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DVD Review: The Strangers

The Strangers
Unrated Edition
Directed by Bryan Bertino
Starring Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman
Universal Home Entertainment
Release date:

Two Mormon boys riding their bikes through an eerily isolated neighborhood handing out religious pamphlets chance upon a house with its front door hanging open suspended in place by the occasional wind. Wanting to satisfy their curiosity the boys decide to take a peek inside the house, a decision they will certainly come to regret in the years to come for what their prying eyes and immature minds fall upon will forever scar their adolescent souls. Before them they bear witness to a literal house of horrors their parents never prepared them for: several dead bodies bearing traces of chilling brutality lay sprawled on the floors of the hallway and living room; a butcher knife soaked in blood sitting on a plain white kitchen countertop; a spent shotgun resting all by its lonesome on a floor like it never stood a chance; and the most telling and haunting image of all — lovely red rose petals strewn about the house in a display of love that was savagely displaced by the complete absence of any emotion over the course of one horrifying night. This is the same image that will come back to us at the end. It is a nightmare from which we can never fully awake.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the world of The Strangers.

It’s been a bad night for James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) and his girlfriend Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler). After spending a wonderful evening at a friend’s wedding reception James decided to pop the question to his longtime lady love. Well that didn’t go too well. Leaving the reception in silence, the once-happy couple make the tense journey back to the Hoyt family summer home where they’ve been staying. Upon returning, a chance at resolving their differences is interrupted by a knock at the front door. A woman (Gemma Ward), face mostly shrouded in darkness, quietly asks, “Is Tamara home?” James and Kristen politely rebuff her, but their long, dark night has just begun.

While James goes into town to pick Kristen up some cigarettes, the mystery woman returns asking the same question. Then she comes back again. After she leaves the pounding at the door becomes louder and increasingly intense. Kristen sees some shadowy figures wearing ghostly white masks moving around the outside of the house. James returns later and that’s when the attack begins. The masked prowlers begin to relentlessly assault the couple physically and — most effectively — psychologically by cutting them off from all outside contact and means of escape. James and Kristen barricade themselves in the bedroom with a shotgun but it will do them no good. Like phantoms, the three intruders can move about the premises without being seen or making a sound. Against figures of cold, unstoppable evil armed with sharp objects with the singular purpose of killing their victims James and Kristen may not be able to survive this night.

Idiotically released in the midst of a summer movie season loaded with top-flight competition, The Strangers managed to become a modest success based on strong word-of-mouth. But if you choose to give this film a watch I must warn you beforehand that it does deliver bloody escapist thrills like a cheeseball haunted house carnival ride. The monsters of the film’s title are not the iconic, merchandising-friendly slashers we all grew up, lovable goofballs armed with massive killing implements and cool T-shirt-ready quotes. Hidden beneath masks as pale and emotionless as the people who wear them, the monsters that roam the woods outside of the Hoyt house are the dark, irrepressible id monsters that stalk us in our dreams and are forever concealed in the shadows and other lightless places where our wild imaginations are free to fill in the blanks. Once the film presents us with living horrors that want to destroy all in their path it then asks us what would we do, how far would we go to ensure our own survival. Would we willingly take another life to save ours? Is it worth the cost to our soul?

These are the monsters of reality, the deviant demons who would give Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger bad dreams for years to come: Henry and Otis videotaping their killing sprees and enjoying them later like watching an all-night marathon of the Marx Brothers; Charles Manson’s followers dispatched to kill in the name of a fanatical failed musician who wasn’t good enough for the fucking Beach Boys; Krug and company taking the innocence and then lives of two teenage girls who only wanted to see a rock concert and maybe get a little high; the outgoing and seemingly civilized fresh-faced psychopaths of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games taunting their prey with sadistic mind games while speaking directly into the camera because we may be getting a bit of a sick thrill from what we are seeing. They look and feel and sound and smell much like the rest of us humans but ultimately lack any trace of humanity. Harbingers of doom sprung from the darkest places we dare not venture, given life on the screen and the page to free them from the recesses of our imaginations so that we can defeat them and not become them. Gotta keep the devil way down in the hole.

Bryan Bertino‘s The Strangers, which he directed from his own screenplay, is pure horror. The kind of horror that we don’t squeam in geekish glee at when someone is repeatedly stabbed or forced to flee from a gang of crazed maniacs on a sprained ankle. Bertino doesn’t keep us submerged in fake intestines and severed appendages powered by snappy dialogue and a soundtrack loaded down with wannabe hits from wannabe musicians like one of the Titanic’s lifeboats. Throughout my initial viewing of The Strangers another movie kept entering my mind: John Carpenter’s Halloween. Like Carpenter back in his heyday Bryan Bertino knows that when your aim is to frighten people to their very bones the approach of “less is more” tends to be the most effective. This applies to how he makes use of his primary location, the Hoyt family home and the vast area that surrounds it; the employment of sound as a tool to heighten tension to its breaking point; and the minimal use of stage blood and the complete absence of gore effects to name but a few.

Bertino’s monsters are given the masks not of common cinema boogymen, although the one worn by the man known only as “Man in the Mask” (and played by Kip Weeks) resembles the odd feed bag number that Jason wore in his first full-blown turn as a big screen killing machine, Friday the 13th Part 2. The doll masks worn by his two female accomplishes (Ward and Laura Margolis) are equally unsettling and made all the more terrifying because these are the faces we will always know these killers by. Even when the masks come off at the end only James and Kristen get to gaze upon them because they are the faces that will personally escort our put-upon couple to the gates of Hell. The masterstroke was in making each mask as cold and white as porcelain without the shining beauty, demonic visages that stare us down from beyond the darkness. We are given no face or even a real voice to associate them with. Only Gemma Ward’s Doll Face ever speaks and each sparse line of dialogue reverberates with dazed, impersonal inflection. She definitely does not sound like your typical horror film killer. Bertino’s screenplay deftly denies his monsters any kind of backstory or personalities beyond what the masks. There’s no motivation for their actions other than the four words Doll Face says to Kristen in response to that age-old question posed when we are faced with an evil force whose only drive is to kill us, “Why?”

“Because you were home.”

Casting-wise Bertino scores on all fronts. Wisely avoiding loading his directorial debut down with unnecessary characters he keeps the cast list short but sweet, focusing on the core players who we will come to identify with and also to fear. Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, two of the blandest and most instantly replaceable actors in the business, actually impressed me with their turns here. It’s nothing too demanding but they carry their parts off with sympathy. Tyler gets to play the horror movie heroine capably with the appropriate amount of fear and panic but she ain’t no Jamie Lee Curtis. Speedman is also quite good since his performance doesn’t require anything more than being stoic, giving quiet line readings, and trying not to crap his pants from the sheer terror. The actors playing their mysterious masked assailants are the best players in the cast, almost alien-like in the way they move and function as a unit.

Special credit must go to cinematographer Peter Sova for his stellar, painterly compositions that give the world of The Strangers with its open spaces, ineffective street lights, and aging trees nestled together and acting as an obstacle between death and freedom (making it the unofficial fourth intruder) the look of a nightmarish Edward Hopper work. This is one of the best looking “cabin in the woods” I’ve seen since Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead. With the lone house located in an isolated area that even the loudest scream could not breach James and Kristen are trapped in a web of peace and quiet made to look like another planet hunched in a corner of the galaxy. The musical score by Tomandandy works as bone-chillingly effective as Carpenter’s for Halloween and Ennio Morricone‘s for The Thing by acting as an accompaniment to the on-screen action without ever overwhelming it. The sound design on The Strangers is a master class in creating stark fear through simple noises and ambiance. Never has the incessant pounding on a door been more scary than it is here, at least for me. No geysers of plasma, no hideous Rick Baker effects, no rampaging radioactive mutants. Just the lurking terror of wanting to know what’s behind that door and yet not wanting to know. That’s real horror. The Strangers is a great old-fashioned frightfest that schools all the overhyped swill being shoved down our throats by Fangoria magazine. Best to watch this one with the lights out, but preferably with a loved one…just in case.

Now it’s time for some special features. Universal Studios Home Entertainment has released The Strangers on a DVD that presents both the theatrical cut of the film and an unrated cut that runs barely two minutes longer and from what I can tell doesn’t add much to the film beyond some additional character development and maybe an extended shot or two. At least the movie looks and sounds great in an excellent 2:35 anamorphic widescreen transfer with an English Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack on the unrated version and both English and French Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks on the the theatricals that preserve the raw and intense aural and visual terror of the film very well. Optional English, French, and Spanish subtitles are also provided.

On the extra features front there isn’t much news to report, which is disappointing because a movie with modest expectations such as The Strangers can flourish best in the crowded DVD market as long as the disc proves to be worth the effort. The only features of note on this disc are two brief deleted scenes and a nine minute making-of featurette entitled “The Elements of Terror” that goes into a little detail on the film’s production but ends before it has the chance to get good. The features are worthy of a first watch, nothing more.

The Strangers is hands down one of the best horror movies of the year. An expertly-crafted chiller that works to get under our skin and creep into our nightmares and succeeds, this is first-rate terror with a final image that you won’t soon forget. I know I certainly won’t. Check this sucker out.

Have fun. Until next time I remain….BAADASSSSS! So, is Tamara home?


  1. I found this to be fragging boring, especilily since the Midnight Meat Train got dumped to make room for this half assed flick(the new ceo of lions gate was the producer of Strangers, thats why it got a big push.)It really should have been Strangers(a remake of a French movie no less!) getting the boot.

    Comment by korollocke — November 8, 2008 @ 5:53 pm

  2. I wished I liked it more than I did.
    I am glad that you liked it a lot.
    Excellent review!!

    Comment by Jerry — November 8, 2008 @ 9:13 pm

  3. Not a great movie by far, but definitely an under appreciated film. Has all the makings of a great horror film, and I think, with a few tweaks, it had the potential to be really good. I think it’s definitely worth a watch. You don’t find a lot of real horror movies these days, mostly just gore and/or supernatural or paranormal creep fests.

    Comment by Joe — November 9, 2008 @ 2:06 am

  4. OMG!! I felt that if people are really as stupid as those characters then by all mean get rid of em!! -_- sorry i had to yell at the TV while watching this one. It had a good creep factor (With the way they died) other than that …. Ouch!! No sir, I don’t like it. LoL

    Comment by JoJo — November 9, 2008 @ 1:19 pm

  5. I LOVED THIS MOVIE!!! IT IS SO FREAKY….not fuckin dumb like all those other WANNA BE horror movies…. it wasn’t like oh you’re gonna die in seven days or I’m gonna kill you through your dreams, no it was somethin that actually did hsppen && could definitely happen again

    Comment by Chelsea — November 10, 2008 @ 8:55 pm

  6. That movie stated based on true events err what ever. But it was not.

    Comment by JoJo — November 11, 2008 @ 3:30 pm

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