Friday, June 27, 2008

The Strangers

“The Strangers” is one of the most intense films I’ve seen in many a moon, and one of the better films of the year. I feel bad about that, because it’s really nothing more than two people being terrorized for 90 minutes. It’s also loaded with implausabilities, and characters doing stupid things.

But it does what it sets out to do, which is to scare the hell out of the audience, and on that score, the film succeeds admirably. My stomach was in knots throughout the whole movie, and stayed that way on the drive home.

Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman star as a couple who come home late one evening from a wedding reception. They are staying at his family’s vacation home, an isolated one with no neighbors close by. He’s proposed marriage and she says she’s not ready yet. Things are a little tense between them. As they’re talking they hear a pounding on the door. Not a gentle knock, but a loud, insistent pounding, not the kind of noise you want to hear at 4 a.m. They open the door and it’s a young woman looking for Tamara. We never see her, she’s in shadows. They tell her she has the wrong house and she goes away.

He leaves the house to give them some time apart. Tyler’s alone in the house when the pounding begins again, even more forceful this time, accompanied by other strange scraping noises and bangings heard outside. She calls him to come back. The terror escalates when she spots a hooded figure outside the window, peering in.

He arrives and the rest of the movie is the couple trying to stay alive against the three hooded intruders (one man and two women). They don’t know why they’re being targeted, and every avenue of escape seems blocked.

Of course it being a horror film there are implausabilities galore. The first time the girl comes back, and the pounding becomes more insistent, she calls her boyfriend instead of the police. Not too smart. And after all they’ve been through, why does he tell her to wait in the house while he tries for the barn, even with three hooded figures stalking them? I don’t think so.

What’s most effective about the film is how it plays on our fear of the unknown. Anyone who has ever gotten a phone call in the dead of night knows the heart-in-the-throat feeling when the phone rings. Hearing a pounding on the door at 4 a.m. fills us with the same dread.

We never see who is under those hoods, though we’re teased. The constant onslaught of noises with no idea of where they’re coming from origin is creepy too.

Liv Tyler, an actress I’ve never particularly cared for, is especially good here. It’s a physically draining performance and I’m sure she’s looking for a nice romantic comedy for her next role. Speedman is OK, I guess, nothing bad but nothing particularly memorable either.

On the debit side, I wish Tyler and Speedman hadn’t seen the urge to whisper their lines in the early scenes, to the point it was hard to hear what they were saying to each other. No crucial plot points are missed, but it’s annoying all the same.

The film’s director, Bryan Bertino, does a good job of tightening the vise, and is smart enough to keep the proceedings under 90 minutes. There are a couple of scenes where we see the intruders in the background and in the next scene they’re gone. It’s effective the first couple of times, but becomes stale as the movie goes on as it gets repeated too often.

“The Strangers” is a semi-remake of a French film called “Them” which came out last year. It’s supposed to be even scarier, and I’m going to seek it out.

Rating for “The Strangers”: Three stars.

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