Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 16, 2008)
Among 2008’s nominees for “Trailer That Least Accurately Represents Its Film”, we get The Strangers. Based on its ads, I thought it’d be a creepy supernatural horror film along the lines of The Ring. That wasn’t correct, as the movie instead went for real-life psychological tension more like Straw Dogs.
After they attend a wedding, Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) and her boyfriend James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) stay at a remote home owned by his family. The romantic getaway James planned doesn’t go well, however. He proposes to Kristen but she declines his request and the evening takes a depressing turn.
The situation doesn’t improve as the night progresses. A strange girl knocks on the door and asks for someone named Tamara, and she later returns after James leaves to get cigarettes. Other foreboding incidents accompany her subsequent visit, and other folks join in as well. They pound on the doors and act in additional menacing ways to scare Kristen.
Eventually James comes back to the house, but matters don’t change for the better. The marauders indulge in a systematic plan of terror and harassment as the night progresses. We see all of their actions as we follow the impact on our protagonists.
All at once, Strangers offers a film that seems both understated and overstated. In the former realm, the movie really takes its sweet time to get anywhere. The plot develops quite slowly, especially when we note its abbreviated running time; for an 88-minute flick to progress at such a leisurely pace surprises me.
It also keeps things mum about its characters. We learn very little about Kristen and James, as we must infer much about their relationship. The flick tells us almost nothing about the pair and even fails to let us know why Kristen turned down James’ proposal. Perhaps this is just poor storytelling, but I actually think it’s an intentional attempt to make it easier for the audience to identify with the characters; the fewer specifics we see, the better we can put ourselves in their shoes.
And since the film touts its “inspired by true events” status, The Strangers clearly hopes to zap us with the notion that the terror could happen to any of us. That side of things works to a moderate degree, but the filmmakers mar the understated side of things with too many standard horror flick tactics. We get the usual musical stings to alert us to scares along with plenty of other predictable methods.
Even the film’s color palette warns us of danger from the very start. Our first glimpse of Kristen and James bathes them in the red glow of a stop light, an image that makes it look like they’re covered in blood. Many more visual choices of that sort emerge, all of which rob the movie of its impact. If The Strangers followed a more naturalistic bent, we’d more easily buy into its conceit. With all the obvious hints of horror from the get-go, the believability factor takes a plunge.
Let’s not ignore the crummy camerawork as well. I feel like a broken record in my frequent condemnation of jerky hand-held shots, but as long as so many modern filmmakers choose to use that style, I’ll gripe about it. Oh, I think the technique occasionally makes sense, but too many times, I feel that movies feature the method as a cheap way to create a semi-documentary ambience.
It rarely works, and it sure doesn’t succeed in The Strangers. From the start, the camerawork actively distracts us from the material, and that sense of annoyance never disappears. The shakycam elements bob and weave so much that it becomes tough to focus on the story and characters.
I’d love to know how much of The Strangers actually comes based on real events. “Not much” would be my guess, as the story provides too many “how the heck did that happen?” elements to ring true. Sure, they say that truth is stranger than fiction, but a lot of the flick simply doesn’t make a ton of sense or seem logical in real world parameters. We can suspend disbelief for this sort of story, but not when the filmmakers try to make us buy into its inherent truthfulness; that’s when the average viewer seems likely to call shenanigans.
In the end, though, the greatest flaw I find in The Strangers stems from the simple fact that it’s boring. The film moves at a snail’s pace and rarely seems to go anywhere. Even when something does occur, we don’t care. I suspect filmmakers like Hitchcock or a young Spielberg could’ve done something effective with this material, but the crew behind Strangers fail to imbue the project with any life.