United States. 88 minutes (unrated version). Directed by Bryan Bertino, 2008. Starring Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman, Gemma Ward, Kip Weeks, Laura Margolis, Glenn Howerton.
Kristen McKay and James Hoyt’s summer vacation takes a bad turn when Kristen turns down James’s proposal of marriage, but it’s about to get a lot worse for the couple when a trio of masked figures breaks into the summer home they’re staying in and begins terrorizing them–first mentally, then physically. Kristen and James will need all their endurance and resourcefulness to survive the night against these three vicious strangers…
Home: one’s castle, where the heart is, where they have to take you in, countless other clichés, including a real whopper: “the safety of your own home.” Home-invasion has the potential to be one of the most effective sub-genres of horror, one that hurts on the most primal levels. After all, aren’t you supposed to be safe at home? If you’re not, where the Hell can you be safe? Nowhere, that’s where. (Right now I’m imagining John Bruni asking, “Do you know how many crimes are committed in the home?”)
Of course, home-invasion horror doesn’t seem to have any higher a success rate than any other form, chiefly because at least 75% of horror narrative works at the level of cheap exploitation. Danger is more horrific when it kids are placed in it, so let’s place a kid in danger. (Guillermo Del Toro, please pick up the red courtesy phone.) Everybody’s afraid of aliens/spiders/clowns and that’ll be enough to drive our alien/spider/clown-driven movie. Not that cheap exploitation is always, or even usually, a bad thing, but usually there needs to be a bit more there than that to make a horror movie work, at least for me.
The Strangers is a home-invasion movie that works so well that most of the high-profile sub-genre films that have been made since 2008 exist in its shadow, a remarkable feat considering just how unpromising this film looks on paper. Kristen and James receive the barest minimum of development, the cast is riddled with professional pretty people (including not one, but two professional models), Kristen’s narrative journey is the very model of modern Kick-Ass Chik/Final Girl-ism, one of the villains is played by an Aussie fashion model, and the plot’s so formulaic that I doubt anyone watching would be surprised by a single thing that happens over the course of the “unrated edition’s” 88 minutes. Hell, the house isn’t even Kirsten or James’s current home; it’s James’s childhood home. (Because if you’re not safe in your symbolic womb, then where–oh, wait, I already asked that question, didn’t I?)
Yet writer/director Bryan Bertino manages something impressive–by stripping the formula down to its bare essentials, leaving pretty much nothing behind but the scares, he’s managed to make The Strangers more effective than it would have been if he’d cluttered it with more speaking roles, complex characterization or anything resembling motive on the part of the titular Strangers. It’s similar to what Ti West achieved with The House Of The Devil: anything that does not have the potential to make you shit your pants in sheer unadulterated terror is judged as extraneous and is discarded.
And believe me, it works. Characterization for Kristen and James may be thin on the ground, but the chemistry between Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman is so genuine that it’s not hard to see them as Everycouple, and their lines back it up. Tyler is not exactly the world’s most compelling actress, but she takes the role and owns the living bejeezus out of it. Not only do the Strangers not have complex motivations, they barely have any dialogue, all of it–if I recall correctly–spoken by Gemma Ward as Doll Face. (The other two Strangers are named Man In The Mask and Pin-Up Girl.) When she finally answers Kristen’s question of “Why are you doing this to us?” it’s more devastating than anything that drives the nitwits of Bousman’s misbegotten remake of Mother’s Day. Ward, Laura Margolis and Kip Weeks have physical presence to spare, with Weeks’s Man In The Mask in particular being more than a little reminiscent of Nick Castle’s Shape in the original Halloween. The scene where he walks right by Kristen, not paying her any mind because he knows she’s not a threat–not to mention Tyler being visibly cowed by his swagger–gave me chills. Crap, the ending didn’t even piss me off and it should have.
Bertino’s direction is also impeccable, making great use of the middle-of-nowhere location and delivering compositions so beautiful they nearly made me cry. His deployment of suspense, along with a freaky score by Tom Hadju and Andy Milburn and a few alt-country selections, generate a palpable feeling of uneasy dread that sits in the bottom of your stomach and inches you towards the edge of your seat. The blood and gore is applied with restraint, but when it’s used Bertino wields it with restraint, and it’s beautiful stuff to boot.
The Strangers is an unassuming and unlikely classic that somehow became seminal to the point that one of the most anticipated horror films of 2013, Adam Wingard’s You’re Next (and believe me, you have no idea how weird it feels to me to use the phrase “most anticipated horror films of 2013” in conjunction with Adam Wingard’s name), looks like a veritable homage. But the magic it works is undeniable. You have no choice other than to succumb.