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The Strangers

September 5, 2008
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For what is essentially a fairly modest, and oftimes derivative little thriller, The Strangers has stayed with me for several hours now, and continues to rattle around inside my head making the most peculiar dissonant sounds. This is a nothing film, right? A churned-out splat of formulaic studio pap that should do just so much and nothing more?

Well, yes, you’d think so. There is a great deal in here that we’ve seen hundreds of times in the past, great sloshes of unimaginative schlocky dreck that does nothing to make you think any further than the moment the credits arrive, and then…silence, or a ruminations on what you’re going to have for your tea.

But, despite that, I did keep thinking, and I have continued to think about The Strangers since, and I just can’t shake it.

The story is as slight as it gets; a young couple are terrorised in their country home by three strangers. Any incidental plot is – for once, in a thriller – naturalistically thrown in via passing comments and not from characters telling each other stuff they already know. I liked that, it put me on the film’s side quite neatly. In addition, the two leads, Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman), despite a learn-it-as-we-go-along seismic change in their relationship, have a very clear and thoroughly believable couple vibe going on. Because of this, the steady rise in tension that begins to take us menacingly towards the half-way mark really does work very well indeed.

Then, once the tormentors outside the house start to invade, it falls apart for a Second Act that is woefully inadequate, and commits all of those sins we hate in such movies, with people making rubbish horror-film decisions that will have you rolling your eyes in despair, furious that for 40 minutes or more you were allowing yourself to be dragged in.

And then (what’s this?) we gear-shift up several notches to find a frankly horrible and nasty ending that spits in your face with a cynical sneer and saves you none of the grim brutality of what these crimes actually mean. Like In Cold Blood and Funny Games, The Strangers suddenly shakes off the inadequacies of it’s flabby rule-following middle section, and unsparingly walks off with a gloaty swagger.

Damn, I thought, what the hell’s going on here?

The answer is simple, of course, like all the best parts of this tale, in that the director, Bryan Bertino, is a mere baby, a 30 year old kid turning out his first ever film and amazingly had to buy books “on how to direct” to get the job done. There are huge mistakes, then, but there’s loads of good stuff too, as I say, and it makes you wonder how much, or how little, help he got in spooling it all together. One thing is for certain, it’s a cautionary exemplar in that when things get complicated (the couple trying to get out of their house, making decisions, splitting up, etc.) it becomes silly and predictable. When they’re just listening to stuff going on outside, it’s bloody terrifying.

There are a couple of conceits thrown in that I really enjoyed, but which will undoubtedly count as spoilers, yet they show that Bertino may just be a name to watch, as long as he learns from the errors made. One thing I can tell him, though, straight off, without giving it much thought, is that suddenly introducing Psycho-style strings pretty much tips off the audience that something’s about to get naughty. Tsk, tsk. Watch and learn, Bryan, and we might just keep watching.

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