It may be one of the best lines I’ve heard in a while. Picture yourself, a couple, bound to chairs and three masked figures standing near you, holding knives. Ask them: “Why are you doing this?” Hear the reply: “Because you were at home.”
The line belongs to the movie The Strangers and it’s out in cinemas now. The first releases (USA, Canada, Russia) were in the last week of May, lots of countries (incl. Belgium and Holland) got to see it in July, the UK crowds will have to wait till the end of August and the Germans will have to wait till November. All of this is in 2008 of course, which (as a sentence) mainly makes sense because the film was shelved for nearly a year. Why did it take so many months for this movie to become released? Were people frightened for parallels with the French movie Ils? Both movies are about a couple who’re being watched at home and then attacked. I hadn’t thought of the parallel at first and when I knew, The Strangers fell a couple of spots on my “To See” list. Not because I don’t like ripoffs, but because I didn’t like Ils. The couple there was no annoying that in the end I was rooting for the villains, just so the movie could finish earlier.
The Strangers makes similar mistakes. It takes an eternity and then some to get started. As the movie starts, we see Liv Tyler crying in the car. She and her boyfriend are driving home and apparently he has upset her. It takes the film half an hour to explain this, so allow me to be a bit more brief: he proposed to her, she didn’t feel ready for marriage yet and declined. To make matters worse, he and a friend had decorated the house and now they have to spend the night there. There, did that take me long? No, it didn’t and the director should’ve known that too. Because it’s spread out over such a long period, I lost a lot of sympathy for the couple, especially for the obnoxious Scott Speedman. But things change rapidly. Someone’s at the door. Who could that be? And how late is it anyway? James Hoyt (Speedman) “suspects it’s around 4am.” A look at the clock informs him he was only five minutes wrong. Obnoxious guy! At the door is a lovely girl, who looks a bit strange and very much in the dark (literally and figuratively). The girl asks if Tamara is home. Nope, no Tamara. The girl leaves a bit reluctantly, uttering eerily she’ll see them later. For me this was a key scene: I couldn’t help but wonder if all this would’ve happened if they’d been nicer to the girl (they could’ve invited her in, given her a phone etc.). We will never know.
Anyway, back to arguing. Kristen (Tyler) is out of cigarettes and James tells her he’ll go and get some. “That’s not what I meant,” she says. Not that it stops him. Annoying man. After he leaves, the girl and her companions become a bit more active. In fact, the viewer gets to see the masked figures before Kristen does. We see him looking through a window, we see him standing inside the house (without her knowing someone’s in the house). This is a lot creepier than what happens when Kristen phones James to come home immediately because she knows there are people in the house. Macho James goes looking through the house and the director decides to turn the sound up as James pulls away a curtain. Which is scary because it’s a sudden and loud noise, but in the long run that’s a bad idea: the viewer is aware the director wants to scare him/her with essentially unscary sounds. Movies work better when you stay unaware.
Had I already mentioned the masks were brilliant? Not in the least because the girls’ masks look a bit like their faces (well, judging by the girl who asked for Tamara). Incidently, these three individuals who enter a house to torture a couple both mentally and physically remain anonymous for most of the film. Even the credits list them as Dollface, Pin-up Girl and Man in the Mask. Well, ‘mask’ is a bit much for this guy: doesn’t it remind you of El Orfanato (reviewed earlier this year)? Good, we know who Dollface is (the girl looking for Tamara), but I wish the director had known his movie would’ve been better if he hadn’t decided to show their faces in the penultimate scene. This penultimate scene features the three people driving away in the morning (and no, that is not a spoiler: I’m doing my best to write a review and keep the spoilers and a couple of scares out) and meeting the two Mormon boys we’d already seen in the beginning of the film. Dollface (well, not anymore) asks for a flyer and one of the boys asks if they’re sinners. “Sometimes,” the girl replies. As they drive off, we hear an even more ominous line: “Next time it’ll be a lot easier.”
That is where the film should’ve stopped, but no, Bryan Bertino apparently wanted to do everything to make his movie longer and less good. There comes another scene and a scene that annoyed me so much the film lost a full point there and then. Good, The Strangers was his debut, but someone could’ve told him to chuck twenty minutes and the final scene out, no? (By the way, the original title of the film was The Faces, which would’ve made the three criminals even more creepier: now they’re just strangers, otherwise they would’ve been even more bodiless.)
At least the film does something with its title. Apparently James and Kristen like vinyl records more than cds and that’s why in this film all the music you’ll hear comes from vinyl records you’ll see playing. The crackling sounds are included. Excellent choice. One of the artists is Merle Haggard, whose band was called The Strangers. One of the other songs included in the movie is Sprout and the Bean by Joanna Newsom. I was quite happy to hear that one being used.
Allow me to go to what may seem like a conclusion: it’s a pity Bertino fell in the same trap as the makes of Ils: using a good idea and milking it. The masked figures are often quite scary, but sometimes overused. At one point (it’s the scene pictured on your left) Pin-up Girl follows Kristen, but Pin-up Girl doesn’t do anything and Kristen doesn’t notice her. And then Pin-up Girl just runs away. That’s just a poor attempt to scare the viewer and, as I mentioned earlier, viewers will eventually become sick of being scared without reason. If fewer scares had been better timed (lose five, that would’ve been enough), this film would be better. If the introduction wouldn’t be so long, you would’ve had more sympathy for Kristen and James (especially for James – had I already mentioned if found the guy quite obnoxious?). Oh, and that final scene. Out with it, no excuse for that. Right, so if all that advice had been followed, we would’ve ended up with a classic. Now, it’s a lenient 6/10 because it’s Bertino’s first movie and because the movie company shelved this for a year.
Never mind all this criticism. Go and watch the film: you’ll be guaranteed to jump out of your seat at least a couple of times. Yes, you may notice that the final scene doesn’t make any sense if you remember how the movie started (the text you’ll get to read) and that’s one of the scenes that’ll give the movie a nasty aftertaste, but it’s still worth a watch. If only just once.
Here’s the trailer: