The trailer for The Strangers lets you know what you’re in for. Scary people in masks and motiveless violence: “Why are you doing this?” “Because you were home.” Brrr.
I’ll say one thing for an attack by a trio of loons, it puts relationship niggles into perspective.
The first film by writer/director Bryan Bertino, The Strangers plays directly to the audience’s fears of violent attacks in the home. A voiceover in the opening credits gives us some FBI statistics on violent crime and tells us that The Strangers is “inspired by true events.”
Thus unnerved, we’re introduced to Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman), divided lovers returning home from a party to James’s father’s isolated summer house.
Drunk, tired and emotionally wrought, the couple are already having their worst night ever, even before a strange girl knocks on the door at 4am asking for someone who doesn’t live there in a spooky, stoned voice.
And so begins the horror. Knocks on the door, disappearing mobiles, trashed cars, a bloody big axe through the door...the couple quickly realise that they’re in serious trouble, threatened by a family of mask-wearing psychopaths intent on playing out a grim game of cat and mouse.
The Strangers is a tense, atmospheric and quite old fashioned thriller, with very little dialogue, a great build up of fear and numerous satisfying, if fairly straightforward, shocks.
Apart from the Strangers’ nippy way of appearing behind their victims and then disappearing improbably quickly, there’s little of the supernatural about this film, and this almost everyday quality is at the heart of its appeal. 'It’s horrific,' the films seems to say, 'but hey, it happens', nastily manipulating our basic human instincts of panic and self preservation.
The Strangers also uses silence to its advantage, which would have been even more effective if the couple next to me in the cinema didn’t use the quiet bits to give their own brainless running commentary. This is happening with alarming frequency in the multiplexes and is really starting to get me down. Why would anyone talk in the cinema once the credits have rolled? Why? Why? Why? Why? I don’t mean screaming at the frightening bits or having a good laugh at the funny bits, but conversations conducted for all the world as if they were watching at home, and not surrounded by a hundred other ticket-buying viewers.
After much thought, I have decided that (apart from telling them to shut it, which is unpleasant and shouldn’t be necessary) the only answer is cinema ejector seats. Or a laser which incinerates offenders at the touch of a button. Or, sod it, I might just stay home and illegally download films like everyone else does. Only I won’t, because I love the cinema. So, I’m hanging on for those lasers…
Anyway, getting back to the film. While little is told about the two main characters, the few details we are given speak volumes and Tyler and Speedman are convincing as the divided couple united by terror. I’ll say one thing for an attack by a trio of loons, it puts relationship niggles into perspective.
The Strangers themselves are mostly unknown and deliberately unknowable, a force of nature, perhaps, or just the natural result of a family spending too much time in a rural setting where there’s not much to do except practice backwards writing and unrepentant stabbing.
For a film which crams in lots of horror-film staples – isolated house, spooky knocking, evil country folk, creepy kid on swing – The Strangers manages to feel quite fresh. Despite the films initial similarity to that far-from-classic horror Vacancy, it actually owes more to stripped down seventies offerings such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. And while opening with the film’s aftermath slightly sucker punches its ending, ultimately The Strangers is a great example of using a very simple set up to provide serious scares.
Finally, full marks must go to Bertino for most terrifying use of a song – Joanna Newsom’s voice is eerie enough at the best of times but her Smurf-esque vocals played in an isolated house on a gramophone? It really doesn’t get scarier than that.
The Strangers is on general release