May 30, 2008 (U.S.)
Scott Speedman as James Hoyt
Liv Tyler as Kristen McKay
Gemma Ward as Dollface
Kip Weeks as The Man in the Mask
By Horror Queen
The Strangers first time writer-director Bryan Bertino captures the viewer from the onset and doesn’t let go until the bitter end. The performances of leading actors Scott Speedman and the captivating Liv Tyler are flawless.
The stage for The Strangers is set with a 911 call and caption describing a young couple leaving a wedding reception and retreating to a family vacation home in the woods where “the events that took place… are still not entirely known.” Clearly this is not going to end well. And let’s face it, there’s an added element of horror to a film “inspired by true events.” Creepy. Even if we don’t know the full story yet. Creepy.
Enter the not-so-happy couple, James and Kristen. His proposal of marriage to her that night apparently did not turn out as planned – he was dumped. How embarrassing since he took the time to spread rose petals all over the house and had champagne chilling. With their sudden dismal mood, one would think that would be the worst thing that could happen to the couple that night. Not so much.
As a depressed James heads out to buy cigarettes, Kristen is left alone in the house and this is when the fun begins. By fun I mean the strange appearance of different masked and hooded figures (think the Spanish film The Orphanage) knocking on doors and moving around unseen inside the house with Kristen. Just as the house phone goes dead and Kristen reaches her fear threshold, James comes home only to tell her she is imagining things, including the disappearance of her cell phone and sound of a young girl’s voice at the door. We begin to understand Kristen’s decline of the marriage proposal. But no matter. James quickly realizes there actually are people after them as he meets them trying to retrieve his own cell phone from the car (it’s gone of course – the cell phone, not the car). Now unable to call for help, James goes back in the house, finds a rifle and holes up in a closet with Kristen. Not exactly an aggressive move, given the fact that the masked people don’t appear to have guns, but no matter.
Enter Mike, James’ friend to the rescue (James had called him earlier to commiserate over the break up and ask him to pick him up). In an unfortunate mishap James shoots the friend. Oops. He looked like he could have been a killer in a hood. After a lame attempt to blame Kristen for the accident (even more we understand her decline of the marriage proposal) the two try and escape. Sort of. Actually James tries to escape with the gun and tells Kristen to wait at the house. Would that be the house with potential killers in it? Yes that’s the one. We now fully understand her decline of the marriage proposal.
Running through The Strangers are striking audio visual elements – old music skipping on a scratchy phonograph, swings swaying on an empty swing set, and the occasional tinkling of piano keys by the masked people – truly eerie stuff. Add to that deliberate silence, and appearing and disappearing figures that are at once innocent and frightening. It’s these elements of suspense that are The Strangers’ greatest strength, along with the character development of James and Kristen. What are its weaknesses? Well, as in many home-invasion thrillers, one wonders why the couple doesn’t just make a run for it out the back door and not look back. Right?
After a long night of psychological tension without reprieve, James and Kristen are finally overtaken by the strangers and tied up in chairs before the masked trio. When asked by a sobbing Kristen “why are you doing this to us?” the young girl replies “because you were home.” What did we expect? “We are doing this because we all come from broken homes with violent, addictive parents.” Nope, it was just because they were home. Nothing like existentialist killers.