We really are in a “Golden Age of Horror.” The last four to seven years have seen the genre turn in films that double as great genre pieces, but sometimes, transcending their genre and crossing over into others. But, it wasn’t all that long ago that scary movies were in a bit of a rut, creatively speaking.
For years, all we were getting out the genre were repetitive, PG-13 remakes, or the R-rated offerings of the grotesque, sadistic, and uber gore-caked variety. Sequels to the first Saw, Hostel 1 and 2, and The Hills Have Eyes 1 and 2 all come to mind along with cheap direct-to-DVD knockoffs. There will always be a market for it, but with the release of a smaller horror film known as The Strangers in 2008, the tide felt like it was beginning to turn, even if just a little.
THE STORY: On the night of February 11th, 2015, young couple Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) and James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) have just returned to Scott’s old family home, now a vacation house in the rural part of the United States. The night hasn’t ended the way Scott intended, but the two are resolving to stay together at least until the sun breaks.
A random knock on their door brings about an obscured young woman looking for someone in particular. Telling her she’s got the wrong house, the two go back to what they were doing. Deeper into the night, the young woman returns—this time, masked—with two other assailants. They’ve found their way into the home, and with all means of contact and escape blocked, Kristen and James must rely on each other to survive.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Both sides can be seen regarding the love and hate for The Strangers. In some circles, it’s hailed as a top-notch, close-to-perfect horror film. In other circles, the claim is that it doesn’t do much to distinguish itself from other genre films, and too bare in script and characters. The Strangers isn’t immaculate, but I fall on the positive side of the divide. The Strangers chills more often than it doesn’t, and, may be better in 2018 than it was in 2008.
The Strangers is only 85 minutes, and roughly 60 of them consist of intruders invading a home. In other words, this has been seen before in Hollywood and will continue to be seen again because it can work, even when done in mediocre fashion. But, there’s something to the overall production of director Bryan Bertino’s debut that hits more than some others in this subgenre. Maybe it’s the start, where a narrator who sounds a lot like Laurence Fishburne proclaims that what we’re about to see is inspired by true events. Maybe it’s how Bertino shot the film in chronological order, giving a legitimate, deliberate build to the unfolding events on screen. Maybe it’s the look of the house, which lends itself to a feeling of nostalgia. Maybe it’s the moody lighting, sharp camerawork, piercing sound effects, and lack of gore that seems unfitting for a director making his debut. Whatever the case, the production is of high quality.
The story is a mixed bag for some due to its perceived lack of characterization and definitive meaning, but upon reflection, it is lowkey brilliant. Save for 1-2 very questionable character decisions and an end scene that reeks of a cheap scare for no real reason other than “just because,” The Strangers is written well. True, we don’t get to know Kristen and James a ton (though the first 20 minutes give enough to latch onto), but that actually might be the point. Any of us can be Kristen and James in this scenario; there is no rhyme or reason for why these shrouded sadistics are after this couple. To quote another movie from the year 2008, some men just want to watch the world burn, and if a person is around at the wrong time during the blaze, it’s probably going to cost them. This senseless, unprovoked violence—and not just that—the toying and taunting—resonates more in 2018 than it did in 2008 if only because the last few years have seen no shortage of incidents like these. And that is truly scary.
A GREAT MOMENT: The moment in which The Man in the Sack Mask appears a little out of frame unbeknownst to Kristen is a frightening one. But, this one is easy. The relentless two minutes of the strangers attempting to break in while Gillian Welch’s My First Lover plays on endless loop stuck on the words “quicksilver girl” is terrifying in ways most horror films never reach. Comparable to the first time Bughuul is revealed in Sinister, there’s that feeling that passes through the viewer that no matter what the lead characters do, they’re screwed. That sense of dread that originates here permeates the rest of the movie.
THE TALLY: “Because you were home.” That line says it all. Some issues aside, The Strangers gets in the mind and stays there days, months, potentially even years, after viewing. It’s what to watch.
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