Friday, March 12, 2010

Archive: 'The Strangers'

Movie Review
The Strangers (2008)

Excuse me a moment while I let me disappointment set in. I really wanted to like "The Strangers." I really, really did. But, it sadly turns out that the best part of this chilling exercise in suspense is its trailer. There honestly is a good movie worth being presented when it inspires such effective trailers and commercials. The movie itself, however, only almost gets there. And it's that "almost" factor that really gets me because there is a lot first-time director Bryan Bertino gets right. He digs deep into our darkest nightmare of not being protected in what we consider to be the safest place: our own home.

The movie is inspired by true events, and the movie opens with a solemn narration of the known facts about the killings. I wish it wouldn't. It's similar to "Funny Games" minus the scolding tone in that we know the outcome, and we are simply forced to watch terrible events unfold. The couple is Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman) who are on their way back to James' summer home after a wedding reception. We soon find out that he proposed to her but that she wasn't ready. They are both upset, which is a welcome change to horror movies that always start out cheerful. There is good acting here that doesn't necessarily go to waste. They give nuanced performances as a couple caught in an already emotional situation on top of intruders entering their home.

Then comes the knock at the door. There's a young girl at the door, and the couple tells her she must have the wrong house. Then she goes and stands out in the yard. Then comes more knocks at the door, pounding louder and louder. There are more outside noises. Scratching, breaking glass, crashing. There is a divine sense of controlled mayhem during this first act of the movie, and I applaud the fact that it goes for a haunting atmospheric terror with a firm grip on the psychological aspect. It's hypnotically frightening with a slowly unnerving build-up that is brilliant in its craft. There are really some excellent scenes. Consider the first initial sight of one of the masked figures. Bertino creates a empty space in the background and fills it with a dark figure wearing a shroud-like mask. (This scene is already given away in the trailer.) Following him are two more figures, two doll-face masks that are not at all sweet.

A while later once the chaos commences, there is a scene with a skipping record playing in the background while Kristen tries to hide. It pounds at your ears and jangles your nerves. And then the skipping ceases, and it's even more terrifying because you then realize someone has entered the house for good. A well-shot closet scene, as well, is a breathtakingly suspenseful moment where Bertino skillfully uses dead silence as we watch from the shadows. He teases with the unknown until there's nothing left, and in between these well-done scenes, there truly is nothing left. And that's when the tension of the movie begins to seep away when you realize that's all there is to it. Simply showing the masks suddenly appearing at windows becomes no longer scary, and the movie loses its creative edge.

And then "The Strangers" just ends. After such a magnificent build-up, the resolution is a flat letdown. But, with the results already laid out for us, I guess what else was I expecting? I just wish it was less obvious and a little more mysterious. It just seems that that final chilling exchange of dialogue could've brought so much more. "Why are you doing this to us?" "Because you're home." (That, too, was in the trailer.) As much as I wanted this movie to be a saving grace for the modern day horror genre, it takes its potential and merely just skims the surface with it. There is an honest attempt in avoiding torture porn by making the frights not come from gore. It's a step in the right direction. A small step.

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