Written and Directed by Bryan Bertino, 2008
Wrong people conducting a wrong focus group comprised of more wrong people. Why else would Rogue Pictures show zero confidence in their product, relegating it to some cobwebbed shelf in a warehouse for a year and a half, letting no less than two officially announced release dates slip before finally allowing audiences and critics to vote with increasingly diluted dollars. The planets must not have aligned for that test screening, for any random sampling of the 17-25 year olds in attendance at my theater would yield the highly marketable, “FUCK THAT SHIT, SON!” If Rogue Pictures had lived up to their own name and released this film when they grabbed it all those moons ago, chances are by now I’d be writing a review for THE STRANGERS 2: HOMECOMING.
The audience was (and will be for each and every showing) louder than the movie, performing that all-too-familiar, all-too-rare rain dance that only exists for a theatrical horror audience. An orchestra of body movements and nervous giggling, as if that will somehow stave off the scare clouds for a few more minutes.
I’ve got plenty of problems with THE STRANGERS, sure, but that doesn’t change the heat of the moment. This stuff works, people in suits. No, I’m not referring to the man in the movie who wears a suit and a smiley face potato sack who is destined to be a party costume for years to come. I’m referring to the studio suits, the ones not so good at their job. Perhaps a remedy would be to venture off the sterilized studio lot into that unclean hinterland of real, paying theaters to witness first hand that movies like this will squirm the poo out of all manner of people.
Three strangers in expressionless masks standing in and around your house. Let the camera linger. Every single person in America has the fear. Every single person in America has felt that chill on their spine. We’re a paranoid people. I don’t know how many times I’ve been home alone with an overactive imagination and grabbed a knife, just in case. We’ve all done it at some point, so I fail to comprehend how that simple truth could evade those men in suits. Perhaps their butler is the one who grabs the kitchen knife?
I kid, I kid. I know that, save for a public few, studio execs aren’t all Ivory Tower elitists. Especially not the ones at a relatively small outfit like Rogue Pictures. They are just men and women operating a business, trying to maximize a return on principle. They’ll test the demographics and they’ll make whatever changes the mystics in marketing conjure they must. I don’t blame ’em. Hollywood is a business, not a charity. I don’t fault them, but as both a consumer and a de facto critic it saddens me when an otherwise good movie is handicapped by post-production second guessing. “Maybe we should trick them, tell ’em it is based on real events?” “Maybe we should dub in a line there, slow people might not know what is going on?” “Maybe we shouldn’t end it that way?”
It happens to every movie, some survive the process, some don’t. Fortunately, THE STRANGERS does. It doesn’t escape it, but it does survive in spite of such committee design. Bryan Bertino’s script is reduced to the bones. Couple goes to cabin. Couple is attacked in cabin. Credits. Sure, he gives it a tad more meat. His couple, Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler are not picturesque. Though they look like they’ve escaped from a circus and occasionally vanish with the wind (perhaps it was a ninja circus), the besiegers are not superhuman. Other than those toned scraps, though, there is nothing more to Bertino’s page.
His style behind the camera is just as reduced, that being a back handed compliment. THE STRANGERS features minimal-to-nil staples of the home invasion film. There are no false scares, no misleading camera movements. If he wants to show you one of the creepy killers, Bertino will walk them right in and he will hold that camera on them with far more patience than any young Hollywood fear flick. I do dislike a few of his closer, more personal shots intended to show us how real his couples relationship is. It is the kind of one-camera style trademarked by pseudo-documentary television shows. Is “truth” some kind of mythical creature that can only be capture on film when the lens bobs and weaves? It doesn’t get much more truthful to the intimacy of a relationship on film than Aronofsky was with Jennifer Connelly and Jared Leto in REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, and he used an effin tripod. Learn from that finger tracing scene. I’ve grown tired of all this, “Their passion is so difficult I can’t even frame it!” Yes, you can. Please do.
But all of that is ancillary character build. When the fear starts, it starts. It is nowhere near as hectic as some of its recent thematic ilk (here’s look at you, THEM), but the tension is dolled out rather uniformly for the remainder of the film. The strangers themselves never lose their nightmare appeal. Kudos to indelible costuming even if the Scarecrow did it first. The sound design is bleak and open ended. No crashing cymbals or editing room slam-ups, just the blissful peace of anticipation.
Bertino does a great job of wrapping you up in the moment, urging you to resist the impulse to scream, “DON’T GO IN THERE!”, but he does a poor job of going the extra mile. While the film is commendable for its unique to Hollywood patience, there regretfully isn’t much Eureka! to it. No one sequence that excels above the rest. No lasting “Holy shit!” moments for anyone who hasn’t seen all this before, which sadly lends to it being scary the first go around and likely a chore over the test of time. Not to mention the ending isn’t just telegraphed in, it is freakin’ smoke signaled in.
Others have even done much of the same better during the time THE STRANGERS sat on a shelf. THEM has a far more terrifying reverberating notion of strangers killing innocent strangers. FUNNY GAMES U.S. uses an entirely different type of costuming, but is also a more satisfying experience. HIGH TENSION is, well, higher in the tension department. VACANCY is just an overall better flick (who’d of predicted that one?) and since Rogue held THE STRANGERS until after VACANCY, it only hurts their film that much of its conflict is beat for beat the same as Nimród Antal‘s. And that’s a shame, because THE STRANGERS is a solid Bronze medal picture otherwise. At the very least, it is a damn persuasive argument for owning a handgun.
Side note, and this may be considered a spoiler so stop reading now. When the doll blond takes off her mask, Liv Tyler says something which sounded an awful lot like a “Amy…” I heard it, my fiance Christine heard it and apparently several people on the IMDb boards heard it too. There is enough well delivered defeat in her voice to make me hesitate, but if that is what she said, well shit, it completely defeats the agenda of the movie, its obtuse and unnecessary prologue title cards as well as its marketing campaign.