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The Strangers   D

Rogue Pictures / Intrepid Pictures

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Bryan Bertino
Writer: Bryan Bertino
Cast: Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman, Gemma Ward, Kip Weeks, Laura Margolis, Glenn Howerton.

Review by Rob Vaux

Didn't we just leave this party? Nihilism chic is all the rage with horror movies these days. In fact, it's been the rage for... well, for a couple of years now, making it less of a thriving movement and more of an overworked standby well past its expiration date. The Strangers clearly hopes that we're still willing to watch horrible things happen to decent people for no good reason. But whatever dubious value lies in such an exercise, it was pumped dry long ago, leaving another unduly nasty film with no agenda beyond making its audience feel awful.

Productions of this ilk are supposedly a sign of troubling times: a moderately safe way to meditate on capricious fate, human cruelty, and the fact that we can't do a whole lot about either of them. Occasionally, rarely, they can produce powerful and troubling statements. Polanski used to rock that scene like nobody's business, while the more modest scope of '70s grindhouse horror addressed it in ways mainstream Hollywood wouldn't touch back then. The new millennium has certainly delivered no shortage of social fodder for the trend, and a few decent movies have sprung from it of late. The Strangers isn't one of them.

Instead, it relies on efficient technique as an end unto itself, manipulating the viewer for no reason besides the fact that it can. Like Funny Games, it openly mirrors the detached savagery of its killers (though thankfully without the smug pretense). We the audience exist solely the be poked and prodded, our enforced helplessness nothing more than a tool to generate stimulus response. The scenario is sparse, minimal, and well-worn. A young couple (Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman) arrives at their country home after a wedding, the husband's romantic plans dashed by an awkward case of cold feet. Soon, however, they have much bigger problems to deal with, as a trio of masked lunatics arrive to mentally and physically torture them for the remainder of the evening.

Can they escape their silent, nameless abusers or will they succumb to a grisly demise? Frankly, it doesn't matter. We learn little about them and even less about their foes, save that the former are good kids and the latter are soulless monsters. Those eerie masks serve as stand-ins for whatever social calamity you want to apply to them: street crime, terrorism, Dina Lohan... the ugly truths of an uncaring universe. They are unknowable and inscrutable, and yet they are also supposed to be merely human -- suggesting how monstrous we can be to each other as a way of accentuating the horror. The randomness of their crimes certainly makes them unsettling in a very knee-jerk sense, but the manner of their attack destroys the plausibility on which The Strangers banks so heavily. Director Bryan Bertino arbitrarily stacks the deck in their favor, creating serious questions of logic that have bedeviled horror movies since time began. The killers know the terrain better than those who have lived there for years, moving with ease through the darkened house while their victims stumble about like frightened sheep. They can also anticipate the couple's every move with preposterous accuracy, see in the dark better than most owls, and make less noise than the average mouse fart... that is until The Strangers requires a few more spooky sounds, upon which time the male of the trio suddenly develops a rasping case of emphysema that can be heard in the next time zone.

Ostensibly, it all has a deeper purpose. Bertino endeavors to turn security into entrapment and fill this supposedly safe home with threats from every corner. And I confess that The Strangers is second to none in the Scary Noises department, with shout-outs due to Rick Hromadka, Derek Pippert, and the rest of the film's sound crew. But omnipotent bad guys are as boring as omnipotent good guys, and once it becomes clear that Speedman and Tyler will be utterly powerless for most of the running time, the drama and tension quickly drain from the proceedings. Instead, we're simply yanked from one variation of the same basic scenario to another. Each new sequence increases the film's arbitrary nature, leaving Speedman and Tyler to cower haplessly since the slightest level of intelligence or resolve on their part would bring things to a very different (and much shorter) conclusion.

While many horror movies put us through such paces, it helps to have a reason besides watching us squirm. The Strangers presumes to explore more esoteric roots of fear, but it does so only through Pavlovian stimulation intended to evoke senseless despair. Our current cultural paranoia becomes another excuse for shopworn exploitation, delivered with a certain elegance that still can't hide its derivative soul. Yes, OK, bad things happen to good people. Consider the message received... about seven movies ago. If you're going to keep feeding us that line, Hollywood, you really need to find something else to say with it.

Review published 05.29.2008.

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