Director: Bryan Bertino
Writer: Bryan Bertino
Producer: Doug Davison, Roy Lee, Nathan Kahane, and Sonny Mallhi
Cinematographer: Peter Sova
by Jon Cvack
I haven’t seen this movie since it first came out in 2008. It was one of the first films from the “Home Invasion” subgenre, fresh off the heels off the torture porn of Saw, Hostel, etc. which was fading fast. Similar to The Blair Witch Project ('99) - where eight years later Paranormal Activity would pick up the genre, sparking a fusillade of found footage films - The Purge ('13) would arrive five years later to staggering success (pulling in ~$90 million against the film’s $3 million budget). It would utilize what would become tropes of the genre: creepy, yet innocuous-in-themselves masks which, when placed upon a bunch of killers that are hoping to slaughter the people inside a home, would even prove effective. It continued the tradition kicked off by Scream ('97) nearly two decades ago; abandoning the supernatural in favor of the actual; abandoning the exotic locations and instead turning to the suburban home where a group of lunatics harass and then murder whoever’s inside.
Cloverfield had actually arrived the same year as The Strangers, offering an equally strong first act. In Cloverfield’s case about a going away party thrown by a guy who wants to confess his love for the girl going away. In The Strangers’ case it’s about a guy who proposes to a girl who rejects him for reasons unknown. And while neither is that interesting, they’re both well made enough to distract you from the fact that you’re watching a horror film. In both films, I recall sitting there, taken away by the two love stories before any of the thrills begin which then snapped me back to the story’s purpose.
The Strangers opens with James (Scott Speedman) and his girlfriend Kristen (Liv Tyler) who’ve just returned from a wedding (not their own), where through the power of showing rather than telling (a rare accomplishment for a genre which, beyond the exposition, relies entirely on this fact and yet somehow fails to “show” the exposition time and time again). Granted, The Strangers relies on a few flashbacks, but they’re so subtle it’s excusable. One is particularly great, in which you see the power of framing to make an event feel larger. Although the pair is at a wedding, there is tight medium shot of Kristen at a wedding, sitting at the table where we’re unable to see who she’s talking to. She laughs and laughs while we don’t hear a word, until James comes up, feeling awkward for being excluded from the joke. Later he proposes, breaking what seems like an unspoken rule at a wedding (that is, don’t propose at another’s wedding).
James had a whole night planned for Kristen back at his parent’s place where he had champagne on ice and roses leading up to the bathtub. Why James thought the most romantic place to take his hopeful fiancé was his parent’s house in the suburbs is beyond me. The best I can do is say maybe that’s a point to be made about James and why Kristen had rejected him. Why would she ever marry a man who on one of the most consequential nights of a romantic relationship, the guy takes her to his parents house in the burbs?
Luckily this didn’t really hit me until I was thinking about the film much later, and while not as powerful as the first time, again I was swept away by the narrative until that first pound at the door arrived. I had recently upgraded my setup and realized in the process that my Roku player doesn’t offer anything beyond 1080p and can’t provide 5.1 audio, and for a 4k television with a 5.1 setup, I was excited to see how it played out. Unfortunately, my television’s Amazon app wasn’t working, forcing me to have to go back to the Roku and not just forfeit the image, but far more tragically, the surround sound; as once these knocks started happening I couldn’t stop thinking how much cooler it could have been.
In the middle of this fairly heartbreaking end to a relationship, James leaves to go buy Kristen some cigarettes and she’s left alone, where moments before they received a strange visit from a girl asking if someone was at the house. This is based off director Bryan Bertino’s own past experience, where a person came to his house once when he was young and home alone, asking if someone was home that Bryan didn’t know. The next day him and his family learned there were a series of robberies in the area. In this case, after James leaves, the girl returns, pounding the front door in what is one of the greatest horror movie sounds ever created. In the film’s greatest shot, we see Kristen standing in the foreground of the kitchen with a dark, soft muddied background behind her as another figure with a burlap sack mask eases into frame, to the point where you wonder how long he was there before you noticed.
James eventually returns, with Kristen thinking he’s one of The Strangers who’ve broken into the house, and of course he then wants to handle it, failing to grasp the extremity of the situation. The movie culminates at the moment when James grab his dad’s gun, hiding in the guest bedroom with Kristen, waiting to kill whoever’s entered. Earlier James had called his best friend and explained the situation, and when the friend’s car has a rock thrown through the windshield when he’s calling James to come out, the friend heads in, featuring the song “Mama Tried” playing high, where we know exactly where it’s going. However, this time around, I realized it could have worked a bit better a different way. The problem is that we know that the friend is going to get shot, leaving me to imagine if the camera followed the stranger walking down the hallway, with the cell phone ringing across the room, the audience having no clue the friend even arrived, leading James to shoot who he and we think is the stranger, but in fact, is his friend. Instead of the tension falling on when the gun will go off into what would happen if the stranger gets killed.
The movie drops off a bit after the scene and keeps falling until leveling just above average by the end. A bit confused, I had to look up what happened after, which includes James telling Kristen about a HAM radio in the shed outback, which even to type out feels kind of absurd. Again, the problem isn’t even the idea of using a HAM radio so much as never including the audience in on that fact, and therefore feeling very much like “...and then” plot device. Even if there was a mention about how the dad was an air force and/or amateur radio operator could have made it at least fit (albeit not that well, but better). The last twenty five minutes become kind of muddy at the point, and it’s only when we see the two Mormon boys riding their bikes, with the strangers asking for one of their brochures, declaring that it’ll be easier next time that I was left feeling satisfied. In terms of the longest delay to a sequel, especially for a movie that made 9x it’s budget, this has to be a record as the sequel hasn’t come out until this year; though unfortunately it looks like a straight to Redbox.
I’ve been considering what these films mean in the grand scheme of things; in which a group of masked strangers, often white and seemingly middle class, decide to break into a house to torture and murder a bunch of innocent people. Perhaps it’s the Tea Party and the fear of the other, yet the ethnicities behind the masks don’t line up. Maybe it’s the increasing amount of pro-gun laws, such as Stand Your Ground or Man Your Castle, in which the contradiction of the two seems to be missed by those who demanded them, as though they’re anxious to finally get to use their toys. Another version is that the films reflected an increasingly connected world. It’s a fascinating movement that seemed to have lasted only for a flash compared to so many others.
BELOW: A spectacular scene which has the rare ability to be just as effective from another perspective
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