Reel Rewind – The Strangers

The Strangers (MA)

Directed by: Bryan Bertino

Starring: Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman, Gemma Ward

Three and a half stars

Review by Julian Wright

It is hard to believe that The Strangers is Bryan Bertino’s debut as a feature film director. The movie has a thin plot and could have been a boring mess of cheap scares and excessive blood spilling. But he has a confidence in his directorial decisions and builds tension and suspense with a sure hand. Although, I wouldn’t be surprised if Bertino had watched every thriller in the past decade and took notes on formula horror scenes before he penned this film. This film owes a lot to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Panic Room, Halloween and countless other slasher films.

Apparently inspired by a true story (we have heard that one before), The Strangers is about a young couple – James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) and Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) – who were terrorised in the early hours of February 11, 2005. They return home to the Hoyt family cabin after attending a friend’s wedding. The evening did not turn out as James had planned, as his proposal to Kristen was rejected.

When they return to the cabin that James has sprinkled with rose petals and lit with candles, things are awkward. But the terror begins around 4am when the pair hear a knock at the door. A mysterious young girl stands in the shadows asking for her friend, who clearly does not live there. After she leaves, James decides to go for a drive so he can get some distance from Kristen to clear his head.

But while he is away, there is more banging on the door and then someone begins to shift items around in the house while Kristen is not looking. Kristen gets freaked out, and who can blame her, so she calls James back. When he arrives there is no sign of a disturbance and he thinks she is overreacting. But when the strangers disable his car it is clear somebody doesn’t want them to leave. What follows is about an hour of white-knuckle suspense in which the strangers torment and terrorise the couple.

The inspired-by-true-events routine has been done to death, whether it be true, or a clever marketing ploy like in the case of The Blair Witch Project. The wobbly hand-held camera work in the early scenes, before the strangers arrive, tries to capture a domestic realism, but it is distracting in these quiet scenes. The characters are thin and the plot is thinner, and after a while it doesn’t make much sense. But what this is, is an exercise in keeping the audience in a state of sweat-inducing fear, and it succeeds. Bertino skilfully frames his scenes so that you are forced to tear your eyes away from Tyler’s gorgeous soft features to scan the edges of the frame for lurking terror.

Some may feel cheated that the tormentors are not given names or motivation. But then again, this movie is called The Strangers, not The Three Dimensional, Well Rounded Serial Killers.

As appeared in Examiner Newspapers, 2008.

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