Movie Review: The Strangers
By Matthew Huntley
June 2, 2008

Look, when you wear the mask, you look too much like my Dad.

The Strangers is one of the most fluctuating horror movies I've seen. On one level, it wants to be penetrating and earnest, perhaps wanting to serve as a commentary on violent crimes. On another, it submits to the antiquated cliches of the genre and becomes just another slasher picture. In the end, it steps into a realm of undeserved disturbance, becoming a pure exploitation of our visceral emotions. This might have worked had it stayed its initial course of action, but I think it cheats and throws in the ending without having rightly earned it.

When it begins, a bass-voiced narrator, who for some reasons speaks the same words as the on-screen text, informs us, "The following is inspired by true events," and gives us a spiel about violent crimes. Of course, this is all just meant to scare and excite us, but we allow it. The actual plot kicks in when two Mormon boys, handing out fliers, approach a house where the door is wide open and the furniture is displaced. Inside, the record player still spins and a blood-stained kitchen knife sits on the floor.

Cut to a young, 30-something couple - James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler), who sit quietly in their car waiting for the light to turn green. They're coming from a wedding reception and returning to James' family home, which is in the woods out in the middle of nowhere

Without directly stating it, we learn Kristen has just turned down James' marriage proposal. Writer-director Bryan Bertino does a good job of showing and suggesting the couple's feelings rather than telling us through dialogue. As James and Kristen begin to heal their relationship, which in this case means making love, a loud knock is heard at the front door. It's a blonde-haired woman, whose face isn't visible because the porch light is out. She leaves.

When James decides to go out for some cigarettes, the blonde woman and her pulsating knock return, only this time she's not alone. She has two accomplices - a man and a woman. All three wear creepy masks. Word to the wise: always install a peep hole on your front door. You never know when you'll want to actually see the psychopaths trying to break into your house.

James returns and the couple finds themselves under attack. The three intruders seem to want to kill just for the sake of killing. When Kristen asks why they're doing this, the blonde tells her, "Because you were home." James and Kristen's night of hurt feelings and reconciliation turns into a fight for survival, and one of the things the movie gets right is it doesn't turn them into action heroes. They find themselves in a dilemma no one ever expects to be in (Kristen repeatedly mutters to herself, "This isn't happening."). It was a nice touch by the screenplay that James didn't know how to use his father's shotgun. "I thought you used to hunt with your father," Kristen says. He replies, "It was just something I said."

We've seen movies like this before - Last House on the Left, Funny Games, Vacancy - and all of them were about couples in a horrific crisis. The Strangers is no different, but there are times when it distinguishes itself from its brethren, especially with the scenes leading up to the strangers' invasion. The opening is well-paced and effective. Bertino, through a minimal use of sound, creates a genuine sense of desolation and uncertainty between the two main characters. He gets us to sympathize with them.

Credit should also be given to the production, art and set designers for making the house look real and lived-in. So often in horror movies, the set is defined by extreme qualities that make it look like it's either a model home being displayed for potential buyers or a complete dump. This house, with its old books, tchotchkes, wood-frame television set, and several shoe boxes in the closets, is more authentic.

But the movie's established authenticity gets diluted by standard horror conventions - loud shrieks and crescendos on the soundtrack; a hand reaching from behind to touch somebody on the shoulder; the helpless female in distress, who of course trips and falls just as she's able to make a run for it; the image of the killer in one shot who's suddenly not in the next, etc. You know the drill.

If you're going into this movie craving sheer terror and suspense, you will find some. Not a lot, but some. There were instances where I could not look away and found myself squeezing the arm rests on my chair in pure, anxious anticipation. One involved Kristen finding her way back into the house and hiding out in the pantry closet. She looks through the door and waits for the killer to leave. But these moments are short-lived and deflated by the horror banalities that bored me, which isn't good for a movie with such a short running time.

As for the ending, well, it might have fit had the movie stayed its initial course. I won't reveal what happens, but will say it's not pleasant to watch. No horror movie is meant to be pleasant, I know, but the gruesome ending here seems meant for the kind of serious film The Strangers starts out as, not the by-the-numbers, silly one it eventually becomes. The scene is brutal, raw and uncompromising. It reminded me of a similarly grotesque scene in Zodiac.

But how can we accept this when so much of the movie feels artificial and routine, a trait that's accented by a ridiculous and rather insulting final shot? The Strangers had me more than once, and it will likely please die-hard fans of the horror genre, but it lost me when it steered away from what it initially set out to do and settled on being ordinary.