Movie Review: The Strangers

The Strangers2008. Starring Scott Speedman, Liv Tyler. Directed by Bryan Bertino.

When I was an impressionable kid, I heard about a couple who were friends of some friends of a friend of mine who had been out parking on some country road when they ran out of gas. Being that it was late, and cold, the boy offered to walk back to town and get help, while the girl lay down to sleep, making the best of an inconvenient situation. She woke up hours later to the sound of a gentle scraping, back and forth on the car’s roof. It crossed her mind that they had parked under a tree, and it could be a branch — probably was a branch — blown by the wind and scraping the roof. But it didn’t really sound like a branch. She sat in the cold car, imagining what else it could be, scraping back and forth, inches above her head. She finally built up her courage, crawled out of the back seat, and peeked out to see what was making the noise. . .

I love those stories as much as I used to fear them: the hook in the car door, the dog under the bed, the hitchhiker in the back seat, and many more stories about terrible things that happened to other people. When I saw the trailer for The Strangers, I flashed back to that easy-to-scare kid in the ’70s who saw the drive-in “coming attractions” for films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, movies that promised to depict the dread I could only imagine. And there was no effort to hide the tormentor in any of the trailers — like had been done with “monster movies” for so long — to save the impact that unveiling would provide. The impact from these movies would be the lasting damage done to your sense of safety and trust in the baseline humanity of others.

First-time director Bryan Bertino does a lot of things right with The Strangers, but it must be hard to maintain the sense of foreboding — the essence of the story — for 90 minutes. It begins slowly, which is promising, by introducing James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler), who arrive at his family’s summer home early in the morning after a wedding. They have been arguing, she is crying. They settle in, relax, even begin to reconcile in the near-silent ranch house, when there is an odd knock at the door. “It’s 4 in the morning,” James asks himself.

The young woman who knocks asks for someone who doesn’t live there, then leaves. Then James leaves to get more cigarettes. Kristen is left in the unfamiliar house to wait, and listen.

Anyone who has spent time in an old house knows about the strange noises one can make. The only thing worse than those faint creaks and groans is a distinct sound, like a knock or a thud. As Kristen stands near the window and hears a distinct thud, a muscle in her throat contracts, and I swear that is the most-frightening moment of this movie.

There is one fatal flaw common to many horror movies: the character who doesn’t act the way a normal person would act — you know, the one who enters a creepy house without even trying to turn on a light, or crawls into the attic after four friends go missing, rather than call the police. That’s when I know I’m watching film spool by, and not having the story tap into my subconscious. The Strangers nearly avoids this, and could have easily done without the character in question.

A lesser flaw, only because it’s become a staple of modern horror, is the cat-and-mouse game played between tormentors and prey. I would rather see someone running for their life (as does the “last girl” in Texas Chainsaw Massacre) or fighting back (as in Halloween) than do the hiding-running-tripping routine that only dilutes the tentative suspense.

Endings are the hardest, and horror movies have given us the full spectrum of results — from satisfying and sudden to lame and unlikely. All I’ll say about The Strangers is that it gives us a believable and devastating ending . . . before completely betraying itself.

I wish The Strangers would have been better. I love the warm, dim lighting in the house; the eerie unveiling of one of “the strangers” in the background; the dull reading of their infrequent lines; the dread of looking out at the well-lit yard full of trees. But if it had been better, I might not have been able to sleep as well for the next 30 years.

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