A friend of mine was talking to me about Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers the other day. He’s a horror fan—but he’s not an information dump of useless genre knowledge quite like I am. He impressed me, though, by mentioning that the film reminded him a lot of these “new wave French horror flicks” that I keep talking about. That’s a great observation—particularly since he was unaware of how much Bertino’s film mimics the older French horror film Them. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery they say, and if that’s true, then Them should feel very appreciated.
Young couple James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler) are heading to James’ father’s isolated cabin. It immediately becomes clear that there’s trouble between these two attractive people because Kristen’s face is streaked with tears. It becomes even more obvious when they arrive at the cabin—where James has prepared for a romantic evening, complete with rose petals and champagne. We soon learn (through some well-placed flashbacks) that James has proposed earlier in the evening—and his offer of holy matrimony was denied. That’s the least of this couple’s worries though—because shortly they’ll encounter three masked strangers and be forced to play their brutal cat-and-mouse games.
If you’ve seen Them, then you realize that the core idea (young couple in an isolated location is terrorized by a group of largely unseen assailants) is the same in both films. Granted, this isn’t some sort of groundbreaking narrative arc, but there are definitely similarities between the two films. It’d be hard to believe that Bertino (who also wrote the script) hadn’t seen Them. If he didn’t, the similarities are pretty amazing.
That being said, if you can get past the whole “this movie feels like a remake of a French horror film—without actually saying it’s a remake” vibe, The Strangers turns out to be a decent horror film. It’s not going to turn up on anyone’s top ten of all time list, but it does what it sets out to do (creep out an audience) effectively. That it shows some genuine style in its direction and execution is pure bonus.
Much of the film’s success is attributable to Bertino and director of photography Peter Sova. The Strangers has a great visual style to it—the scene compositions are crisp and the use of color to create ambience is surprisingly subtle and effective. The cabin that James and Kristen are in is lit in a warm shade of brown and yellow. It’s a stark contrast from what most genre films strive for—there aren’t a lot of dark corners or shadows early on. The effect is unsettling in a way that’s not readily apparent at first—this warm glow is supposed to be comforting and make us feel safe…which only heightens the tension once our three masked antagonists show up. This use of color extends even to the wardrobe—Tyler’s character dons a plaid shirt around the middle of the film that matches the lighting scheme almost perfectly.
Other design decisions work just as well (if not as subtly). The idea of making the attackers masked (and hiding their faces for the entirety of the film even though we’d not recognize them if we saw them) is clever and well-conceived. The idea of keeping the identities secret (and not even showing us the faces) is a particularly nice touch. I fully suspected that Bertino would show us the attackers without the masks at the end in an attempt to show us that evil can appear very normal, but he instead opts to keep them hidden—making them, literally, strangers to us. It’s kind of creepy—this man and two younger women could be anyone. If we see their faces, we could at least be “on the lookout” for them—but instead we don’t even have that to make us feel safe.
Bertino’s handling of the suspense scenes is impressive too. The Strangers works in a few jump scares, to but to the film’s credit, they never feel quite as cheap as most jump scare moments do. I suspect this is because the ones featured in this film aren’t cheats—when Bertino makes you jump, it’s the real deal. Something bad is happening, and it’s not just a cat hopping through a window. This is best illustrated through a sequence that finds Tyler hiding in a closet while the male attacker walks around the darkened room outside. It’s a tense scene, and when it finally pays off, it’s with a jump scare—but the jump is a legitimately creepy moment.
The only real problems with The Strangers are that the story (even without the ties to Them) is mostly predictable and the ending isn’t anywhere near as satisfying (or even fitting to the film’s tone) as it should be. The film plays out in the only way it can—it becomes obvious early on what James and Kristen are up against. There’s not even a “rewind” moment (a la Haneke’s Funny Games) to break up the film’s inexorable march to its conclusion. Something, anything, to break from the mold of these types of films would have gone a long way to elevating The Strangers’ status amongst horror fans.
Meanwhile, the ending is underwhelming—or rather, the last shot is. I’ve seen a lot of disappointing final images in horror films over the years (I blame DePalma and Carrie for this stuff becoming the standard), but the one in The Strangers feels so out of place, pointless and wrong that it ruined some of the good things I was feeling toward the film up to that point. It’s a lazy way to end a film. I don’t need a prologue or a set of title cards or something like that, but at least have the courage to end your film with something a little less hackneyed.
Complaints aside, The Strangers is still an entertaining enough genre flick. Speedman and Tyler are so good looking you’d hate to see them get cut up and the film is smart enough to get in and out in under 90 minutes of running time. It may not do anything particularly original, but The Strangers does manage to thrill and chill, which is all it ever really set out to do in the first place. There are worse ways to spend an evening.
What did you think of this review?