In 2004, Bryan Bertino sold the original script for The Strangers to Universal Pictures. After the studio negotiated with directors who refused to helm the film for less than $40 million smackers, someone actually got the brilliant idea, a few years later, to offer Bertino the director’s seat with a lowly $10 million budget attached. The novice screenwriter and director ran like hell with it, and now Bertino makes an impressive debut and scores what is easily the scariest horror film to hit the celluloid screen in several years. Bertino has crafted an efficiently lean and tauntingly mean, highly-controlled mess of a film that will make you spastically jump in your seat until you can’t take any more. Then, at that exact moment, Bertino instinctively releases all of that built-up tension into a swiftly merciless conclusion that’ll make you squirm and jump once more. Somebody had to do it. Horror fans have been sorely neglected by the genre keepers as of late, and, dammit, sometimes, we just want to be scared out of our wits, and that impotent, PG-13 Prom Night bullshit just ain’t gonna do it. Hell, even the recent R-rated offerings have pretty much limited themselves to gore, exploitation, and more gore without the requisite smattering of suspense. Somehow, all of this added up to a big fucking surprise that the horror genre’s box office began bleeding buckets of corn syrup as well. In the absence of an actual story and all-important suspense, a horror flick just cannot deliver genuine scares to the audience. Fortunately, a ruffian director named Bertino has arrived and actually knows how to not blow his own load all over the camera lens.
Bertino’s influences — Alfred Hitchcock and John Carpenter — are rather obvious, but instead of going into rabid fanboy mode and failing to maintain a grip on the film’s subject matter, Bertino is quite cautious in his execution and controlled in his technique. This minimalism is in sharp contrast to a director like, say, Rob Zombie, who puts audiences through the boredom of unnecessary scenes just so he can throw in several masturbatory homage sequences to his favorite movies. Instead, Bertino is clearly concerned with furthering this film’s actual story and its necessary components, no more and no less, which is quite the novel concept these days, really. For the first fifteen minutes or so of the film, Bertino actually crafts some decent character development in comparison to most of the horror genre. Here, again, the audience is spared the overwrought Rob Zombie treatment of an endless backstory to illustrate a main character’s anguish over everything from scratching his ass to contemplating whether taking a dump will make him a more kick-ass villain. Whatever. The Strangers only gives the audience the precise amount of information necessary to kick-start some empathy for the characters, so that when all the mayhem commences, we actually give a rat’s ass whether the couple lives or dies. More importantly, we are scared shitless of the masked trio that later appears, so when one of them raises an axe behind the back of the film’s only minor character (Glenn Howerton), we don’t cheer for the bad guy. As a result, how this particular scene plays out is one damn ingenious plot device that will likely be imitated by future directors. Bertino is definitely one director to watch — repeatedly.
At the start of The Strangers, James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) and Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) are clearly not in a good mood. They’ve just left a wedding reception and are headed, in uncomfortable silence, towards the Hoyt family’s secluded vacation home. At this point, Bertino is already at work creating tension in the audience as the couple waits — she with tear-streaked face and he with obvious wheel-gripping discomfort — at the mercy of a small-town red light in the middle of the night. It’s one of those moments where yelling, “Turn green, you motherfucker!” wouldn’t be uncalled for in reality, and this is just one example of how this film’s attention to sparing detail really works. When the couple arrives at their destination, scattered rose petals, candlelight dinner settings, and champagne on ice all reveal that a failed marriage proposal is the source of the couple’s somber mood. Their obvious discomfort is accompanied by questions of the immediate future and whether they will actually remain a couple after the sun comes up. A few hints are made towards genuine intimacy and a plausible reconcilation, and as the couple’s tension builds into a moment of clutching and clasping of each other’s bodies, the two are interrupted by a disturbingly loud knock at the front door. Although it is 4:00 AM, James stupidly opens the door to a young woman (Gemma Ward), whose shadowed face emits a creepy voice asking for a random, nonexistent person. The couple turns her away, but she hasn’t gone without the precious knowledge that, as Dollface, she and her two accomplices have found this night’s targets.
Soon enough, Dollface, Pin-Up (Laura Margolis), and Man in the Mask (Kip Weeks) start circling their prey with apparent murderous intent. The phone lines are cut, and absolute silence is interrupted only by Merle Haggard on the turntable and the continued incessant knocking on doors and windows. Once these psychopaths manage to infiltrate the home, they don’t immediately announce their success. Instead, they slowly clue Kristen and John into their situation by strategically moving objects around and removing cell phone batteries. Then, the strangers, sufficiently dehumanized in their masks, silently appear and linger in the shadows to stalk Kristin and John for seemingly long stretches of time. All the while, the audience gets lost in the mostly real-time telling of the story, and Bertino has made us his bitches for the duration of his 85 minutes. To be certain, a fair amount of bloodshed does occur, since this is a story about three psychopaths whose main objective is to emotionally fuck with the occupants of an isolated home before going for the official deed. However, Bertino’s simplicity of style — long stretches of silence and very little dialogue — is what allows the suspense to build so momentously. As a director, he has no need to rely on gore f/x or shock cuts in an attempt to induce fear. It’s amazing how actual filmmaking skills can get the job done in such a fine manner.
Unfortunately, The Strangers will suffer needless comparison to Michael Haneke’s Funny Games because of the common theme of vacation home invasion, but the two films couldn’t be more different in execution. Bertino doesn’t dwell in self-aware dialogue, wink-wink nudges towards the audience, or hypocritical preaching in manner of Haneke, who wags his bloody fingers at the audience while clearly enjoying the entire process a bit too much. Further, the physical torture present in Funny Games doesn’t occur within The Strangers, which primarily uses emotional and psychological torment to a far greater effect.
The Strangers isn’t a perfect film, for it suffers along with the rest of the genre by containing protagonists who seriously lack basic survival skills. They do some really dumb things, but if they didn’t, we wouldn’t have this film. In fact, for most of the movie, the injuries that the couple suffers are a direct result of their own actions. Of course, their weaknesses aren’t necessarily shortcomings on the part of the film, for Bertino has slyly woven some complexity into the fold that will, long after the closing credits, keep some audience members replaying certain scenes in their minds. Also excellent are Speedman and especially Tyler, whose Kristen is clearly losing it by the end of the film but still manages not to become pathetic. If one thing spoils the realistic nature of the film, it is, ironically, the “inspired by true events” opening, which has become such a movie cliché that it almost distracts from the realistic tone that Bertino so carefully creates. Small flaws aside, this film really fucking works. I cannot remember the last time I screamed obsenities at a movie screen and meant it in the best way possible. After the theater lights go up, returning home will never be the same again.
Agent Bedhead (a.k.a. “Kimberly”) lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She can be found not answering her door over at agentbedhead.com.Thrills, Spills, and Chills: or How I Learned To Stop Complaining (Mostly) and Love Horror Films Again
Film Reviews | May 30, 2008 | Comments ()