The Strangers

Ladies, hold on to your boyfriends!  This is one terrifying movie!!  I, for one, cannot remember a time when I have screamed so loud in a movie theater.  Literally clutching the armrest, screaming!!  I really feel that those who dismiss this film as overrated and not all that effective are, quite simply, victims of their own pseudo-intellectual over-hype: they were scared, they just won’t admit it because that will bring them down to the level of the masses and their egos will not tolerate that.

Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman) return to James’s family vacation home late one night after a friend’s wedding.  Clearly he proposed and she did not accept and the resulting tension is evident.  He drowns his sorrow in ice cream, she takes a bath, they almost have make-up sex but are interrupted by a knock at the door (weird, since it’s 4am).  In a line that will become legendary in horror film buff circles, a girl at the door asks:

“Is Tamara home?”

Of course, they inform her she has the wrong house.  Again, weird, but things like this do happen, so not much thought is attributed to this episode and James ventures out to fetch Kristen some more cigarettes.  She will need them.  I needed them.

From this moment on, strap in.  The roller coaster does not let up for the next hour.

First time director Bryan Bertino hand delivers the suspense and stages his scenes in such a way that a lot of the time we, the audience, know more that the characters do.  For instance, we know well before Liv that she is not alone in that house.  The record player skips, the smoke detector is not where she left it, the phone lines are cut, etc.  We see masked figures moving in and out of the frame like ghosts, quietly stalking their prey, until…..that first “scream” moment.  And, boy is it a doozie!!! 

One of the things, among many, that Bertino gets right is characterization.  Kristen and James are not your standard horror movie dummies.  They are real people, not script inventions.  They don’t have the standard issue movie problems, such as repressed abusive childhood memories, daddy issues, or traumatic high school experiences.  They are real.  The situation they find themselves in is real.  Same goes for the psychopathic intruders.  They are not super-human, possessing extraordinary strength and ability to walk through walls, or what have you.  The whole film bases itself in earthbound reality and that, I think, is why it is so effective and downright scary.  It is just real people trapped in the real woods being stalked and terrorized by real psychos. 

Some people in reviews I have read have found fault with the script.  I didn’t mind so much, not only because it is not the film’s rasion d’etre, but because what the characters say is true to the situation.  Next time you find yourself in a circumstance when you are scared out of your mind, flip on a tape recorder and listen to it later (provided there is a later), and see how you sound.  Would you make sense?  Would you use big, Hollywood script-worthy words?  Or would you, more than likely, spew whatever came out of your fear-stained mouth at that moment?  This is not a literary movie where enormous emphasis is spent on the dialogue, but a horror movie, where characters should speak out of fear, not necessarily reason.  All motivations and details in the film are true to the circumstance and the characters, and as a result, ‘The Strangers’ bypasses the expected “stupid horror movie people” scenario moviegoers in this day and age have come to expect.

As far as performances go (there are only 6 people in the movie, not counting the two young boys who bookend the film), all of the actors perform far better than they are expected to.  Liv Tyler…who knew??  Not only is she a first-rate scream-queen, but she is able to register fear and dread with an extraordinary expressiveness.  Remembering my acting years, one thing I do know is that it is not easy to convey emotions and “act” with little or no dialogue.  That she is able to do so as effectively as she does is a testament to her talent, only sparingly utilized thus far in her career.  Scott Speedman, he of the ‘Underworld’ movies, plays the male lead as someone who has probably tried to be all alpha-male his whole life, but who is really just a big kid who can cry when he gets his feelings hurt.  This vulnerability suits the character well and, again, although he is given a bit more dialogue, he is able to register both the fear and the uncertainty that James feels during the episode.  Mention must be made of the three intruders (Kip Weeks, Gemma Ward, Laura Margolis) as well.  While given hardly any dialogue at all, and their faces hidden behind creepy masks, no less, the three of them manage to inhabit the psychos and, via the way in which they walk, turn their heads ever so slowly, move in and out of Bertino’s compositions, scare the ever-loving CRAP out of us!!

As a debuting feature director, Bertino shows incredible promise.  He knows his way around a horror movie, that’s for sure.  On the basis of ‘The Strangers’ alone,
America can look forward to a talented and unique new filmmaker, delivering product that is just this side of mainstream.  I just hope his head doesn’t start to swell and he ends up as another affected M. Night, churning out piffle like ‘The Village’ and ‘Lady in the Water.’  Now that would be the only thing scarier than ‘The Strangers.’

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