Universal // 2008 // 127 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Paul Pritchard (Retired) // October 15th, 2008
"Why are you doing this to us?"
Released theatrically, complete with dodgy claims of being based on true events, The Strangers received a mixed critical reception. Now, the debut feature from writer/director Bryan Bertino finds itself released into a crowded Blu-Ray market vying for your hard earned Halloween cash. But is this story of knife wielding maniacs a blunt dud or a cut above the rest?
Following an evening out, that didn't go quite to plan, Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler, One Night at McCool's) and James Hoyt (Scott Speedman, Underworld) return to their remote getaway. Miles from civilisation, the two are surprised when a young girl turns up at their door. Assuming the girl to be lost, the couple think nothing of it and send her on her way. But tonight is not to be their night, and before long the two are plunged into a living hell as three masked psychopaths -- lacking both motive and provocation -- invade their home and play a calculated game of cat and mouse with the couple.
Wow...I really did not enjoy The Strangers one bit. I'll level with you. Going into the movie, I thought I had its number. I expected it to be a watered down horror, something along the lines of Vacancy, a film that tried to convince you it was hardcore but then wimped out at the last minute. How wrong I was. This is a tight, ruthless piece of filmmaking that slowly turns the screw on its audience as it takes them to some truly uncomfortable places. So, while I wouldn't say The Strangers is an enjoyable experience, it's certainly one hell of a horror movie.
The structure of the film is brilliant in its simplicity. Everyone, no matter how young or old, lives with the fear of intruders breaking into their home. This is a terrifying thought that writer/director Bryan Bertino exploits to devastating effect. From the moment Liv Tyler's character hears someone knocking at her door in the early hours of the morning, it's all too easy to put yourself in her place. And by having its horror grounded firmly in reality, The Strangers proves far more effective than films that have supernatural boogeymen hunting down big-breasted teens.
Comparisons to the French thriller Them (Ils) are inevitable. Indeed, until I checked out IMDb, I was working under the assumption that The Strangers was a remake. The similarities are startling. The premise, setting, number of assailants, and even several set pieces are the same. And though each films retains its own individuality through small nuances, it's safe to say that if you've seen Them you can pretty much guess what's coming here. That said, Them felt more like an exercise in horror than an attempt at making an engaging story. This is where The Strangers impresses. Not only is it just as (if not more) effective at terrifying its audience, it plays better as a whole. This feels more substantial than Them, and as such has more replay value.
Playing against type, Liv Tyler is particularly noteworthy in her role as Kristen McKay, who acts as the main focus of both the film and the attackers. Tyler's performance helps sell the film, even when the occasional blip in logic surfaces. With only hints of a backstory provided, the audience is initially ambivalent towards Kristen, perhaps bordering on the unsympathetic. But as Tyler is allowed to breathe life into the character, revealing a warmth and kindness lacking at the outset, our feelings towards her change, making the unfolding events border on distressing.
Bertino maintains an assured hand throughout, never revealing more than necessary and showing himself to be capable of keeping his audience on tenterhooks from start to finish. Though The Strangers never shies away from brutality, Bertino doesn't feel the need to make his film gorier than necessary. Unlike the Saw franchise or the OTT killings of Hostel: Part II, the film gets under your skin through the realism of the acts being portrayed onscreen, rather than conspicuous amounts of gore. The sense of fear created by Bertino is palpable, as Liv Tyler in particular is terrorised in scenes as morbidly inevitable as those in Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. As a writer, Bertino turns in a solid screenplay. Dialogue is kept to a minimum, as is background information for both the attackers and their victims. There are a few questionable decisions made by the characters but, in all honesty, nothing fatal. By stripping down the horror film to its bare bones, Bertino is able to focus on the nightmare scenario he has set about creating. The Strangers is all the more successful for it.
The Strangers comes to Blu-ray with a first-rate 1080p transfer. Considering so much of the film takes place in dimly lit rooms or nighttime exterior locations, the level of detail is impressive. Equally impressive is the sharpness of the image, with nary a soft shot to ruin the pristine presentation. But while the picture quality impresses, it pales in significance to the soundtrack. Honestly, I'm struggling to think of another film that employs its score and sound effects to such striking effect. Your entire speaker setup will be utilised, as the ominous score that underlies the film kicks in or as something indistinguishable chimes from the rear speakers.
The one area where this Blu-ray release falls down is the extras. Two deleted scenes and a short featurette, "The Elements of Fear," are really not enough. Though the featurette offers glimpses of the groundwork put into the film, a greater exploration would have been appreciated. At the time of writing this review, the BD-Live features touted on the disc were not enabled.
The Blu-ray disc comes with both the theatrical and unrated cuts of the movie. Both run a few minutes under the time quoted on the back of the case, causing me to initially presume I had selected the wrong cut of the movie. The changes between cuts are mostly reserved for the film's final sequence which -- though not really adding much more to the movie -- helps ensure the viewer is left just a little more traumatised.
Like comedy, horror is an extremely subjective genre. What might be right for you might not be right for some (whoa! Gary Coleman flashback!). So, while I found the home intrusion/cold blooded psychopaths' storyline so frightening, others may well brush it off.
Similarly, those raised on a diet of candyfloss horror, like the recent Prom Night remake, will likely find The Strangers very hard going. On the other hand, those who only dine on "torture porn" will find the lack of excessive gore disappointing.
With Halloween around the corner, you could do a lot worse than to slip The Strangers into your Blu-ray player. Turn out the lights, crank up the sound, and for God's sake make sure you've locked the door!
Review content copyright © 2008 Paul Pritchard; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p Widescreen)
* DTS HD 5.1 Surround (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 127 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Deleted Scenes
* The Elements of Terror
* Official Site