Director : Bryan Bertino
Screenplay : Bryan Bertino
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2008
Stars : Liv Tyler (Kristen McKay), Scott Speedman (James Hoyt), Gemma Ward (Dollface), Kip Weeks (Man in the Mask), Laura Margolis (Pin-Up Girl), Glenn Howerton (Mike)
Bryan Bertino’s feature film debut The Strangers is nothing if not absolutely ruthless in its intensity and single-minded in its purpose. With only a modicum of conventional narrative set-up, it goes about drilling a direct passage into your nervous system, hammering away with a harrowing scenario that will immediately connect with anyone who has spent time in a dark house alone. It’s a first-rate genre exercise, which makes it a bit disappointing that Bertino couldn’t match his bravura execution of the material with a little more depth. Still, when the film is this effective, it’s hard to complain.
The decidedly simple premise gives us a couple, Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman), who are at a pivotal, potential breaking point in their relationship. After attending a wedding they go back to his family’s summer house, which is conveniently isolated from all the neighbors, surrounded by trees, and set well off the road. It’s extremely late at night, which is why they are surprised by a loud knocking at the door and a seemingly disoriented girl asking them for someone who doesn’t live there. From that point on, Bertino slowly and methodically cranks up the tension as we begin to realize that Kristen and James are the victims of a brutally long-winded home invasion by three inexplicable masked psychos who appear to be some kind of twisted family. There is, of course, the promise of violence to come, but the primary goal of the perpetrators seems to be terrorizing the already distraught couple to the point of driving them mad.
Bertino gives us many of the elements we would expect from such a scenario, but he compensates for the potentially tiresome familiarity with a powerful mastery of camera movement, framing, and editing that turns every shot into a nerve-fraying excursion into the unknown. The film’s central image, immortalized in both the trailer and on the poster, has Kristen standing in the living room while a masked man stands silently behind her at the edge of a darkened hallway. Bertino allows this event to unfold in one shot, with the man slowly emerging out of the darkness and then just standing there. While many horror films derive their chills from something just outside the frame, the terror of The Strangers comes primarily from the manner in which the invaders constantly announce their presence, reminding the film’s victim and us that they’re always there, watching and waiting. Bertino exploits the power of the cinematic gaze for all it’s worth, turning the film into a violent spectacle of being watched, rather than attacked.
Similar to John Carpenter’s work in Halloween (1978), Bertino has an innate understanding of how to employ the ’Scope frame to induce jitters in his audience. The first glimpse of the masked man standing in that dark hallway is chilling in its own right, but it also plants a seed in our mind that keeps us scanning the image at all times, looking for something to emerge out of a shadow. Bertino employs a great deal of shallow focus, so virtually anything in the background could at any point be revealed as a threat, which keeps us constantly on edge, even when nothing is necessarily happening. He also gooses us with the soundtrack, which oscillates from moments of deadened silence to nerve-wracking atmospheric sounds (a fire crackling, a smoke detector going off). The result is a film that never relents, which makes the occasional jump-in-your-seat moment, always aided and abetted by shrieking music, all the more effective.
It is particularly interesting that The Strangers is being released not long after Michael Haneke’s U.S. remake of his own 1997 film Funny Games, which has a strikingly similar plot, but with the goal of confronting the audience with its own sadistic desires. The Strangers, much like last summer’s lean and grueling Vacancy (2007), has no such aim and wears its brute simplicity as a sign of its purity. Where Haneke’s film was a probing meta-examination of the relationship between violent films and their viewers disguised as a brutal thriller, Bertino’s film is just a brutal thriller, albeit one that is executed with such precision that it is impossible not to get caught up in its driving endgame.
Copyright ©2008 James Kendrick
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