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the strangers

The Stangers
Directed by: Bryan Bertino
Cast:  Scott Speedman, Liv Tyler, Gemma Ward, Kip Weeks, Laura Margolis

Joanne Ross

June 4, 2008


"The film you are about to see is inspired by true events. According to the F.B.I. there are an estimated 1.4 million violent crimes in Aerica each year. On the night of February 11, 2005 Kristen McKay and James Hoyt went to a friend's wedding reception and returned to the Hoyt family's summer home. The brutal events that took place there are still not entirely known."


Released on May 30, 2008, The Strangers is the latest horror/suspense film to hit theaters, continuing the string of recent fright flicks released this year—The Eye, One Missed Call, and Shutter just to name a few. The film is the maiden effort of first-time director Bryan Bertino, who also wrote the screenplay.

Let’s get one thing straight at the outset: Despite the film’s prologue stating otherwise, The Strangers is not based on a real-life incident involving the hapless couple James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) and Kristen McKay (the lovely Liv Tyler). From what I’ve been able to find out, these people never existed. It is more accurate to say that the movie is “inspired” by several incidents, at least according to Bertino—one, the Manson family killings and two, an incident that occurred in Bertino’s childhood. And, perhaps a third—the Keddie Resort murders which happened in 1981—although I don’t have confirmation on that.

I wanted to love this film. I first heard about it back in March and was anxiously awaiting its release; I was literally counting down the days. Advance word had it that this was a genuinely scary flick, and the trailers looked promising. I had high hopes for something truly great.  Unfortunately, that isn’t what we have here.

Do I hate it? No, not at all. I like it. It’s a competently directed, truly suspenseful and disturbing film which audiences seem to enjoy, at least judging from the one I was with. My heart was lodged in my throat for most of the film, and people were screaming and jumping out of their seats. Good signs for a horror/suspense film. Bertino definitely delivered on the frights; we got that much at least. The guy has talent, and that’s a fact.

Unfortunately, the horror owes less to an inventive or clever plot (it’s not) and character development (there isn’t) than it does to the circumstances—home invasion by three psychopaths—and some nifty camera work and unnerving sound effects. Typical tricks for this genre, but nothing new. And let’s face it—nut jobs breaking into your home to kill you? Now there’s a fear we can all relate to, and why? Because it happens. Bertino cleverly exploits that fear we all share.

Here’s the story. A young couple, the aforementioned James Hoyt (Speedman) and Kristen McKay (Tyler) return from a reception to the Hoyt family’s isolated summer house. All is not well with them—Kristen has turned down James’ marriage proposal. A young woman (supermodel Gemma Ward) knocks on the door. “Is Tamara home?” she asks. That’s how it starts, and for James and Kristen, the evening spirals downward fast from there on. Whatever relationship problems they are facing take a back seat to the main concern of the night—survival.

Our young woman (Ward), known simply as Doll Face, isn’t alone. Her partners in crime are The Man in the Mask (Kip Weeks) and Pin-up Girl (Laura Margolis). Each dons a mask—the man in a sack mask and the two women in kewpie doll masks, hence the names. Bertino plays on another fear that many people share—a fear of clowns. Three weirdos standing in the dark in such masks is enough to unnerve most people—even those of us who aren’t afraid of clowns. Taking what is generally considered innocent—masks—and putting them on still figures standing in high contrast lighting in sinister circumstances is extremely creepy.

To give him his due, Bertino does knows how to create suspense, and he understands an important rule for this genre—give the audience information that the characters don’t have. We see the strangers standing in the same frames James and Kristen occupy, but James and Kristen don’t. The strangers appear, disappear, and reappear randomly in the background. Even creepier are the sound effects—the relentless knocking, rattling, and crashing noises the strangers make to frighten the wits out of James and Kristen. They play a cruel cat and mouse game with our hero and heroine and they slowly circle in for the kill.

To be fair, the film does work—we, the audience, are genuinely shaken and frightened. However, there are several things that keep this film from being a great film, and it’s disappointing. The first has to do with the plot, or I should say the lack of a plot. What we really have is nothing more than a set-up: young couple in isolated house are terrorized by vicious psychopaths. There really isn’t anywhere for the story to go, especially given the fact that the prologue more or less hints at how the film ends. We already know the outcome, and because of that, there is little for Speedman and Tyler to do but act scared, which they do convincingly. As for the strangers, they don’t have anything to do, either, but stand around in creepy masks waiting for Bertino to decide at what moments they should pop up in the background. We don’t know them; they don’t even have names. Bertino uses his bag of tricks skillfully, but doesn’t deliver any substance.

I’m not going to tell you the ending. It is upsetting. And the final scene in the movie employs a well-worn horror cliché the director should have known better to avoid.

Bryan Bertino is definitely talented, and I look forward to seeing his future films. The Strangers delivers the scares, but isn’t the innovative or substantive work I was looking for. You’re sure to get the creeps if you decide to catch this movie. And if  it turns out you don’t, you’ll at least come away with an important lesson—if a stranger knocks on your door in the middle of the night, don’t answer.


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