Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #426
Number of Views: Two
Release Date: 29 August 2008 (UK)
Sub-Genre: Suspense/Home Invasion
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $82,400,000
Running Time: 86 minutes
Director: Bryan Bertino
Producers: Doug Davison, Roy Lee, Nathan Kahane
Screenplay: Bryan Bertino
Special Effects: William Purcell
Cinematography: Peter Sova
Editing: Kevin Greutert
Studios: Vertigo Entertainment, Mandate Pictures, Intrepid Pictures
Distributor: Rogue Pictures
Stars: Scott Speedman, Liv Tyler, Glenn Howerton, Gemma Ward, Kip Weeks, Laura Margolis, Alex Fisher, Peter Clayton-Luce
Suggested Audio Candy
 tomandandy “The Strangers”
 Merle Haggard “Mama Tried”
Because you were home
Sometimes the most elementary ideas are the best. In 2008, when Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers was finally released, having been shelved for the best part of a year, it arrived in a marketplace teaming with “torture porn” and features inspired by the massively successful Saw and Hostel. At that time, more was more, and audiences were becoming increasingly desensitized to overtly visceral horror which pulled absolutely no punches. Bertino went against the grain by creating a movie which could easily have arrived in the late seventies on the back of the Halloween craze and, in Keeper’s opinion, was far more effective than much of the cookie cutter fare surfacing during the period, despite the general consensus being the exact opposite.
It is genuinely suspenseful, shot entirely with hand-held cameras and steadicam, and almost entirely devoid of gore. Instead of overplaying his hand, Bertino practices an almost inhuman amount of restraint and banks on scaring us out of our wits by adopting a minimalist approach which serves it particularly well. Sound is kept at a distinct premium and again this proves to work in the film’s favor as protracted periods of silence heighten the feeling of being alone and vulnerable without jabbing us constantly to remind us how to feel. When called upon, the eerily effective score by Tom Hajdu and Andy Milburn (P2, The Mothman Prophecies) is both unobtrusive and, in the same moment, stifling and there are few films which boast such striking audio design. Merle Haggard’s ordinarily chipper ditty Mama Tried is also used sparingly and to maximum creepy effect throughout.
Comparisons with David Moreau & Xavier Palud’s Ils (Them) are impossible to ignore as there are certain parallels between the two movies but The Strangers does an even better job of relieving us of any comfort and manages to sustain the terror right up until the final reel. Bertino drew inspiration for his film from a disquieting childhood memory of a stranger who knocked on his door, asked for somebody who wasn’t there, and promptly left. Later, he discovered that there had been a spate of break-ins in the neighborhood and was left pondering whether the unknown man was responsible for the burglaries. Another motivation was the real-life Keddie Cabin Murders of 1981 in Sierra Nevada and realism is clearly the intention here.
The Strangers focuses on a young couple, Kristen McKay and James Hoyt, who are travelling back from a wedding reception to a remote house owned by his parents. James has asked Kristen to marry him but his proposal has been rebuffed as she doesn’t feel ready to take such a monumental step and he has taken this to heart. The couple is at an uncomfortable juncture, which makes what happens next even more distressing, as they are forced to forget about the elephant in the room and focus solely on making it through the night in one piece together when anything but unified.
They are set upon by a trio of masked antagonists who patiently whittle down the pair’s last remaining nerves by penning them in inside their temporary lodging and gradually penetrating their sanctuary. Masked psychopaths are a dime a dozen within such confines but Bertino gets it bang on the money by selecting head-gear which perfectly illustrates their nonchalant menace. Babydoll is particularly unnerving with yawning black peeper holes large enough to cram walnuts into but all three have an air of indifference about them which offers no enlightenment whatsoever as to their motivation for such torment.
The casting of Kristen and James is spot-on. Canadian Scott Speedman (Underworld, My Life Without Me) has long since proved himself capable and acquits himself decidedly well as the jilted alpha. However, it is Liv Tyler (Armageddon, The Lord of The Rings) who resonates strongest and there are few actresses on the circuit so emotive as she. She had been on an extended hiatus from acting when offered the role, due to the birth of her son. However, when she declared herself fit to resume and the offers came pouring in, it was The Strangers which spoke to her personally. Her investment is as clear as the nose on Cyrano de Bergerac and she effortlessly conveys every last emotion as the net closes in around them.
The events play out largely in a single location and the homestead itself offers far more than a supporting role. With architecture which calls to mind the seventies and decked out accordingly, the ranch house itself (constructed purely for the movie on a sound stage) is homely and welcoming on one hand while sparse and uninviting on the other. Bertino doesn’t jump the gun when it comes to infiltration but we never feel able to relax for a solitary second and it steadily transforms into a domain of sheer foreboding as he reveals just enough to keep us on our toes throughout. Less really is more with The Strangers and the image of Pin-Up Girl rocking on the tree swing without a care in the world etches itself on our memory without Bertino being required to overplay his hand.
Astonishingly, The Strangers managed to divide audiences and many found it too uneventful to take to their hearts. I don’t belong in that camp; as far as I’m concerned it does something which few films can boast doing with any level of authenticity. It builds tension in its own sweet time and sustains it for the entire duration, never affording you a moment’s respite from consternation. We are given no inkling as to why the assailants have taken it upon themselves to make the couple’s lives a living hell and this works in the film’s favor as stimulation for their actions is simply not necessary to proceedings. By trimming away the fat, the lean 86 minute running time passes decidedly briskly, while still leisurely enough to encourage its addressee from their skins.
Another film which this resembles is James DeMonaco’s so-so home invasion feature The Purge from 2013 but I would argue that The Strangers is way more effective as Bertino has a far greater grasp of suspense and, should you own a surround sound entertainment system, then you will likely be jumping at shadows for weeks afterwards as your rear speaker becomes your own worst enemy. Forget about motivation, it’s utterly superfluous here. What matters is that this could really happen and it’s only ever about making it through an ominous situation in one piece. Home invasion movies often lack any discernible ambiguity and fall flat as a result. This doesn’t. It really is that simple if you allow it to be.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10
Dread Factor: 4/5
For The Dread-Heads: This feels more substantial than Them, less cluttered than The Purge, and every bit as insular as Halloween which is as large a compliment as I could possibly bestow upon it. It dumbfounds me that so much negativity is heaped upon The Strangers by the “it’ll take a lot more than that to scare me” brigade and it doesn’t seem to receive the credit it is well overdue. Most critically, in a time where film-makers pummel our senses with vivisectionist splatter, it serves as a reminder that all you really need is a lonesome dwelling, a mask or three, and a director who still remembers what it feels like to be scared stiff, to affect your audience.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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