dominance of the PG-13 American horror film (especially after the disappointing performance of The Ruins). The fact that this is writer/directory Bryan Bertino’s first film is kind of amazing, and it makes me anxious to see what he does next. As accomplished and scary as The Strangers is, there seems little question that he’s capable of becoming a hell of a director.
Jason Coffman is a freelance writer and film critic in Chicago.
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