The Strangers

Thursday, October 8th, 2009 Horrorthon Posts / Horrorthon Reviews

(2008) ****

The Strangers is on the opposite end of the horror spectrum from Hostel. It’s pure atmosphere, pure style. As I wrote below, a movie like Hostel works on multiple levels, employing complex storytelling techniques to convey political and philosophical overtones (in the great tradition of Halloween and Dawn of the Dead). The Strangers isn’t interested in any of that. It’s all about wind chimes, and neo-Ridley Scott handheld photography, and little indoor breezes that make the candles flicker. This is the kind of movie in which the characters decide to put some music on and you’re not remotely surprised that they’re playing vintage piano blues…on a phonograph.

The Strangers has exactly as much plot as it needs (i.e. barely any) and not a stroke more. The story is so sparse, it actually flirts with the kind of surrealism practiced by Polanski and Lynch and Antonioni; any less of an explanation of what you’re watching, and you’d be too baffled to follow the sequences and you’d have to classify it as an “art film.” By means of a rudimentary – but very effective – framing device (involving a pair of young quasi-Jehovah’s Witnessess on bicycles) we’re deprived early on of much hope of a happy ending; even the basic elements of surprise are essentially stripped away. But this skeletal narrative framework is filled with so much sensual texture and so many artfully evocative touches that it’s every bit as gripping and frightening as it would be if you had been provided with reams of exposition (if not more so). I mentioned the miniature Jehovah’s Witnesses on Schwinn bicycles who open the movie: Why are they Jehovah’s Witnesses, exactly? If you want a reasonable answer, you’ll have to get over it. Because it looks good, and suits the odd, off-kilter tone that the movie sustains so masterfully. (Just like the vinyl record, which is, of course, warped and scratched.)

This is, obviously, an extremely difficult game for filmmakers to play (judging by the failure rate); most of the points I’ve made above could easily be employed as criticisms rather than plaudits (and, of course, have been by the movie’s detractors), so I have to give the writer/director (Bryan Bertino, making his debut) tremendous credit for not hedging his bets; for having the courage to strip nearly everything away and be assured that he’d still have a movie. Like Night of the Living Dead, The Strangers focuses completely on a few characters in a remote house over the course of a single night, increasingly aware that a grave threat is outside, trying to get in…but Night of the Living Dead is Dr. Zhivago by comparison. This time, there are only two protagonists: estranged couple Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman (who’s from that breed of interchangeably affable, reasonably talented male actors you find in horror movies with female protagonists, like the boyfriend in The Ring), whose reasons for being alone in this lonely house on this particular evening are (again) barely provided. The threat beyond the walls – the strangers who seem able to find their way inside despite Tyler’s and Speedman’s increasingly desperate efforts to keep them out – are so elemental and yet so mundane in their fearsomeness that none of the standard movie responses seem to apply. The plot never thickens, or provides any twists, but it doesn’t matter: it never even occurs to you that you’ve seen these narrative moves before.

So why not five stars? Only because the movie ultimately plays its cards a bit too close to the vest; Bertino isn’t quite the visual/auditory genius he would need to be to pull off this parlor trick completely. (But it’s his first movie!) The Strangers was a surprise hit, and there’s talk of a sequel (which may or may not be a good idea), which indicates its effectiveness in bravely sticking to its minimalist intentions and winning over the audience, not with ideas or innovations, but with pure skill. There’s not much to be said concerning what this movie’s “about” (again, in marked contrast to Hostel), but confounding the need to answer that question is among the noblest traditions in art (Ridley Scott famously bragged that Alien had “no theme and no meaning”). Ultimately, The Strangers is about the sound of crickets, outside the window…and the whisper of unease that accompanies that sound.

  • Browse in category:  Horrorthon Posts Horrorthon Reviews