reviewed by Andrew James
The story is simple enough: James (Speedman) and Kristin (Tyler) have returned to his parent's secluded getaway retreat for the evening after a friend's wedding reception. The couple has just begun to settle in for the night when there comes a strange knock at the door. It's 4am, so obviously suspicious is the young couple. They find a girl there looking for her friend. After turning the girl away, James makes a run for some cigarettes while Kristin stays home to warm herself by the fire. Soon, more pounding on the door and strange, loud noises are all around the house which of course scares the pants off Kristin and the audience. Soon, people with masks can be seen hiding among the shadows within the house and writing creepy little messages and moving objects, etc. What these crazy people want is vague and their motivation for what they're doing is unknown, but they basically spend a little over an hour of our time scaring the crap out of us.
The story has a great set-up for the characters. We start with the characters on their journey home from the party, but we can tell that something isn't right. Neither of the characters are speaking to each other and few tears can be seen drying on Kristin's face. As we get back to the house, there are more clues as to what the problem is, but it's never spelled out for us completely. There is no hand holding by the director. We can make assumptions and come to some of our own conclusions, but without the proverbial hammer hitting us over the head, it's easy to get involved with our main characters as we try and figure out the reasons for their odd behavior.
The most important and effective similarity between the two films is the sound effect department's complete take-over of this movie. Without the sounds, there would be very little to get excited about. Sure it's dark and there're some weird people in masks, but we've seen all that before. What we usually don't get in other horror pictures are the different, atmospheric aural cues to keep us guessing, confused and in a general state of suspense. Of course lots of the sounds are there to give us the typical "jump-scare" moments. But most of the time, the sound effects take over for the fact that we can't see our antagonists; we can only hear them. Even sounds that aren't created by the bad guys are ominous and chilling. When you get home with your significant other after the movie, bang on the wall a few times while they're in the other room. I guarantee you'll get a reaction.
While the movie is scary and creepy and delivers extremely well for what it is trying to accomplish, it does have some flaws and came close to losing me a couple of times. For one, it's extremely predictable. One key sequence alone you'll see coming literally about ten minutes before it actually happens. When I can guess what's coming that far in advance, it takes a lot for me to stay with the suspense of the story.
Secondly, the "games" of the antagonists start to wear a little thin after a while. I can only take so much "trying to be weird" before I need something within the story to progress. Do these guys want to kill the couple or are they just trying to scare them? If it's the latter, they do a good job, but at some point the heroes would figure it out and just start to get angry (as I started to do). If it's the previous, why do they play all these games (for almost 80 minutes of our time) - wandering the forest, standing around, looking in windows, etc.? It seems as though at some points they have no actual interest in the couple or the house, but instead just want to appear ominous. And they do, but what's the point? Eventually you've got to go for broke, but the director really takes his time in doing so. Still, although it all seems a bit pointless, as I mentioned before it's still pretty damn scary!
While there's outstandingly wonderful performances here (hey, it's a horror movie), I have to admit I was quite impressed with Liv Tyler. While Speedman plays the usual manly man who will take care of his girl, Tyler runs the full gambit of emotion and plays to the mood the picture is trying to create very well. Even in scenes where she isn't doing anything but sitting there, we get a good feel for her thoughts and feelings. Here we have a case where I'd like to investigate more of her roles. Well done.
It was obvious the audience was having a rip-roaring good time and I have to admit getting creeped out enough for some hairs to rise on the back of my neck. While the film does resort to some (very effective) jump-scares once in a while, for the most part, this what I like to think of as a true horror film. The Strangers doesn't play on your squeamishness, but instead works on your senses and emotional boundaries to elicit a response you might not get with something as low-ball as a Hostel or Saw 17. Not without a few flaws, but they're easily overlooked and this movie is well worth it for a chilling good time.
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