Quality horror films come in fewer and fewer numbers these days, and it's a delight when one holds you by the throat. There's nothing like a film that keeps you breathless and guessing from beginning to end, that gets the adrenaline rushing and has you looking down at your lap asking yourself, "Why do I subject myself to this?" With that being said, expectations were high for The Strangers, the new horror film starring Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman.
The Strangers is about a couple who are spending the night at a summer home after an awkward proposal-gone-bad. Emotions are high and sentiments awkward, but nothing can prepare them for what they are about to go through. It starts with a girl showing up at their house - the wrong house. Then comes the knocking, and other sounds. Then the cell phone disappears, the door unlocks. There is someone outside - inside - everywhere. There are several people, wearing masks and intent on one thing: to frighten and kill the two people inside the house.
The Strangers had a lot going for it. The movie starred two reputable actors. The very first images released to the public were frightening. The trailer was creepy. And silent killers wearing plain masks are just damn scary. The first half of the movie lives up to the promise of the perfect slasher film. Writer/director Bryan Bertino keeps things quiet, adding music only when the characters are playing it (thankfully through a creepy medium such as a record player). The beginning almost plays out as a drama, hinting at something sad that has recently happened to the two leads. Subtle flashbacks tell us the story, then snap back to present where he establishes two strong, realistic characters. The girl shows up at the front door, and never before has a director made such an incident so creepy. The girl's face, partially obscured in darkness (though one would note only one of the two patio lights is out), is just out of full view, making it seem like at any second she's going to snap and do something terrible. Instead, she walks away.
Bertino has mastered the art of audio, as The Strangers is full of creepy, well-timed sounds. When the killers first attack, they do so only to terrorize; a knock here, a sound there, a rap over there. The movie is alive with audio, and Bertino keeps you on the edge of your seat whether you're watching the screen or not. Visually, The Strangers looks great, and Bertino does a good job of drawing the audience into the terror that the leads are feeling. As the characters look out the window, you know that inevitably someone with a mask is going to pop up to freak us out. It doesn't happen for a while, but it does happen. You could look away, but you can't look away for that long. It's scary stuff.
The killers themselves are about as creepy as possible, and given the $20 million The Strangers made in its opening weekend - double its estimated budget - Universal may have a new franchise on their hands. The best villains are always the simplest ones (Freddie Kruger could be an exception); from Michael to Jason, harmless masks have made some of the greatest villains in movie history. The villains in this movie take full advantage of the best costume: the mask. From a simple burlap sack to a doll's face, the masks exude innocence - and thus make the villains even scarier. The fact that they rarely, if ever, talk doesn't hurt.
So far, so good.
Unfortunately, The Strangers slowly starts to unravel in the second half. The movie is scary and suspenseful, until you realize that Bertino has written nothing more than a standard, cliche horror film. Expectations were high after the first half, but instead of going so many directions, Bertino turns his characters into terribly pathetic horror victims that follow every dumb rule in the book. Neither Tyler or Speedman have ever seen Scream - because they truly are about as sad as horror victims come. After Tyler realizes someone is in the house with her, her boyfriend shows up, only to question whether she's making things up. Seriously? Of course, he leaves his cell phone in the car, which, by the time he makes it back outside, has been vandalized. That should be enough of a signal that something is seriously awry, but he never seems to truly grasp the situation. He decides to go and get the neighbors, and has his girlfriend stay in the house. What? Split up? And leave your girlfriend alone in a house you know they've already broken into? Who the hell would do that?
Tyler's character is even worse. She runs around and is about as useless as a horse with no legs. After finally leaving the house, she starts running across the lawn - only to slam her leg into something almost immediately. Of course! Then, even with the knowledge that she is about to die, she slowly drags herself across the yard. If I were in that situation, even if every bone in my legs had been removed, I still would have stood up and ran my ass out of there. After further attacks, Tyler drags herself back to the house she just came from, seemingly unaware that she is surrounded by killers. What a stupid, stupid person.
The worst part of the movie is that not once do either of the good guys lay their hands on the villains. In a film like this, you'd expect there to be some brutal fights, or at least a few moments where the characters get the better of their pursuers. Instead, both Tyler and Speedman fail to do much of anything to fend of their attackers, leaving little to be desired when the ending arrives.
It's frustrating, because The Strangers could have been so good. Instead, Bertino defies the common logic of what a reasonable person would do in such a situation and adheres to comic horror movie fare. That would be all fine and good if The Strangers came off as B-grade horror flick, but it really has the makings of something more. The movie is immensely suspenseful at times, but the second half fails to deliver. Bertino took a great concept and applied it to standard horror fare, rather than the other way around - and the result is ultimately disappointing.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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