A home invasion by three masked people brings a night of unbridled terror to a young couple trapped in a secluded home in The Strangers, a fairly effective thriller that manages to play with some slasher film conventions without ever becoming a full blown genre film.
The young couple in question is James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler). Following a friend’s wedding, the two head out to James’ family’s isolated summer home in the woods. Before they can retire, however, they begin hearing strange sounds outside the house and glimpse three strangers, faces obscured by masks, staring out of the woods towards the house. Soon the masked strangers are moving closer towards the house, into the house, and James and Kristen find that the phone lines and their routes of escape are cut off.
The Strangers holds together as an effective film on the strength of its performance and direction. The plot is fairly thin stuff and recalls the recent Funny Games. But Speedman and Tyler make the most of the perfunctory first reel character development to bring some depth to their roles before all hell breaks loose. The character work also helps pay off a moment in the film’s climax, giving it a much needed emotional resonance.
First time writer/director Bryan Bertino manages to build tension right from the start through a variety of techniques. The film opens with a montage of average, suburban, middle class houses in what could be Anytown, USA. The montage gives way to a series of increasingly disturbing images. A record player with its needle stuck in the end groove. A shotgun casually lying on a kitchen counter. A small ring box setting on the floor. A car’s windshield smashed, a bloody knife. A splash of dried blood on a wall. As these images compound, we slowly realize that we are getting glimpses of the next cinematic 90 minutes we are about to spend, but we have no sense as to how they will fit together.
Bertino also manages too generate tension through simple camera reveals, rather than using shock cuts, of the various masked invaders stalking the couple. It seems as if he is one director who has remembered Alfred Hitchcock’s admonishment that an explosion is action while seeing a bomb counting down towards detonation is suspense. True, Bertino does succumb to quick cut/loud noise tricks on occasion, but never to the point of the film’s overall detriment. His use of a handheld camera is not too obtrusive and helps to give a sense of immediacy to the proceedings.
Bertino wisely never discloses any information about his masked antagonists. Questions as to how they are related to each other and what has driven them to their actions go unanswered. Only speaking at three short instances, the trio spend the majority of the film as mute forces of nature, appearing anywhere and seemingly unstoppable. If this film proves to be successful enough to spawn a sequel, I hope the future filmmakers can resist the temptation to flesh out their backgrounds, as that would only rob them of their power as characters.
If the film has an major stumble, it is in its final, closing frames when Bertino goes for one last (cheap) scare. It is unnecessary, especially when he could have ended the film on a much more chilling note a few moments earlier. As it is, he gives the audience one quick jolt that quickly dissipates instead of a tingly, creepy sensation that would have lasted a while after the audience exited the theater for the hoped for safety of their own homes.
Ultimately, The Strangers is a film that manages to play on our own paranoia and xenophobia. In this post 9-11 world, who amongst us can say that they feel 100 per cent secure in our own home and country? Is the terror inflicted on the couple a cautionary tales of the evils that lurk just outside, waiting to destroy our peaceful, unassuming lives or is it a political comment on the climate of fear that has been nurtured over the past several years in this country? Perhaps the filmmakers don’t have such lofty goals in mind. Perhaps they only wanted to provide 90 minutes of thrills. In that respect, at least, they’ve done a decent job.