Director: Bryan Bertino
Starring: Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman, Gemma Ward, Kip Weeks, Laura Margolis, Glenn Howerton
Running Time: 88 min.
** (out of ****)
“Why are you doing this to us?”
“Because you were home.”
That great exchange, which you’ve probably seen in trailers and commercials, is the only frightening moment in Bryan Bertino’s directorial debut, The Strangers. It hints at the horror film this could have been and frustrates us with a promise it couldn’t keep. Had the film actually explored the idea suggested in those few lines of dialogue this could have really been something. Instead the movie does exactly two things right, thinking that affords it the luxury to do everything else wrong. In not showing us the faces of the killers and focusing more on suspense than gore the inspiration are obviously the slasher films of the ‘70’s. Join the club Bryan. We’ve seen this “homage” a few hundred times already, or at least it feels like it. And I don’t remember it ever being this boring or uninteresting. Scenes are thrown together hastily, the pacing is poor and outside of one engaging performance, there’s nothing to keep our attention. You can actually tell this was made by a first-timer.
It’s tempting to compare this to another home invasion thriller from this year, Michael Haneke’s polarizing Funny Games. Those who despised that movie can blame Bertino because this is the exact kind of film Haneke was attempting to satirize. Except Haneke was up front and honest with his pretentiousness. This actually thinks it’s scary. And it also has the single dumbest ending of any movie I’ve seen this year, as if it needed it. If someone paid me to come up with a worse ending I couldn’t. I’m tempted to give this lower than two stars but can’t since it’s nothing if not technically proficient. Strangely though, that just makes it more insulting. This may have been easier to take if someone with less talent made it because maybe they wouldn’t attempt to fool us into thinking we were watching something of substance. In reality, it’s no better than what you’d find on the $2.99 shelf at your local gas station.
The film opens with what’s become a repetitive and ridiculous device used in horror movies these days. Taking a page out of the book of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a John Larroquette-like narrator informs us that what we’re about to see is “INSPIRED BY TRUE EVENTS.” This may be one of those rare cases where the true event (if there was one) had to have been more exciting than what ended up on screen. The narrator continues:
“On the night of February 11, 2005 Kristen McKay and James Hoyt went to a friend’s wedding reception and then returned to the Hoyt family’s summer home. The brutal events that took place there are still not entirely known.”
Sorry, but that’s just laughable. It’s derivative and unoriginal, but I probably wouldn’t have had a problem with it had what followed not been so lackluster. There’s no other way to put it: The first 45 minutes to an hour of this picture are a total bore. When Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman) arrive out the house we immediately sense there’s a tension between them. Through a flashback we find out that she had earlier turned down his marriage proposal. Now they must awkwardly spend the night together. And that right there is the most interesting thing that happens in the film. How often does a woman turn down a marriage proposal in a movie? Bertino at least earns points for originality on that.
From there, Kristen is left alone while James runs out to get something and then…NOTHING happens. Other than seeing the luminous Tyler in varying stages of semi-undress there’s nothing to hold your interest. Yes, there is the “Man In The Mask,” and his accomplices, known in the credits simply as “Doll Face” and “Pin-Up Girl”, knocking at the door and threatening to kill her but it’s impossible to care the way it’s presented.
The film does something very annoying and continues to do it over and over again just so we get the message. The intruders make loud noises, we see them, Kristen doesn’t. When James re-enters the picture the cycle starts all over again. Rinse. Wash. Repeat. I’m all for not showing anything to build tension but that’s not what this is. Bertino doesn’t engage us in these scenes and there’s no sense of threat or dread at all. They lack forward momentum and just don’t flow. It’s okay, even advisable, to wait on pulling the terror trigger, but not just for the sake of saying you did. Everything just spins around in circles and these masked killers, who should be horrifying (they certainly look it), come off as a joke. I know I’m supposed to praise horror movies for emphasizing suspense over gore but what if there’s no suspense either?
When the movie does finally pull that trigger I could just picture critics running out of the theater screaming “Torture Porn!” at the top of their lungs. I wouldn’t go that far, mainly because the film is too goofy to inspire that kind of a reaction. One moment sums up just how pretentious it all is. The killers remove their masks and place them on the floor…but we’re not shown their faces. How daring. Random and senseless violence. What an original concept. And then there’s the final moment of the film. Ugh. I don’t know how much Liv Tyler was paid to do this but it wasn’t nearly enough. I actually felt bad for her having to work so hard physically and emotionally to sell this nonsense and carry Speedman through it. A piece of cardboard could have replaced him and I wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference. He’s that bland.
In a misplaced vote of confidence, this was the rare horror movie that was actually screened for critics. Maybe the studio thought that because it presented the illusion of being high brow the press would go easy on it. They were right. And because the film managed to recoup the $9.00 it cost to make it now there’s going to be a sequel. Executives are so happy when a horror film makes anything these days that they immediately greenlight five sequels, four of which will probably head straight to DVD. I’ve seen interviews with Bertino and he seems like an enthusiastic guy who went in with the best intentions. I don’t think he set out to make a pretentious film. It’s a misguided effort, not a lazy one. He does have a gift for atmosphere and I do think he’ll eventually turn into something as a director. When he does maybe he’ll be able to look back on this film and have a good laugh.
I should have known there were serious problems with The Strangers when everyone I spoke to who saw it said how disappointed they were but had trouble expressing exactly why. I know how they feel, but let me give it a shot: It’s a bore. Sometimes the simplest explanation makes the most sense. Hardcore fans of really old school horror may appreciate its minimalistic, stripped-down approach but everyone else will fall asleep. I guess this is great news for Saw V, which now sits in the comfy position of following one of the dumbest horror movies I've seen in a while. It can’t possibly be worse than this…can it?