Friday, September 05, 2008

The Strangers (Bertino, 2008)

The Strangers
Directed by Bryan Bertino
Starring: Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman, Glenn Howerton
Grade: B+

There are many things that can dismantle a relationship. From the moment Kristen McKay (Tyler) and James Hoyt (Speedman) fade into vision through a rain-splattered car windscreen, it's apparent things aren't too cosy at the inn. That this should come after an opening narration about the authenticity of the events on show and a recording of a frantic 911 call (effectively two immediate disruptions) unsettles without the main characters ever having spoken a word. It's a sign of things to come for The Strangers, which continually takes you out of your comfort zone. As unrelenting and merciless as the 'strangers' themselves.

As for the 'strangers', their cameo is a slow, drawn-out one, and is as much an intrusion on the couple's relationship as it is a threat to their lives. Upon return rose petals and champagne are greeted with tension and disdain; a proposal shunned, a celebration tempered, and so what's interrupted is more frosty fall-out than suburban bliss. To the film's credit, as danger is foisted upon them the couple never overtly put their issues to bed, and there's resistance to explore their tiff any further, itself perhaps serving as a statement that bad things don't always have to happen to the happiest of people.

When it becomes clear that they aren't the only ones on their wooded expanse is when The Strangers is at its level best. Containing some of the sharpest sound-work I've ever seen in a horror film it playfully and torturously terrifies; whether it be banging, scraping, shooting, vocalwork, and even the use of existing folk tracks in the film, which linger for what seems like an eternity at times. Director Bertino gets the tension all right, escaping the tedium of suspense that plagues many modern attempts at the genre, and creating a hella scary experience that on more than one occasion made me want to dive into a cushion and put my fingers in my ears. It evokes such a sickening feeling that the mere presence of weapons at all feels unnecessary; it's cold, clinical, life-sucking atmosphere an awesomely effective exercise likely to render you empty and shaken.

There are always moments in a slasher film you wish you could change, and protagonist's decisions that are frankly rather difficult to comprehend. There's never a manual about how to survive such an attack, but if there were, Kristen and James have got it at least the right way up. They don't remain exempt from queries about decision-making but crucially The Strangers acts quickly to limit their choices, and so when faced with the option of shouting and gesticulating at such stupidity, a despairing shrug seems more the appropriate option. It's fair to say, however, that Bertino does get a little too excited at times, and doesn't seem to know how accessible he wants to make the 'strangers' themselves, never showing their faces but making deliberate attempts to align them with 'normality'. I'd also like to have seen the initial 911 call pursued later in the film. There's never any reference to it in the attack, and its only purpose, as far as I can see, seems to be an aesthetic one.

I have difficulting condemning The Strangers for one or two errors/wild assumptions that horror films (especially of the slasher variety) are renowned for having, because as a dramatic sequence the movie is so wickedly punishing and wonderfully constructed. At one point in the film Liv Tyler's Kristen lights a cigarette. Stressed and terrified she potters about in the kitchen, oblivious to a masked 'stranger' standing just metres behind her. You know that the 'stranger' isn't going to touch Kristen but it doesn't matter. Time is frozen, and while our heroine numbs her tired brain in hope of rescuing a tired situation, we're no longer able to be with her. Now that's scary.

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