Opening Friday, May 30th
Directed by Bryan Bertino
Unsettling as it is a sheer exercise in deliberate simplicity, writer-director Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers is likely going to be one of the most unsafe Hollywood genre offerings you’ll find all year behind Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. There are no easy answers to the events that unfold and it’s the stuff of bad dreams. Thick with the kind of dread that sticks to your skin that you can’t wash off; the film is tight and terrifying with an incessant succession of frights that pummel you like a match with a prize-fighter. Had Hitchcock and Hooper coupled for an evening over cigars and Scotch, Bertino may have been their lovechild. He takes a few unexpected risks while, at the same time, paying homage to the uncompromising ’70s nerve-shredders that inspired him.
Evidence of the latter points to The Strangers‘ intro, a voiceover gravely informing us of the events that befell a couple – James and Kristen (Speedman and Tyler, respectively) – at 1801 Clark Rd. (an address Bertino admits to having grown up at here) which is followed by a 911 call that makes your skin crawl. And in an economical set-up we’re introduced to our couple post-confrontation – something personal has gone down between them that we haven’t seen. When they arrive at their vacation home, we see James has prepared the place for a celebration: Rose petals adorn the bed and bathtub, a bottle of chilled champagne sits in its bucket and there’s even ice cream in the fridge. Kristen, it turns out, has not responded exactly the way James had hoped to his marriage proposal. As the night wears on, so does their uncomfortable silence. James calls a friend to come pick him up. But before that can happen, there’s a knock at the door. Someone looking for Tamara. The couple sends this stranger on her way, telling her she has obviously has the wrong house.
Then the invasion begins.
There’s banging at the door. The windows are rattled. And three masked figures present themselves without any rhyme or reason behind their methods. Fear, intimidation and taunting initially fuel this trio’s motivations forcing James and Kristen to rely on their most basic survival instincts. Speedman and Tyler believably hold it together hitting varying degrees of panic as Bertino utilizes sound effects to their maximum potential and Peter Sova’s photography to create an ideal air of mystery. Classic horror trappings give way to full-blown explosions of violence as the strangers reveal their true nature (um, like, they want James and Kristen DEAD) midway through the story.
Here Bertino takes a misstep, becoming consumed by this cunning monster of bare-bones execution that makes your spine do the shimmy-shimmy shake. The problem is that he falls back on allowing James and Kristen to leave the confines of their home. Gone are the claustrophobia and the idea that these two are trapped in a cage rattled by their three attackers. Not that the pair have far to go. Most of the action turns to Tyler’s perspective as she nimbly avoids capture in the surrounding woods (and nearby ditch). This makes room for some Halloween-esque fright gags but they lack the punch of, say, when Strode is searching for the keys at the front door as Myers makes a beeline for her crossing the street. There needed to be more moments like that in The Strangers. To his credit, Bertino musters up a few including that signature shot in the trailer (which has also made the poster). Nevertheless, Kristen and James are inevitably drawn back into the house and its back to business wondering what waits around every corner.
The Strangers is grim stuff, folks. On one hand ballsy, on the other, mildly predictable. I love the ambiguous notes it leaves you with and that it’s less a slasher film (although those awesome masks the strangers wear might have you thinking otherwise before stepping into the theater) and more of a study on the basics of horror filmmaking. Where Haneke’s home invasion hijinx Funny Games – a film that compliments Strangers‘ pacing – was a statement on the viewer’s craving for violence while making them a participant in the cruel acts on screen, Bertino’s out to merely deliver a fearsome jolt in a tight 88-minute timeframe. He succeeds. It’s one of those get in, get out, “wham bam, thank you, ma’am” ordeals that makes your palm sweat and have you second-guessing whether your home is the safest place you know.