Bryan Bertino’s directorial debut, ‘The Strangers’ had a lot of promise. The film started off surprisingly decent, following Kristen and James as they return from a wedding. Their relationship is strained as James proposes at the reception and Kristen says no. They return to James’s father’s house in a remote, undisclosed area where things are decorated as though Kristen was inevitably going to say “yes.” They awkwardly move around one another, talk in brief spurts and create their own tension as what could possibly be their last night together as a couple strains into the middle of the night. Then, there’s a knock at the door. A woman asks for Tamara. The couple sends the girl away but we know she’ll be back.
And boy does she come back! With friends in creepy masks, this time. And sadly, that’s where the movie loses any footing it gained with the competent first 30 minutes. Bertino had set up these two characters well enough that you actually care a bit about them, but then ultimately pushes all of that effective character development to the side, never to refer to it again for the rest of the film. Instead, ‘The Strangers’ plays out its lengthy last hour in a cat-and-mouse scenario with the three hooded figures stalking and toying with the victims for seemingly no reason at all. And after about 30 minutes of this game, you kind of want to stand up and say to the three assailants, “Stop playing with your damn food and just eat it!” There’s only so much of Liv Tyler crawling around on the ground that you can take.
It’s not so much the premise of the movie that I have a problem with. The idea of stalkers trapping people in their home and tormenting them, if done right, can be very effective. Who wouldn’t be freaked out being trapped in their own home, the one place you’re supposed to feel safe? For a reference of a film that does this well, see the French film ‘Them’ (‘Ils’). Almost the same exact set up and premise, but shorter and much more effective. The biggest problem I had with ‘The Strangers’ was that the stalking and toying got tedious and boring, and the scares, while they were ever present, were pretty much all Dolby scares. It worked the first time (the first reveal of the hooded man attacking actually made the gentleman in the aisle next to me scream louder than anyone I’ve ever heard scream in a movie theater), but after that I was merely bracing myself for the surprise assault on my ears. The Dolby-scare approach almost felt like cheating after a while. Combine that with ignoring the competent character development in the beginning as the film’s second biggest offense (it was where the film showed the most potential) and you have ‘The Strangers,’ a movie that’ll probably go the way of ‘Turistas.’
‘The Strangers’ is a decent first outing for a new director. You can tell Bertino has done his homework, with nods to films like ‘Funny Games’ and ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre.’ But in terms of movie watching, you’re better off renting ‘Them’ to experience a tension-filled film that captivates the audience. ‘The Strangers’ will make you jump out of your seat, but sadly it’s for the same reasons that you jump when you forgot you left your stereo cranked in the car the night before.