After a 4 a.m. knock at the door and a haunting voice, Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) and James Hoyt’s (Scott Speedman) remote getaway becomes a psychological night of terror as three masked strangers invade. Now they must go far beyond what they thought themselves capable of if they hope to survive.
The Strangers 8.0
eyelights: Liv Tyler’s performance. its aural quality. its effective tension-building. its relative restraint.
eyesores: Scott Speedman’s performance. the characters’ decision-making. the opening intro text reading.
“Is Tamara home?”
I was never going to see ‘The Strangers’. The thriller, which was released in 2008, followed hot on the heels of all those so-called torture porn films and its grindhouse-style promotional artwork lead me to believe that it would be one of those. And, frankly, while I like horror, I’m not into gratuitous gore and violence; they have to serve the plot.
If there is one.
But a friend of mine once recommended it, telling me that much of what was scary was in the fact that the prowlers sometimes only showed up in the background, watching eerily without doing anything – that it wasn’t all violence and visceral stimulation. Mildly curious, I decided to keep it on my radar – eventually stumbled upon a copy for dirt cheap.
And I’m very glad that I picked it up: ‘The Strangers’ was one of the most tension-filled suspense films I’ve seen in years, certainly since ‘The Descent‘. And, as my friend had properly observed, it’s not at all of the torture porn variety; while there is blood and violence, it’s not an especially gory film, and none of it is gratuitous. It was all done in relative good taste.
But it is a suspense picture.
And it is scary.
Its initial few moments didn’t inspire much confidence, however: Over a black screen, a text intro told us that the events took place in 2005 and that what actually happened remained unknown. Ouch. Can you say “loosely based on”? To make matters worse, it was read out. Opening text is always better silent; this felt as though they underestimated the audience.
What a terrible way to start.
But it was soon forgotten. Immediately after this, we were treated to a panicked 911 call by a couple of boys who stumbled into a bloody country home. This was not going to end well, not well at all: since we were told that what happened is not entirely known, this suggested that our main characters will either be dead or will have disappeared.
I won’t relate the whole picture, so as to leave its twists and tricks intact, but let me at least warn you that it’s a home invasion picture. Not everyone will appreciate this. But, knowing this also doesn’t ruin the movie, as evidenced by the reaction I had; it grabbed a hold of me and my stomach unclenched only when I force-fed it my dinner.
‘The Strangers’ stars Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman as the couple and, while I wasn’t that taken with Speedman (who was okay, but not quite of the necessary calibre), I found Tyler (whom I could barely recognise, for some reason) exceptional in the part; you can totally feel and believe her terror the moment that it begins to creep in.
All the way to the bloody end.
What makes ‘The Strangers’ especially scary is that the stalkers are playing with the couple: they’re repeatedly knocking on doors, smashing into walls, writing on walls and windows and even moving things around – letting them know that they can easily come in. And have. And that there’s no way to know if or when they’ll strike.
This insecurity feeds the couple’s sense of dread and terror.
The fact that we can see the strangers lurking about while the characters don’t brings this point across to us as well, creating additional tension. It makes us want to scream at the screen, as futile as that is. And, like ‘It Follows‘, it inspires us to scan the background at all times in case they pop up again, building a sense of paranoia.
The aural quality of ‘The Strangers’ also contributes to its success: this is a film that MUST BE WATCHED IN SURROUND, as there are tons of sounds emanating from various speakers. Anything less, even stereo, would diminish its impact. tomandandy’s multi-layered score is also perfectly-suited to creating a chilling atmosphere.
If I have any criticism of the picture (aside for Speedman’s serviceable performance), it’s that the characters’ choices didn’t seem intuitive to me. However, they were credible enough. And there’s the small matter of the stalkers appearing and disappearing far too easily, without being seen or heard. Not so sure about that.
But, all in all, ‘The Strangers’ is a well-crafted suspense picture: its central conceit is well thought-out, its main performance anchors it, it’s bone-chilling without being gratuitously violent or gory, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. I would highly recommend this to anyone with a decent surround sound system.
Turn the lights down low, sit back, and enjoy.
Just make sure you lock the doors first.
Date of viewing: November 2, 2015