There’s an oft-quoted phrase in show business that “dying is easy but comedy is hard.” This is probably true, comedy is incredibly hard because it’s a genre needs to make audiences react on an almost primal level. What’s perhaps even harder is horror. The brave souls who try to make good horror films also need to force an audience to react to something almost by reflex. This already complicated genre has another big hurdle too, namely that most horror productions are cheap cookie-cutter garbage that studios rush into production because horror fans are easily duped into seeing garbage, thus beefing up their profits. Still, every once in a while someone is able to get something interesting out of the genre, and the 2008 thriller The Strangers had a really promising trailer.
The Strangers opens with a title card explaining that what we’re about to see is a true story. Right. This tactic of pretending your movie is factually based was cute back in the 70s but who do they think they’re kidding now? You’d have to be a real moron to think any of this is actually true. Anyway, the film opens with a youngish couple (Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman) returning to the house they’re staying at after attending a wedding. Soon thereafter they hear a knock at the door, a woman asks if someone named Tamera is home, they send her away, but soon they hear another knock. The atmosphere quickly becomes unpleasant, suddenly a face emerges from the darkness, there’s someone in the house. The rest of the night these two are terrorized by three seemingly human stalkers wearing masks.
This is a slasher/home invasion film striped down to its barest elements. If nothing else, it’s a noble attempt to correct some of the wrongs and pitfalls that these movies frequently fall into. One of the problems it desperately tries to avoid is this recent trend of giving killers elaborate back stories a mistake that often robs the villains of their mystique and aura. Rather than go down that route, the film opts to give the killers absolutely no back-story whatsoever, nothing, not even at the end, not even the slightest hint as to why they’re doing all this. This is sort of a double edged sword, though. It does indeed avoid giving as much useless detail as Rob Zombie’s Halloween, but in doing so it even fails to give as much back-story as John Carpenter’s Halloween. Indeed, the killers don’t need a full back-story, but a mere MacGuffin would have been nice, the mystery works for a little while but one quickly begins to seriously wonder why they’re going through all this trouble.
The first thing one wonders when hearing about this concept is how they can make feature length slasher film with only two possible victims for the oncoming killers. The answer, frankly, is that they can’t. The film really cooks for about a half hour but it becomes quickly apparent that there’s really no place for these people to run or hide, they’re doomed, but there’s still another hour of stalking to go. As such, the killers seem to go through an inordinate amount of trouble in order to draw out the film’s plot. They spend a lot of time stalking the two and have full control of the situation, but for whatever reason they never seem to go in for the kill. The film quickly get really redundant after the killers get into the pattern of appear, scare the main people, disappear, and the without any real hope of escape the whole thing quickly becomes an exercise in inevitability.
Also, while the film avoids some of the genre’s clichés, there are plenty of them that the film still falls into. The main characters frequently do stupid things rather than escape from the situation. Also the killers have an annoying habit of being on frame and then disappearing in the second it takes for the character to glance away from the window. This is something a lot of killers in slasher movies do and it usually has little bearing on logic or the laws of physics. I sometimes picture these killers running and ducking out of frame in order to outrace the editor for no reason other than to be kind of creepy. There’s a particularly egregious use of this tactic here where one of the killers taps Scott Speedman on the shoulder only to disappear when he turns around.
The Strangers is a movie that ultimately doesn’t work, but it’s a noble effort. Bryan Bertino crafts the movie well and there’s a real attempt on display to make something better than the average Hollywood thriller. That first half hour really works and it’s unfortunate that it all leads up to a general anticlimax. Unfortunately this is a movie that tried to be a little too hardcore for its own good.
** out of Four