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THE STRANGERS (2008) review

June 2, 2008

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written by Bryan Bertino
produced by: Nathan Kahane, Doug Davison & Roy Lee
directed by: Bryan Bertino
rated: R (for violence/terror and language)
runtime: 88 min.
U.S. release date: May 30, 2008

 

What’s the worst that can happen when a girl declines a guy’s marriage proposal? Well, Kristen and James are about to find out in a movie heavy on terror and light on horror. Wait. What? You’d think that question would warrant a hilarious and light-hearted rom-com yet this legitimately disturbing and somewhat frustrating film from writer/director Bryan Bertino is the polar opposite.

The story finds Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman) arriving at his parents summer home in the sticks in the wee small hours of the morning after attending a wedding reception. By their body language and silence, it’s obvious something is clearly going on. There is a rift in their relationship, where there was once assumed closeness there is now a palpable awkwardness and distance. So much for the romantic rose petals and candle light that they came back to which James and his BFF Mike laid out in advance.

Now, with the title of this movie, the story could have unfolded to reveal that this couple are becoming “strangers” to each other. The next hour and a half could delve into how they deal with where they’re at. How long can you go on ignoring the one you love in a summer getaway in the middle of nowhere at 4am? Of course, since I alluded to terror, that is not where this movie goes. I know I know. I’m once again proposing another question in this review, not always the best thing to do. It is likely taking you out of the review just as I had to fast-forward out of this film. Yeah, I have to say I did feel my own rapid heartbeat while watching parts of this film.

 

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For that, I have to give credit to feature debut director Bryan Bertino for that. He crafts an extremely effective invitation for the viewer – the warm comforting log cabin fireplace, the folk music playing on the LP, the backdrop of isolation and tranquil wilderness – all combining to create what you can only assume will be outed as a false sense of security that reeks of foreboding doom. He certainly delivers the heart-pounding terror and frustration here by building up to a heightened sense of overwhelming fear.

It starts about 4am. Just when it’s possible that these two can make up (or out), there is a sudden knock at the front door. You’re left wondering the same thing they are: who in the world would it possibly be at this hour in the middle of nowhere? Through the closed door, they ask who it is and all they hear is, “Is Tamara there?” Once they crack the door open they see a blond preteen girl. She seems a kind of off, but harmless enough. They look around her and find no one with her in the blackness of the night. They confirm with her that no one by that name is there and close the door. Weird.

Now from here the story seems pretty unique – until it becomes seriously frustrating. The story can go anywhere. It feels real and it’s quite freaky. Then Jamie goes out to pick up some smokes for Kristen. We all know what happens in the horror genre when a couple splits up.

Here’s where it starts to get a lil formulaic. We know the strange girl (Gemma Ward) will come back and ask for Tamara again (she even says, “Are you sure?”) which makes me wonder where the movie would’ve gone if Kristen woulda said, “I lied before. Tamara crashed out on the couch, she was hung over,” or “She’s taking a shower.” But that’s not the case here and Kristen has to start seriously freaking out by all the various exterior sounds considering she’s been left alone.

 

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From here on out, we’re introduced to three truly scary masked intruders. At first, Bertino successfully relegates them to the shadows as they lurk at the edge of the screen. There’s a tall man in what looks like a burlap mask (Kip Weeks) standing inside the house watching in on a clueless Kristen. That scene is by far the creepiest as is any seen where the audience knows of a threat to the protagonist before they do.

Unfortunately, the eerie tension of the first act is gone once James comes back from his smoke run. It’s almost as if the quality begins to dip into something less coherent and more rushed in its pace. I wouldn’t say it’s less freaky but the decisions the character makes, especially James, made my eyes roll.

Inevitably, we’re introduced to a woman with a plastic pin-up girl mask (Laura Margolis) and that strange girl is now wearing a doll face mask. All three of them start to appear anywhere and everywhere, moving things around inside and creeping up from behind outside. It’s clear that their goal is to create hysteria as they terrorize. It also becomes clear that it doesn’t matter who these freaks are or whether or not they know Kristen and James. Bertino is going for shear terror over actual characterization which I found disappointing.

I was glad that there are genuine scares here and that it’s easy on the gore with most of the violence taking place off-screen. What you don’t see is often more terrifying than something you see coming head-on. Sadly, the story suffers the cliches of the genre: whimpering and tripping female protagonist, poor decision making by male protagonist and slow moving, silent antagonists. With the great initial set-up, I was hoping for something a lil more unique.

While Bertino does well opening up with snippets of the ending and adding on to that at the finale, it’s still kinda insulting to start out with a “based on a true story” disclosure. This is something that has lately been way overused, abused and often untrue. He wants to sell this as reality while serving us all the familiar horror conventions. What he should’ve done is hook up with another writer and focus solely on directing. Bertino has proven that he can direct well for his feature debut and I’ll be interested to see what else he comes up with in the future, but no manipulation of sound and light can slice up anything original here.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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