Review by Gordon Justesen
Stars: Liv Tyler, Scott
Director: Bryan Bertino
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Features: See Review
Length: 88 Minutes
Release Date: October 21, 2008
“Why are you doing this to us?”
“Because you were home.”
In order to make a truly effective horror movie, sometimes all one needs is the right sense of atmosphere. The Strangers illustrates this fact perfectly. The story is very familiar, in fact it adds up to horror’s greatest hits, but the claustrophobic feel and unsettling mood established by first time writer/director Bryan Bertino is absolutely first rate.
Loosely inspired by a French horror film called Them, the story centers on a young couple whose intended romantic weekend hits a bump in the road. While at a friend’s wedding, James (Scott Speedman) proposes to longtime girlfriend, Kristen (Liv Tyler), only to get a rejection. It’s certainly not what James had hoped for, especially since they were staying the weekend alone at his parents’ cabin home.
So with the love suddenly gone and their relationship on the brink, James and Kristen think they’re going through the toughest, most difficult moment of their lives. They couldn’t be more wrong. Just as the two are about to make up through a moment of spontaneous intimacy, they are interrupted by a loud pounding of a knock at the front door.
They open the door to find a young girl, covered in a shadow, asking if a certain someone is there. They tell her no and turn her away. Problem seems to be solved as James and Kristen get back to fixing their current situation, only to be interrupted by another pounding of the door…this time even louder.
From this point on, The Strangers becomes a true exercise in unrelenting tension. I was completely surprised by how many times I reacted to the “jump scares” in this film. Even though that has become something of a cheap tactic in scaring an audience, writer/director Bertino really finds a way to make these particular jump moments work to the film’s advantage.
A lot of that has to do with the fact that there’s a great deal of silence through most of the movie, allowing the sudden bursts of fright to really make your skin crawl. The killers stalking the couple are donning different masks, each of which induces a bone-chilling feeling at first sight. What’s more, Bertino even manages to squeeze in some unique visual scares in the midst of all the silence. If you seen the theatrical poster of the movie, you should get a good sense of what I’m referring to.
What I most appreciated about The Strangers is that it once again proves my theory that the absolute best horror films are the ones where the blood and violence is suggested rather than shown before our eyes. We do get bits of blood here and there, but compared to more graphically gory horror flicks out there the blood is surprisingly tame. It’s a film that cleverly relies on sound and atmosphere, which always delivers better in the end.
At first, I was a bit put off by the ending, only because I was expecting something a bit more extravagant. But not long after the movie ended, I thought long and hard, and found the conclusion to be superbly effective. It might not work for everyone, but if you’re still thinking about it long after watching it then the movie did exactly what it set out to accomplish.
The Strangers is quite simply a ferociously suspenseful piece of horror that had me in its scary grip from beginning to end. I think it’s the best horror film in quite some time to rely mainly on mood and atmosphere as opposed to blood and gore. It’s those types of movies in the genre that tend to be the more disturbing and unsettling, which are qualities that most of us want when watching a horror flick.
This is a most solid presentation from Universal. Given that the film was made on quite a low budget, and that most of it is shot with the slightest bit of light, this is a tremendous accomplishment as far as a video presentation is concerned. It’s a movie that will shine better if viewed with the lights turned off, but the image quality is nonetheless remarkable in clearness and vast detail.
This has got to be one of the most stunning 5.1 tracks I’ve ever encountered for a horror film. As I mentioned, the use of silence is key in many of the film’s sequences in order to make the bursts of fright all the more scary, and the sound mix on this release accomplishes that factor brilliantly. The music cues, particularly a song skipping on a record player, is tremendously effective in delivery, and dialogue is delivered terrifically as well. Hands down, one of the best sounding discs of the year.
Included on this disc are both the theatrical and unrated versions of the movie, which differ in length by about two minutes. Extras-wise, we get three deleted scenes and a ten-minute featurette titled “The Elements of Terror”.
The Strangers can best be described by me as a genuinely scary movie. It has its plot conventions but uses them to execute scares in a most riveting way. It may not satisfy all tastes, but I think it’s a film that’s worth the experience.