Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Never Mumble To Strangers

As film debuts and studio produced horror goes, Bryan Bertino's The Strangers is a fairly impressive little foray into the much overused home invasion genre. When compared to foreign cinema with similar setups, it's decent.

Quick Plot: A painfully unnecessary and dumbly ambiguous prologue recycled from TCM and The Blair Witch Project opens the film to inform us that a lot of brutal crimes happen in America. In case you can't handle not knowing what kind of film you're about to see, the kindly narrator lets us know that something really bad happened to two people we’re about to meet.

Get it? It's a horror movie. Clear? Let's move on:

Cut to a hauntingly bloody kitchen rotting in the morning sun before heading back to the events of the previous evening. A young couple returns to a lonely country house carrying more melancholy weight than Sarah McLaclahn at a mass puppy funeral. He proposed. She said no. That would spoil most people's nights, but it gets a whole lot worse when a trio of masked psychos decides to break in and spend the next few hours hunting the pretty leads with sharp knives, heavy axes, and a whole lot of stealth.

If all this sounds a bit familiar, then yes, you've seen it before in films like Vacancy, Straw Dogs, Funny Games, Inside, and almost directly, Ils. The Strangers never pretends to tread new territory, which is both its biggest strength and weakness. There are some excellent moments of creepy imagery, slightly unsettling actions, and perfectly timed jump scares early in the film before the masked maniacs are totally unleashed. Where I found that Ils (aka Them) took a little too much time establishing its tense atmosphere before finding its stride, The Strangers succeeds best at creating and building a haunting setup. Unfortunately, once the chase takes center stage, Bertino’s uniquely built tension slips more than Liv Tyler in an overgrown forrest of horror cliches. It's suspenseful enough, but eventually, Bertino runs out of ideas in staging stalking.

High Points
Excellent music choices played on a scratchy LP create an early mood of old-fashioned weirdness

Burlap sacks as masks are naturally scary. Any person willing to subject his or her cheeks to such itchiness must be a true badass

What probably separated The Strangers from a lot of direct-to-DVD horror was Liv Tyler's name, and while she's no Meryl Streep, her and Scott Speedman do make a sympathetic and realistically imperfect couple. The natural awkwardness of their failing romance gives The Strangers an extra layer of character that makes, at least the early scenes before the reveal of what's actually happening, a little more tense

Low Points
I guess James Earl Jones and John Laroquette were too expensive. Hence, the filmmaker grabbed someone with a clear speaking voice, handed him Macauly Culkin's Talkboy purchased on ebay from the set of Home Alone 2, then slowed the speed to create an unimpressively deep and artificial bass to voice the opening

While Tyler and Speedman do a fine job, I can’t imagine whose idea it was to cast two actors known primarily for their quiet and rather inaudible enunciating vocal performances

Like High Tension, I found the opening teaser scene to be unnecessary and unfair. I imagine the filmmaker wanted to compensate for the lack of early bloodshed by hinting at what’s to come, but it takes a lot away from a suspenseful 90 minute 2 character hunt to reveal the final result in the first two minutes

Lessons Learned
Cigarettes will indeed kill you

Wearing masks does little to lower the range of one’s peripheral vision

When proposing, always have a backup plan in the event your intended declines your ring. Otherwise, you not only risk spending a very awkward night drinking champagne for the wrong reasons; you may very well become the prey of mask-wearing quiet people

This is definitely worth one viewing with the lights off, but I don't see it gaining any sort of classic status. There's a lot to admire in Bertino's tense staging and depressingly dark atmosphere, but the effect starts to wear off as the chase scenes physically intensify. A quietly moved cell phone and unseen shadowy figure lurking behind our oblivious heroine is far scarier than the gory sendoff of a minor character. There's not a lot to say about The Strangers, but that's not necessarily a terrible thing. Sometimes, a tight, somewhat predictable but cleanly made little horror is all you really need to keep your DVD player warm and filmic appetite sated.

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