The Strangers

The Strangers (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Bryan Bertino
viewed: 11/05/08

As usual, my Halloween horror film list extends beyond the holiday itself.  The Strangers is a contemporary horror film.  A film about being terrorized by people for no reason.  And it has its merits.  It’s almost pretty good.

Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman are a young couple returning to the country home of Speedman’s father after a party, late at night.  After an emotional conversation, about Tyler’s rejecting Speedman’s marriage proposal, things suddenly get psychotic for them.

A girl, whose face is half-hidden in shadow, knocks at the door, asking for someone who is not there.  When Speedman heads to town for cigarettes, the knocking comes again, and again, and suddenly, it’s clear that there are masked people in the house.  When Speedman comes back, the violence escalates, their cell phones are destroyed and knives and axes and shotguns come out.  The couple is being terrorized by masked marrauders.  But why?

Well, that is the whole point of the film, really.  The couple runs around for a good hour, getting injured, bloodied, and eventually left for dead.  The hour or so of duress and oppression is the drama, the action.  The whole thing is random, unnamed, lethal.  Like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997) and his re-make Funny Games U.S. (2007), people are targetted randomly, isolated, tortured and tormented and ultimately killed for no real reason.  Haneke’s film(s) are meant to be a critique of the genre, pulling back the veil and the vengeance when the tormentors are injured or killed, and re-setting the torture for the audience.  A critique of the audience’s bloodlust.

But The Strangers plays the more straight-forward game.  It’s trying to be scary.  It’s trying to make you afraid.  And it’s effective in many ways.  The establishment of the house and the couple build to the point that when they begin to be attacked, it’s involving.  Riding between some iconic, unkillable monster like Michael Myers from Halloween (1978) or Jason Voorhees from Friday the 13th (1980), and giving the terrorists more verity, writer/director Bryan Bertino seems to want to make this on the more “realistic” side, not supernatural nor superhuman.

But the question returns, and Liv Tyler voices it, “Why are you doing this?”

And really the scariest answer is no answer.  But as the trio of masked attackers unmasks themselves (though the audience can only see their faces obscurely), preparing to kill the couple, the answer comes back, “Because you were home.”  And while this is meant to be frightening, displaying the randomness of the attack and the lack of meaning for the killers, it is a little more explanation than is necessary.  And a final sequence, in which the killers encounter some kids with religious tracts biking around the neighborhood, the reference to sinning and the suggestion of intent weakens the fear factor.

The whole point is that there is no explanation for the attacks.  These people are unknowable.  They could be anyone.  And that has real elements of scariness to it.

This film almost gets it.  Almost.  But those points plus and unnecessarily perpetually shaking camera drop its value down a notch.  Still, a decent horror flick.  Or what have you.

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