THE STRANGERS **** USA 2008 Dir: Bryan Bertino. 86 mins
Opening with a questionable “inspired by true events” tag, violent crime statistics and a solemn documentary-style voiceover in the tradition of THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, Bryan Bertino’s home invasion horror is very much a genre film of its time. Unfolding over the course of a single night without humour or conventional resolution, it riffs on American slasher films of the 1970s and 80s but, like other key post-9/11 American ordeal-horror films, emphasises terrorisation and hopelessness over cathartic kills and crowd-pleasing jump scares. It also replays the scenario of the 2006 French hit ILS (THEM) while aping the widescreen framing and ominous white masks in pools of darkness of Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN.
Replacing Carpenter’s sleek prowling Steadicam with restless, cagey handheld cameras, Bertino follows attractive young couple Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler as they return to the former’s holiday home in South Carolina after a disastrous night out capped by her rejection of his marriage proposal. A portentous knock at the door in the middle of the night – and the odd behaviour of a strange young woman asking “Is Tamara there?” – triggers a sadistic cat and mouse game as three masked assailants invade their home, as intent on taunting as they are murdering them.
Dialogue, exposition and peripheral characters are stripped to the bone as the “Strangers”, like Michael Myers, relish scaring people, rattling doors and lurking in the dark as much as anything – resorting to violence when the fun of being an unwanted living Halloween attraction wears thin. Identifiable only by their choice of face covering, the antagonists disturb because they have no motive other than the thrill of the chase. In an unforgettable, characteristically sparse exchange, an anguished Tyler asks them “Why” and the chilling reply is, simply, “because you were home…” Tyler, alone onscreen for much of the film, is a convincingly traumatised heroine and figures in the film’s signature scare (sadly exposed by the trailers) in which a sack-faced figure appears in the corner of the frame at the far end of an open-plan kitchen. Bertino recognises the impact of long periods of silence, hushed tones and ambient noise – while making great use of Tomandandy’s atonal score and transforming an old Merle Haggard vinyl track into something genuinely sinister.
Review by Steven West