“Is Tamara there?”
I am all for the torture porn genre—the Saw films are entertaining, yes even the fourth, and I thoroughly enjoyed Hostel. First time writer/director Bryan Bertino has decided to throw his cap into the ring with the new film The Strangers. Supposedly based on true events, the movie ends up running similarly to Haneke’s Funny Games, except without the social commentary and instead more contemporary scare tactics with masks, (I’ll admit that seeing the faces of the killers as human beings is far scarier because you can relate to them on some level, rather than the monsters behind a disguise, thus this film doesn’t live up to the comparison). However, Bertino gives us a very well done piece of cinema that engages us by being as unsettling as humanly possible. With almost every frame being an extreme close-up, the creepiness of old-time Woody Guthrie era country tunes on the record player, and long stretches of complete silence, The Strangers will most definitely get you unhinged. My question, then, is whether that is enough to make a work good. I don’t quite think so, because despite the artistry and the effectiveness of mood, I just don’t find watching a 90 minute double homicide all that fun, especially when there is no reason for it. Haneke definitely was on the ball in that regard, having meaning behind the torture, (oh and I’m a film fan, so I reference the original Austrian version of Funny Games, not the rehashed American-remake).
Much like last year’s Vacancy, we are shown our heroes at a time where their relationship is strained. This is not a happy couple going to a summer home for some rest and relaxation, no they are pretty much together because they have to be under the circumstances. Our entry point to them is a tear-streaked Liv Tyler and a stoic, repressed anger mixed with embarrassment faced Scott Speedman. A lot is going on between these two, and the film does let us in on the trouble, mostly before the “fun” begins, but also a bit during the activities. Maybe it just seems like we as an audience find it necessary for our lead characters to overcome an emotional struggle on top of the physical one being inflicted on them. I just find it to be overkill; the story is about the people coming in and partaking in their random crime, not whether the torture can bring love back to a pair who has seemingly lost it. It is nice to see a more fleshed out victim than just a two-dimensional punching bag, so I can’t quite blame Bertino for trying. We are given this background to relate to them and feel for their plight; maybe I just would have liked more. Rather than glossing over the relationship to get to the strangers’ arrival, a more Hostel-like introduction would have worked better, allowing a slow burn to the inevitable terror.
Is the film scary though? This is the all-important question. I may not be the best to answer, as I don’t generally get scared at movies. However, I was definitely uncomfortable during the proceedings. Not just with the cat and mouse chase, but with every aspect of the film. Bertino deserves full marks for this as he really makes us delve farther into the frame than we probably want to. Almost the entire work is shot in close-ups, putting the static details in our faces along with the emotionally wrought expressions on the actors’ faces. Knives scraping, things burning in the fireplace, blood splatters on the wall, and even the record player’s arm are shown as close as possible, assaulting our sight at the same time our ears are barraged with the sounds singled out above the background so that we experience every second. The creepy factor is most definitely enhanced once our trio of mask wearing freaks enters the stage. Their slow, methodical movements and sheer confidence in what they are doing is relayed very effectively.
And the acting is quite good—a major complement since Tyler and Speedman have never been two people I rave about acting-wise. The repressed emotions at the start slowly peek their way out once the games commence, they both are realistic in the portrayals and despite what my friend says she saw through sunglasses and fingers covering her eyes, I don’t think they fell into too many horror cliché traps. Yes, you shouldn’t open the door when you hear banging at four in the morning, however, they also think it’s just a youngish girl looking for her friend. I gave them the benefit of the doubt in that regard; when you’re fighting for your life, you may not think clearly. I do have to also mention Glenn Howerton as Mike. Does he get much screentime? No. Does he do a decent job? For sure. However, I only mention him because of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and how this role reminded me of his character in that show. I believe I was the only one in the theatre chuckling at his entrance…Oh Dennis Reynolds.
Again, though, while expertly crafted and meticulously shot, what was the true purpose of this film? It’s definitely creepy, but as a horror, I don’t think it succeeds in the scares. Instead it is basically an exercise in torture and survival against a group of people out to cause pain. I also I had some trouble with the ending and the final confrontation. The almost ritualistic activities at the conclusion seem out of place from what had preceded it, however, I did really enjoy the encounter with two young Bible-pushers on the street. It was a nice bookend to the tale and gave some closure, whether it was necessary or not.
The Strangers 5/10 | ★ ★
 LIV TYLER as Kristen McKay in Rogue Pictures’ The Strangers (2008). Copyright © Rogue Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
 SCOTT SPEEDMAN as James Hoyt in Rogue Pictures’ The Strangers (2008). Copyright © Rogue Pictures. All Rights Reserved.