Director: Bryan Bertino
Writer: Bryan Bertino
Starring: Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman
The premise behind this one is simple, and simplicity is ultimately what makes it worth seeing. A young couple has just returned from a friends wedding, to his parents empty house. Having proposed earlier in the evening, the place is decked out with flowers, candles and champagne in celebration. Problem is, she said no.
Then there is a knock at the door.
The second act of the film makes the first act well worth the wait, as three unknown intruders begin to terrorize the couple, isolating them in their own home. The catch that advertising tried to hammer that sets this film apart is that the intruders have no other reason to kill the couple other than “(they) were home”. I won’t give away the ending of this one, because I do think it is worth seeing.
The Strangers is an exercise in simplicity. There is no music used in the film, save for the record that Kristen plays in some instances. The screenplay could easily be about ten pages, the dialogue is so scarce. Even the masks that the three psychopaths wear are a potato sack, a doll face, and a pin-up girl respectively, with street clothes. It is this pared down horror style that is taking over, and allows for some degree of actual fear to seep in. It’s a style that has been done before, and a plot that has been done before, but never with such éclat.
I’m glad that Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman are back in action. Although this was a box office flop, it shows that they are able to make good, “independent” choices with the films they do. Granted they aren’t given much dialogue, but this becomes their challenge to get across the complicated premise they are placed in for the first act; after the proposal. It’s a good enough plot to drive a play, before the carnage even begins, which is the movies strongest point. Too many times have I seen a horror movie driven by scares (See: Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2003). Because this has a good narrative base, we care about the characters and their futures. So when they are terrorized, it not only comes as a surprise, but we are personally invested in their future. The stakes are already set, and half the work is done.
I’m not enough of a filmie to back up most of the things I’m about to say, but as a viewer I appreciated the direction enormously. Some of the scariest and most genuine moments in the film are when we catch a glimpse of something or someone in the background that is subliminally watching. For example, in the kitchen at one point, Tyler’s character Kristen is alone and drinks a glass of water. In the background, the man wearing a potato sack lumbers in and just stares at her, backing into the dark dining room as soon as she turns. Now the audience is aware that they have entered the house, and at any point have access to the protagonists.
The use (or lack of) music is another brilliant feature of the film. The record that is the only soundtrack at one point seems to narrate the action through lyrics. When it is bumped off a table by Kristen as she is being cornered, the skipping back of one line eerily sets the tone for what follows.
MAKE – What makes the movie is the direction. It’s a broad stroke, but encompasses so much of what I think makes the movie successful. Bertino isn’t afraid to leave a character alone with themselves for a moment, without music or interference. He isn’t afraid to leave a scary moment without any music cue. All this serves to create a sense of reality that becomes terrifying as the movie progresses.
BREAK – What could break the movie, and I think did break the movie in critic and box office appeal, is it’s advertising as a horror movie. It is indeed a horror movie, but going in expecting traditional scares resulted in sour fans of Scream severely disappointed.
BOTTOM LINE – See the movie. I appreciate that horror movies aren’t for anyone, but I think this one is exceptional in its concept and its execution. The acting sets itself apart from others in the genre. Directors take note: if we are invested in the characters, the leg work of creating scary moments is already half done.