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5 reviews, 27 user ratings

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Strangers, The
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by Erik Childress

"That Thing Them Deux"
4 stars

Welcome to Why Country Homes Suck Chapter 12. In this edition we’ll be examining another home invasion, quite typical amongst the cinematic suspense and horror genres. Sometimes its your general routine masked man slasher (Halloween). Occasionally its otherworldly spectres looking to destroy your nuclear family (Amityville Horror, Poltergeist). As its own sub-genre, these films have probably created more fear in suburban audiences than all the mid-afternoon special reports about rare disease-carrying insects and escalator mishaps. Every culture seems to have their own take on the lesson-to-be-learned. German director Michael Haneke was so determined to call moviegoers on their bloodlust that he made Funny Games twice. The French, in typical French fashion have offered a big middle finger to that way of thinking and have made films like High Tension, Inside and Frontier(s) as bloody as possible. Except for a little film called Them (or Ills) from French directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud who, before taking a huge step back on their skills with the sleep-inducing American remake of The Eye this year, stripped down the homefront terror to a tight 71 minutes. While details are sketchy on whether The Strangers is a direct remake or not (a case can easily be made), Bryan Bertino’s directorial debut may not quite measure up but marks its territory for an impressive terror stylist that will unease viewers in several which ways.

Beginning with a Larroquettish introduction to the history of this story, we’re informed of the gravity for one young couple’s weekend in the country. James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler) have come to his father’s woodland home for what should have been a very happy occasion. Rose pedals are spread throughout the house. Champagne and ice cream are chilled. Only one thing’s missing. The “Yes”. Like an old married couple, poor James is just going through the motions this evening, killing time until a buddy can come pick him up and take him away from this misery. Just as he may be getting a farewell quickie though, a knock comes at the door.

A teenage girl, her face basked in shadow, asks for a friend in an ominous, sleepwalker tone. Her mistake informed at four in the morning, James goes off for some cigarettes. But the knocks return and soon Kristen begins getting the uneasy feeling that she’s not alone on this property, outside or in. The film includes the time-dishonored tradition of one character not initially believing the other at first, but like a scene out of Robert Wise’s The Haunting (or Them), the knocks become increasingly more violent sounding and the unhappy couple are about to become less so. An ax cuts at the front door. Masked kids appear to almost guard the surrounding area. Their car is vandalized and rendered useless. There is no way out.

Films like The Strangers are often involving enough to make viewers supplant themselves in the same scenario, wondering what they might do and criticizing the characters for making stupid moves like hiding in the closet or not shooting when they had the chance. The Strangers lobs this aspect right back into our seat by making a gun available to them but then sharing the admition that they aren’t entirely confident in how to use it. The classification of this being a cat and mouse game also wouldn’t be entirely accurate as its style does not allow for big sweeping set pieces akin to velociraptors in a kitchen where ingenuity saves the skin and evil is vanquished one body at a time.

Debut director Bryan Bertino has employed an approach that is destined to make audiences squirm in either terror or impatience. Some may be wondering out loud more why the killers aren’t attacking than the couple. They may not be killers at all and that, in itself, lends an extra layer to the psychological chase. At what point are we allowed to create violence in order to defend ourselves? Bertino doesn’t make it easy on us, creating scenes of tremendous tension the way Hitchcock used to – by anticipation. Viewers, unused to this approach, may have to cut through the suspense with laughter while one Stranger lingers behind Kristen for seemingly ever. But all will likely lose half a nail during one character’s trip down a hallway with danger waiting on either side.

Because The Strangers so thickly lays on the angle of a ‘70s era true-life cautionary tale, questions will spring up to how far a film like this can be taken for entertainment. Established in flashback, the attention to keeping the story as non-manipulative and gratuitous as possible is the kind of warm bath water that eases us into the uneasy realization that we have basically watched a snuff film with no recompence for the audience to hoot and holler in triumph. In retrospect this was the point the wildly overpraised Michael Haneke was trying to make with his Funny Games opus plural; only using a few sly cinematic tricks to dupe us into identifying our own bloodthirsty nature only to conveniently reintroduce reality for a darker resolution that didn’t make its point so much as reveal how cheeky Haneke thought he was. The coda put on The Strangers has a far more ironic eeriness to provoking discussion well past its utterly unforgivable final shot.

Does The Strangers make for good, old-fashioned weekend terror at the movies? In many ways, yes. It’s reasoning for its release shifting seems to be less of a quality issue and more for its unrelenting bleakness making it a tough sell in a marketplace dependent on third act reprievals. Bertino announces himself with authority as a director capable of delivering thrills without the use of flashy edits or shrieky soundtracks (although one or two moments qualify as such.) Even at under 90 minutes, The Strangers does have maybe one allude-and-hide scenes too many (a scene with Tyler in a shed isn’t much different than Tyler in the bedroom or Tyler in the closet.) And the connection to Them (Ills) may just merely be a coincidence, but its hard to watch (1) couple alone in a house (2) loud knocking (3) car removal (4) retreat into the woods and (5) well, ending without thinking about it’s tightness and creepy twist at the end. The Strangers’ final stamp is the literal opposite and while it may not cop to France’s new wave of horror which involves its heroine to literally end the film like a madwoman drenched in blood from head to toe, the American equivalent is not much better. What is better is a film that guts its way through the spate of PG-13 slasher crap like Prom Night and poorly directed gore-letting garbage like Inside to unnerve us enough to either buy some extra deadbolts or kill the next bastard who walks across our lawn.

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originally posted: 05/30/08 14:00:00
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User Comments

10/30/16 morris campbell familiar but frighting the 3 villians were chilling & they got away 4 stars
1/02/14 Martin Mostly boring. Dumb characters. Relied too much on tired horror tropes. 2 stars
10/23/12 Stephanie Can't look out the window at night. 4 stars
9/06/12 Albert It's not a rip-off of "Ils". Let's clear that up. Truly frightening! 5 stars
12/07/10 car scary and suspenful and liv tyler perf was good, but it overall dull and confusing. 3 stars
10/29/10 millersxing frustrating and claustrophobic. not so much frightening as infuriating. 3 stars
6/01/10 User Name The characters are thin and the plot is almost nonexistent, but there are creepy moments. 2 stars
8/17/09 vesta tense,unsettling and truly disturbing 4 stars
8/03/09 David A. Mostly gore/action horror, but the intruder's mask makes him spooky--nice touch. 4 stars
7/02/09 art A NIFTY HORROR FILM! 5 stars
5/07/09 mr.mike Left me with mixed reaction , I may have to watch it again. 4 stars
4/02/09 Raul Valdez Jr unmerficul, evil, freaky, and disturbing and the best part ITS PURE HORROR 4 stars
12/20/08 Scott Didnt like the ending but was truely terrifying 4 stars
11/15/08 VMANIC1 Unknown killers with unknown motives. Pointless and inconclusive movie. 2 stars
10/13/08 Lee pointless movie 1 stars
7/25/08 Alice Good acting, great suspense, Liv is a delight, great to see a real woman for a change. 4 stars
7/06/08 James Liked it, but was let down by the ending 3 stars
6/06/08 Manuel Gerlach Not special. Sometimes scary, but bad story... 3 stars
6/06/08 Ming K Worst film of the year, the film does not explain anything for the killing... 5 stars
6/02/08 Robert Good acting & very suspenseful. Enjoyed it a lot 4 stars
6/02/08 Obi Wan Terrifying! So much tension! Frightening! 4 stars
6/02/08 George Barksdale Another unscary movie, OK acting 2 stars
6/01/08 Michael Charlonne Great feature overall. Hope this film does well. Can't wait for the DVD w/ bonus features. 4 stars
6/01/08 Quigley Truly, deeply scary. One of the most well-crafted horror films in a very long time. 5 stars
6/01/08 ahnold Acting good. Story okay, but pretty much what we've seen before. 4 stars
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  30-May-2008 (R)
  DVD: 21-Oct-2008


  DVD: 21-Oct-2008

[trailer] Trailer

Directed by
  Bryan Bertino

Written by
  Bryan Bertino

  Liv Tyler
  Scott Speedman
  Gemma Ward
  Kip Weeks
  Laura Margolis
  Glenn Howerton

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