Director: Bryan Bertino
Cast: Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman
Plot: After a proposal turned down, a couple awkwardly return to their summer home, where three masked men break in and torment them.
Sometimes the best ideas are the simplest ones.
The Strangers is a horror so basic that, on paper, it must have seemed like half an idea. A dysfunctional couple (Liv Tyler just turned down a marriage proposal), are trapped in a house, while some masked intruders hunt them with knives. Even the killers are absent of back story. There is no mythology around the killer like Jason Voorhees. There is no secret identity like Ghostface. And there isn’t even copious amounts of screen time devoted to the bad guys, like with Chucky. The killers are masked, want to kill the heroes, but other than that, we know nothing more. It adds to the savagery of the events you are watching. The poor humans trapped in this nightmare are being tormented for apparently no reason whatsoever. The pointlessness of their torment makes the chills so much more poignant, as the human heroes desperately turn to ‘why this is happening’ and coming up with little. There is one perfectly directed scene where the villains take off their masks, but the audience still don’t see their faces. It is tremendously chilling, jolts coursing down your spine. But at the same time, Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman’s couple are hardly offered bounds of characterisation either. We know that there was a proposal that didn’t work out (the whys are kept in the dark), but otherwise, the character development is kept to hiding in a cupboard and being scared out of their minds. Yes, to a point, that means that The Strangers is only quite good in the moment, not quite having that lasting effect or cult following of something a little more traditional like Insidious or Nightmare on Elm Street. There isn’t quite enough there than actual horror to keep audiences talking about it after the movie, although the argument against this complaint is that, what the audience actually get is a horror movie in its rawest form. Most horror movies could be diamonds in the rough, the characterisation dressing to the main meal which are the scares. The Strangers just gives us less of the patter and more of what we actually want. Is characterisation actually that important asks the writing team?
As a result, Bertino has time to focus on the important things. Horror. And the horror is beautifully portrayed. As far as quick scary thrillers go, The Strangers is up there with the best bets you can get your hands on. With little story to distract from the proceedings, all there is left is to wallow in the anxiety-inducing terror that Bertino has in store for you. The film really gets going when it comes to the long, tense shots where a character cluelessly walks down a corridor while a knife-wielding killer stalks silently in the background. The shot lasts far longer than most directors would be willing to allow it to, but it works wonders here, really hammering home that horrific tension. But the most satisfying about the Strangers is how it manages to find humour within its dark content. The two most memorable scenes are the first shot of the mask-wielding killer, as Liv Tyler obliviously wanders around the house, a scary bad guy lounging in the distance. Audiences erupted in laughter, cutting the chilling tension. That is the true essence of horror comedy, rather than the misfire of the Scary Movie efforts. The other big scene shows the killer stalk the house, get bored and tuck into a tub of ice cream in the freezer. That brief glimpse of humanity in the villain makes his actions so much more brutal – the fact that he craves something as universal as ice cream yet still can commit these actions is far creepier than anything a more traditional killer, like the soulless Jason Voorhees, could conjure. As a result, the Strangers feels like a well-crafted rollercoaster, where you are trapped into a journey you cannot escape. The nervous laughs pair beautifully with the sheer horror. The Strangers acts as a rousing success for the horror community, if perhaps a little hollow for cinema as a whole.
Final Verdict: The Strangers is horror in its purest form, light on story but strong on what truly matters – the scares!