Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Strangers

The home, ideally a place of safety, comfort, and stability, and yet far too often, a home does not offer any of these assurances. Consider real-life occurrences of domestic violence, burglaries, and break-ins, and it's disquieting to realize just how vulnerable we can be in our own homes. It is this fear that The Strangers (2008) exploits. The story of a young couple (Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler) terrorized by a trio of masked maniacs one night, The Strangers is a competent enough nail-biter and piece of domestic suspense with a few standout sequences and an atmosphere of creepy unease, but it is hampered by a couple of notable flaws and lack of staying power.

The film opens with James (Speedman) and Kristen (Tyler) arriving at an isolated summer house of his family's, and it's clear from the get-go there's trouble between them. Later, it becomes apparent he asked he asked her to marry him, and she said no, although we don't witness that particular incident. After a while, the masked psychopaths arrive and start messing with them, and from there, it's a deadly game of cat-and-mouse until the end.

That's all the plot there is. The Strangers is as straightforward as a thriller can get: one location, a small number of actors, and a single scenario. We never learn who the strangers are or see them without their masks on. Their motives are never explained; we only get a few hints that this is some sort thing they have done before, and it's pretty clear they enjoy tormenting people. Evil is just out there.

The fundamental challenge of this scenario is how easily it can become repetitious. There's only so many ways to depict such a small number of people being terrorized in a house before the suspense is replaced by tediousness or introducing more characters or elaborating and expanding the plot. It's a fine balance between maintaining the simplistic purity of the setup and stretching it beyond the breaking point. For the most part, The Strangers is successful on this front, although by the last 20 minutes or so, it starts to run out of juice. The early interactions between Kristen (while James is away for the time being) and the villains are the best. Before they try breaking in, the masked people simply spook her, announcing with little clues they have been in the house when she wasn't looking : a cellphone missing, the smoke detector left on the floor now neatly placed on a chair, etc.

The appearance of the first masked figure is reminiscent of Leatherface's entrance in the original The Texas Chain saw Massacre. No, he doesn't bash anyone over the head with a meat cleaver, but there is similarly no introduction or buildup. He's just suddenly there, in the house behind Kristen as she stands at the kitchen table. When she turns back, he's gone. Soon after, we get an effective jump scare at the window.

As I said, the movie begins to flag in the last third. Partly that's due to the limitations of the plot I outlined above, but also because the initial mystery of the strangers just becomes disappointingly vague. When they arrived, their agenda could have been anything and interest is piqued, but when we see what they do at the end, one wonders why they didn't do that at any number of opportunities. There's something to be said for evil not needing a reason to commit evil, but here, the movie felt like it was going to build to some kind of revelation. I'm not asking for a twist ending, but seeing what they do is not as scary as wondering what they might do. Not giving them a motive, rather than commenting on the randomness of evil, felt more like a way to prolong the movie's running length.

The movie's other problem, to be honest, is its leads. Speedman and Tyler are a little bland, a little too Hollywood, to really invoke a sense of "this could be you." The early scenes of their spat might have been interesting, but ultimately, when the creepy stuff begins, it's gone by the wayside. There's a potentially neat idea about these two people, ostensibly in love, not really knowing each other as well as they thought they did and being forced to confront that reality. That could have fit nicely in with a movie of the "Savage Cinema" genre, like in Straw Dogs, Deliverance, or The Last House on the Left. Even the back of the DVD case says Kristen and James are driven beyond what they thought themselves capable of to survive, but that really doesn't really occur in The Strangers. There's no sense broken taboos or committing extreme violence to survive and what impact it has on so-called "civilized" people.

I should also note The Strangers is remarkably similar to a 2006 French film called Them, also about a young couple in an isolated house being terrorized by a group of unknown assailants. I'm not accusing it of being a rip-off, a remake, or plagiarizing (so many horror movies borrow similar premises and ideas, after all), but The Strangers feels a little more polished and safer in comparison. Despite claiming to be based on a true story (which it's not), The Strangers never feels like more than a movie. Entertaining and suspenseful throughout, but it doesn't shake you to the core.

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