Review: THE STRANGERS

Posted by Peter Hall - May 31st 2008 @ 10:43 am

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.


rss 21 comments
  1. Brian
    June 1st, 2008 | 11:01 pm | #1

    Just got back from this. I enjoyed it. I’ll have my gun at easy reach tonight.

    Did you really like Vacancy? I thought it was garbage.

  2. June 2nd, 2008 | 8:30 pm | #2

    I recall liking VACANCY quite a bit more than I thought I would, but literally seconds after I wrote that sentence I went and lined up VACANCY again, just in case I was remembering things wrong.

  3. R.J. Sayer
    June 2nd, 2008 | 10:56 pm | #3

    I also thought VACANCY was pretty shitty. it had a few things going for it.

    but THE STRANGERS was a ton better.

    not terrific, and definitely lost steam as it went on (pretty much stuttering to a clunky collapse at the end), but for the most part it did its job with efficiency and some measure of gusto.

    and yes, i jumped a couple times.

  4. Matt W
    June 2nd, 2008 | 11:28 pm | #4

    I agree with everything but I didn’t enjoy it much. There seemed to be too many homages to other films (Liv Tyler in the closet was reminiscent of Halloween to me) and to me it delivered nothing new. I must completely agree with holding the camera on the villains, the very first time when Liv’s back is turned and the man in the suit pretty much materializes out of the darkness did send me a shiver. But that was about it.

    ***SPOILERS BELOW***

    The ending really irritated me. The mask has always been a staple of mystery and intrigue to me. You want to know what the person beneath it looks like. If they are normal or grotesque you just have this urge to see what these people LOOK like (at least me and the friends who saw this movie have the same urge). Now when they removed their masks to show the people what they look like I took it as a way to say “You guys are dead”, as the mask was a way to freak the hell out of our doomed couple, and serve as protection should said couple ever escape they can not identify their tormentors. So by removing it, the killers no longer have the fear of their prisoners escaping. So the director created a plausible and realistic sense for our masked terrorizers to show themselves.

    So given that, the director refuses to show the audience what they look like for no good reason other than “I don’t want you to”. It seemed like a big cock-tease to me. The previews and trailers show our antagonists are masked and you are ever-so curious to see what they look like, it’s a slight selling point. But it didn’t deliver to me, and there was no reason for the director not to show us.

    I am NOT saying this was a bad movie. It just seemed very average and adequate at best. Maybe I missed something. Peter, you definitely seem to be more in tune with cinema than I am (hell, you sometimes use so many big fancy words that I get confused and have to stop reading), maybe you can shed some light?

  5. R.J. Sayer
    June 3rd, 2008 | 3:08 am | #5

    i wasn’t a fan of the ending either.

    come to think of it, i wasn’t a fan of the very beginning. can we please get rid of this “based on true events” bullshit? especially when it basically flat-out tells us how it’s going to end for our characters before the first fucking shot is even onscreen?!?! SERIOUSLY! how the fuck am i supposed to get invested in this shit when i know the final reel is going to find them dead?

    on the other hand, i really liked the mask bit (totally read it the same way as you, Matt). and i actually appreciated the fact that the director wouldn’t show us their faces. we pretty much know they’re regular people. that’s what makes it so effective. so if they’re not deformed, why do we need to see their faces?

    leave them faceless, it’s more haunting.

    that’s what i say, anyway.

  6. R.J. Sayer
    June 3rd, 2008 | 3:10 am | #6

    oh, also, i didn’t like that they called the dude “Man in Mask” in the credits. what the fuck is that shit?

    i mean, they give the girls cool names like “Dollface” and “Pin-Up Girl”… why does the dude get the shitty name? really?

    so i’m protesting. from now on, i will refer to him as “Smiley Baghead”… i will also accept “Happy Baghead” or “Bagface” or any derivative thereof.

    but this “Man in Mask” shit is bogus.

  7. R.J. Sayer
    June 3rd, 2008 | 3:11 am | #7

    oh… and… uhm… SPOILER ALERT… for my other post up there.

    sorry.

  8. R.J. Sayer
    June 3rd, 2008 | 3:15 am | #8

    apparently i have nothing better to do tonight.

    I don’t buy the “Amy” thing. i’m pretty sure she said “Baby” and was talking to Scott Speedman.

    what’s funny, however, is that earlier, when she screams “BAAAABY” really loudly, at first, i could’ve sworn she was screaming “AAAAMY!” and i was all, “who the fuck is amy?… oh wait, she said ‘baby’… okay.” and then later, when the mask came off, i distinctly heard “baby” and figured right then that it DEFINITELY was “baby” earlier.

    i just don’t see why the film wouldn’t follow up on something like that.

    but… seriously, dude. i saw it, it’s a Lion. it’s huge.

  9. June 3rd, 2008 | 6:40 am | #9

    Matt, I agree. I think the mask is a great tool and Bertino’s use of it early on is about as good as it gets, but then he gets carried away with the notion that these three need to remain unknowns. I don’t think they do and that keeping them unseen hurts more than it helps.

    For one, it denies the audience a satisfaction they clearly want. I’m all for denying the audience their expectations IF the rest of the film involved manipulating the audience of their expectations. My personal take on filmmaking, which to me is just story telling, is that you’re telling a story for someone, not to someone. The listener is just as much a party to the process as the speaker and if the speaker ignores that side of communication, I think he is a lesser storyteller for it.

    For two, I think showing their faces would not only have been satisfying, but even creepier. The way THE STRANGERS ends, the trio are just faceless threats that may or may not interact with you in the absolute middle of no where. That is not a scary prospect to me. Bertino goes out of his way to not commit to anything, which is far less unsettling than the alternative. If he had ended it with revealing their faces (preferably normal, though at one point I was expecting a reveal of burned skin on all three) and had them just sitting in a food court in a mall, eating ice cream cones and people watching… Not only is that a great, satisfying closer image to everything we’ve seen leading up to it, but it places the threat in a scenario everyone is a part of, not some detached vacation home in the middle of the woods few people ever experience.

  10. June 3rd, 2008 | 6:48 am | #10

    Sayer, I’ve been putting off writing a rant on all this pointless Based on Real Events bullshit. All it ever does is invite negative feedback.

    RE: Amy, I think that explains it, but is also awkward in and of itself. She was leaning away from him when she says it, if she had leaned into Speedman..collapsing into his protection even though he is tied up, would have given a lot more purpose to her resigned defeat. She eventually did, but still.

  11. Sean
    June 3rd, 2008 | 7:53 am | #11

    I’m iffy on this. I really tend to dislike a lot of “BASED ON TRUE EVENTS” movies that have come out lately, and I’ve heard (from less creditable sources, i.e. my girlfriend who thinks everything “sucks” if it’s not a mindfuck flim) that its not that great.

    I was all for seeing it when yahoo.com’s movies listing had it as a werewolf movie though, even though I was sitting there going “I’m sure I’ve seen that before.”

  12. Sean
    June 3rd, 2008 | 8:13 am | #12

    And, the not showing the faces bit is irritating. You always get to see the face of evil. That’s the point in the mask, building up the suspense of what they look like.

    Bluh, HND isn’t letting my comments go through apparently. /fail

    I think it’s http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0497432/

    and http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0411267/

    I was going to get 13 Beloved, but it was 10 dollars, which I didn’t have. Which is really sad.

  13. Matt W
    June 3rd, 2008 | 9:40 am | #13

    Well, glad my disappointment was shared. I figured that the whole, “they are normal, so why show their faces” point that Sayer made was what they were going for, but I still feel let down. But I always liked it when the killers had normal faces over the horribly burnt/disfigured/etc faces. I mean I totally bought into Halloween 5′s selling point of Myers being unmasked, but also…I watched every Friday the 13th wondering how fucked up Jason’s face was going to be when he would (probably) be unmasked in that one.

    By the way, they had a trailer for a movie called Quarantine; looked like Cloverfield meets zombies. It had Jennifer Carpenter (Exorcism of Emily Rose, and Dexter’s sister in Dexter) but she dies in it at the end. Have you heard anything on that?

  14. June 3rd, 2008 | 11:22 am | #14

    Hah, what a shitty trailer it is. QUARANTINE is actually a remake of a Spanish flick called [REC] which came out last year that I like quite a bit. I really have little faith in QUARANTINE, though, especially since the trailer ruins the entire movie.

  15. R.J. Sayer
    June 3rd, 2008 | 3:22 pm | #15

    Fuck.

    you know, i left the theatre when that trailer came on, specifically to avoid having [REC] ruined for me.

    and now i know Jennifer Carpenter dies in it. thanks, man.

    oh wait… Jennifer Carpenter isn’t in [REC]… looks like i’m still good.

  16. Matt W
    June 3rd, 2008 | 9:16 pm | #16

    Ah. I read part of the review for REC. I saw that it was foreign and I thought that killed any chance I had of seeing it. NOT that I don’t like foreign films (for any genre), it just meant that theaters around me would more than likely not get it. The Orphanage went to my local theater at the very end of January for 2 weeks and then it was gone. I’m glad I got the chance to see it before it went goodbye.

    Oh well, at least I officially live in Herndon now (well, I will on Saturday) so I can finally have a big cinema and maybe see some of these fancy movies that you city folk watch.

    Although, I guess I’m the only one who thought Quarantine looked semi-decent. I guess cause of the lack of seeing REC and knowing it was a remake. I just thought the female zombie in the movie looked pretty bad-ass. I’ll have to check out REC.

  17. Sean
    June 3rd, 2008 | 10:35 pm | #17

    I think Peter did some ARRRRing to see REC. I’ve never seen it anywhere around here.

  18. Annushka Valkovich
    June 4th, 2008 | 12:00 am | #18

    I hope this one is good. I’m planning on seeing it this weekend. Of course, I have to see every horror movie that comes out just to nourish my dark soul, feeding off of human terror and bloodlust…but I want to make sure it’s worth it.

  19. Brian
    June 4th, 2008 | 11:05 am | #19

    Not to turn this blog into the Black Pearl, but there is a very good DVD quality treasure of [REC] available through the regular shipping channels.

    That was the most awesome thing I’ve ever typed.

  20. April 20th, 2009 | 12:46 pm | #20

    Finally saw The Strangers last night. Creepy as all get-out, to be sure. Definitely had a few extra lights on the rest of the night.

    I agree with almost everything that’s been said, with the caveat that I cared less about seeing the people, than I did with figuring out just what in the hell they were trying to accomplish. Are we to believe…SPOILERS AHEAD, NATURALLY…that it’s just some random thing? Some perverse exercise?

    I nearly guessed as much early on, when it became clear that they were standing around and not going right after Tyler or Speedman. I thought “either the movie is trying to scare us and doesn’t care how unrealistic it has to be to do it, or the masked people are deliberately going out of their way to scare them before they’re killed.” I guess it’s the latter. I assume giving it no purpose is supposed to make it scarier, because then it can happen to anyone…but still. That kinda thing irks me in the same way the unrevealed faces seems to irk almost everyone else.

    Also, a lot of dumb luck with their friend wandering in and NOT calling out; which would never happen in the middle of the night. If he doesn’t do that, Tyler and Speedman just stay holed up in that room and probably survive the whole thing just fine.

    Gotta give them credit (wow, I’m all over the place here, huh?) for the actual killings, too. Really unsettling in their simplicity. Possibly disturbing to the point where I wasn’t scared, but actively disliked it. I don’t know if that’s a plus or a minus.

    Meh. Very creepy film, really got under my skin, but very unsatisfying at the end. Gotta give it all kinds of props for restraint and simplicity, but I think the skill that went into it merited a better story.

  21. Jamie
    January 8th, 2012 | 4:40 pm | #21

    Not a fan. Enough said.

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