May 29, 2008

The Strangers

Costarring Michael Jackson and children

Grade: C
Director: Bryan Bertino
Starring: Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman
MPAA Rating: R

Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Normally, a genuinely frightening horror film is one in which the terror can conceivably happen – e.g., no portals to other dimensions or impervious fiends set loose from your dreams. While The Strangers, a barebones, white-knuckler filmed near Florence, S.C., satisfies that benchmark, debut writer-director Bryan Bertino elongates its simple premise well beyond the point of curiosity.

On the cusp of ending their relationship, James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler) spend one last night together at her family’s remote vacation home when three masked strangers knock at the door – at the very moment of sexual congress, natch. What follows are frights fueled by ceaseless clangs and bangs, most of them accompanied by musical flourishes, along with more MacGuffins than you can swing an ax at – “Is Tamara home?” asks one of the ghouls, a question that forever remains unanswered.

Supposedly inspired by true events, The Strangers most closely resembles David Moreau and Xavier Palud’s “Ils (Them),” although allegedly Bertino wrote this screenplay before the French thriller’s 2006 release. There much to admire from any horror film nowadays that eschews the hyper-gore of smut stylists Eli Roth and Alexandre Aja. Here, the invaders – the two females clad in Halloween masks; the male wears a hood straight out of The Orphanage – are spooky enough that you will find yourself double-checking the locks on your doors at night. But, their omnipresence and complete control deprive the plot of any dramatic to and fro.

Morever, the protracted sadism in The Strangers lacks both sustained tension and the sort of social/cultural satire found in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, another home-invasion thriller. The film is too long by half even at a de minimis 90 minutes, spending at least 15 minutes watching Kristin crawl about the yard on all fours in a clearly hopeless escape attempt.

Or, maybe she was looking for some plot development. Either way, like most strangers, this film gets less interesting the longer it hangs around.

Neil Morris

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