Sunday, July 27, 2008

Review: The Strangers (**)

Starring: Scott Speedman, Liv Tyler, and Kip Weeks
Directed by: Bryan Bertino
MPAA Rating: R for violence/terror and language
Runtime: 91 minutes

Two years ago a horror film was released that I did not see at the time. It was called The Descent, and even though it was met with rave reviews, I was too young to see it. This year I caught up with it, and it has haunted me ever since. It was nihilistic, terrifying, and unforgettable.

This year the same kind of film was released, just as nihilistic, but hardly as scary and much less unforgettable. It’s called The Strangers and, while it is certainly not the worst horror film of the year so far, one could do much better.

James and Kristen have just left the wedding reception of two friends. It’s sort of obvious at first glimpse that these two had a past relationship. He has proposed; she has rejected him. Things are at a standstill.

Soon enough, however, the two are suddenly terrorized by a man and two women, all three of whom are in creepy masks. They fight to escape his father’s house, where a candlelit dinner was to await the both of them, while the masked intruders concoct ingenious ways to trap them.

All well made and very scary, especially the scenes that build tension by letting us see what James and Kristen cannot. One scene has Kristen pacing her kitchen, drinking wine and smoking, while The Man in the Mask is behind her just watching, face unseen. This is the most well-directed shot in the film, director Bryan Bertino’s camera never wavering. It reminded me of a much better scene in The Descent, as one of the heroines looks around with a green lightstick, while a humanoid watches, unseen by her, seen by us.

That’s the feel of the whole film; been there, been creeped out by that. A shot in the face of a somewhat unimportant character is well done but was better handled in the criminally underrated Saw III. Both are terrible mistakes, but one is not seen as a mistake at first, then comes back to haunt the character later, emotionally investing us in the situation.

That turns out to be what’s missing here: emotion. The Descent and Saw III had all the gore, blood, and nihilism to rattle the cages of the hardiest horror fan, and their filmmakers were smart enough to supply a brain and a heart to go with them; both films had emotional gravity and endings that were logical next steps as a result, not just trying to be clever. By the time the ending comes in The Strangers, we realize with a sinking heart that all it was trying to be, and therefore became, was a clever lead-in for an unnecessary sequel.

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