Monday, June 2, 2008

Review: The Strangers

Starring: Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman
Director: Bryan Bertino
Release Date: May 30, 2008
Running Time: 90 min
MPAA Rating: R
Distributor: Rouge Pictures

The idea of being terrorized by strangers is nothing new to the horror or thriller genres. Exponentially, the idea of being terrorized by those same strangers within the confines of your home should be scarier. The idea of someone forcing their way into your house threatens the belief we have that we are safest in the sanctuary of our own home. The Strangers attempts to weave that idea into a story, which it does pretty well. It then attempts to sustain that idea for the length of a two-hour movie, which it doesn’t do very well.

The Strangers opens with a narrative voice-over explaining that the film is inspired by true events. Oh, this old gag again? I get it and all, and for a story steeped in simplicity, the concept of building atmosphere before we even get started is pretty vital, but idea of tagging everything with this disclaimer is getting a bit tired. So for everyone keeping tabs, we have: being terrorized by strangers (scary), in your own home (scarier), in a story based on true events (yatzee!).

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, true story, scary scary, yadda yadda yadda… Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) and James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) leave a friend's wedding reception to spend the evening at the Hoyt summer home. We know this because it is explained in the opening narrative along with all that “true story” business. When the film actually starts we see the two of them leaving the reception and arriving at the house. The house has been prepared for the arrival of a newly-engaged couple, but for reasons untold, the night didn’t turn out as planned. There is some of the reserved, awkward banter you would expect from a couple who has just not gotten engaged. Then comes a knock on the door.

Not just a knock. A bang.

A woman comes to the door asking for someone named Tamera. They tell her she has the wrong house and send her on her way. She comes back later - with friends. They are all wearing a different type of mask and begin eliminating all forms of communication and all methods of escape. They make noises, appear out of nowhere then disappear again, write cryptic messages and generally display the kind of creepy behavior you would expect from a group of masked folk messing with people at 4:30 in the morning. The anomaly here is that just about the time things are starting to pick up, everything falls apart.

Tyler and Speeman are fine (yes, “fine” is as good a compliment as I can muster) as the leads and for what they are tasked with, they accomplish it well enough. They just aren’t given much to work with. I like the simple approach to the story and the setup, both direct and implied; I just didn’t like the execution. It is hard to place all the blame on first-time writer and director Bryan Bertino, who seemed to have every intention of making a good movie. On one hand, his direction, at least in the first half of the movie, shows promise. He accomplishes quite a lot in terms of tension and atmosphere with very little to work with. On the other hand, that very little to work with bit comes back to bite him since he provided the material in the first place. Instead he is forced to use tired, stock ideas such as people and faces appearing out of nowhere and having the soundtrack as the fourth intruder. It’s as if he used up all his good ideas during the first half of the film and then realized he had an hour of movie left to make so was forced to use them all over again.

And again.

And again. I guess the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

And there’s the rub.

** out of ****

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