[29 May 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
The art of suspense is dead, or at the very least, dying. Few in post-modern filmmaking know how to establish dread without drowning it in gore or just boring us to death. Part of the reason lies in how cinematically complex the basic bloodless thriller must be. It has to work on the psychological, as well as the physiological and pragmatic levels. As Hitchcock accurately stated, the viewer must be invariably linked to the fate of characters they just met, and may know more than. It’s all a matter of timing and talent. Tossing grue at the screen is as easy as opening up a can of red paint. Getting audiences to grip the edge of their seats stands as a rare motion picture accomplishment.
It’s one that the new so-called shocker The Strangers strives for, over and over again. It’s so desperate to drag us through a tense little exercise in creepy cat and mouse that it all but misses the reason these movies succeed. After an especially hard night of romance and rejection, young couple James Hoyt and Kristen McKay retreat to his isolated family vacation home. As they regroup, they sense something is amiss. Suddenly, there’s a knock at the door. Even though it’s four o’clock in the morning, they answer the door. There, in the darkness, a young girl asks if ‘Tamara’ is home. Slightly belligerent, she barely takes “No” for an answer. Without warning, the house is suddenly besieged by a trio of masked assailants. Their purpose seems simply enough - torture and kill the panicked pair.
The Strangers is a deadly dull experience in boredom, strangled by two cinematic stumbling blocks - one external and one of its own unfortunate making. Outwardly, this movie can’t help but compare unfavorably to the brilliant French thriller from last year, Ils (otherwise known as Them to American audiences). So similar story-wise as to almost be exact, and utilizing a far more interesting set-up and payoff, filmmakers David Moreau and Xavier Palud really delivered the goods. We cared about the characters in that eerie little experiment in ambient noises and unseen threats. Even if the ending went a bit gonzo, we still enjoyed every spine tingling, bone chilling moment of the ride.
The second factor is completely within writer/director Bryan Bertino’s control. Instead of starting the movie off inauspiciously, allowing the tale of our crumbling couple to organically meld into the stark and subtle serial killer material to come, The Strangers shoots itself in the foot by following a lame-brained Texas Chainsaw Massacre style preamble. As our super serious voice over narrator drones on, we are told of the terror to come. Even worse, Bertino then starts the narrative at the end, giving us horrific, hint filled glimpses of what will occur. A more successful conceit would have been to remove the first five minutes and give us nothing more than the effective shot of stars Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman in silent sadness, tears streaming down their faces. Advanced warning of their fate turns everything stale.
Not that there’s much to go on once the Manson Family by way of The Town That Dreaded Sundown shows up. Dressed in slightly unsettling costumes that conceal their identity, our mindless murderers are purposefully given no backstory or motive. The most we learn is that James and Kristen have been chosen because “they were home”. It’s a wonderfully evocative line, but Bertino does nothing with it. Similarly, the house in question is never established as a place of shelter, or safety, or scares. Ils at least let its brooding Romanian estate be as much a surprise of escape opportunities and fatalistic dead ends as a cinematic backdrop. In The Strangers, all we get is a barn, a backyard, and a ranch style design right out of the ‘70s.
In addition, Bertino completely misunderstands the use of sound as a way of securing shivers. Our couple has some of the oddest taste in music ever established in a horror film. They seem to enjoy a combination of Lester Roadhog Moran and His Cadillac Cowboys, The Shaggs, and a diseased Little Jimmy Dickens. The atonal drone of the cracked country music that plays during the fright sequences is so annoying as to cause outright anger - and nothing destroys suspense quicker than a rising urge to kill the record player. Also, Bertino misses a golden opportunity to add some ambience to his efforts. The wooded exterior should have provided some ample unexplained angst. Instead, even the aural cues are obvious.
As for the acting, Tyler and Speedman are given little to do, instantly moving from morose to victim mode in the span of a few seconds. They never provide a sense of individual urgency, capable of anything to make sure they survive. Instead, they huddle into corners and whine, whimper, and wince. We never develop any real sympathy for them, so as a result, we don’t care if they live or die. Our killers are another conundrum all together. Purposefully oblique, they come across as deadly dolls without a single sinister bone in their persistent hunter horror personas. Even when Bertino unmasks them and offers his downbeat denouement, the performances never play into genre ideals.
Of course, The Strangers is the kind of film that would welcome such unpredictability. You can just see some suit reading the script and thinking “Wow, this sure beats all that bloody torture porn being pushed right now.” Sadly, an alternative is not necessarily a salve, or in extremes, a salvation. Just because John Carpenter changed the movie macabre dynamic with his slasher homage to the Master of Suspense doesn’t mean that 2008 is looking for the same cinematic redeemer. Bryan Bertino may believe he is onto one Hell of a shouting-back-at-the-screen audience participation thrill ride. All easily frightened fans aside, The Strangers is destined to be mildly favored and then forgotten. It doesn’t have enough heft to warrant macabre staying power.