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Case Number 14792: Small Claims Court

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The Strangers

Universal // 2008 // 88 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // October 21st, 2008

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All Rise...

Appellate Judge Tom Becker isn't always evil, and he is not always wrong.

Editor's Note

Our review of The Strangers (Blu-Ray), published October 15th, 2008, is also available.

The Charge

"Because you were home."

The Case

That thing that goes bump in the night is very real.

We've all experienced it, that uneasiness of being alone. Maybe it was the first time your parents went out and didn't hire a sitter; maybe it was the first time you stayed by yourself in a new home. Those sounds that you might have noticed before take on a new meaning. They're more pronounced now, and they sound…different. You tell yourself it's the house settling, even if you live in a place that doesn't settle. Perhaps you get up to check, stupid, you realize, but just to be on the safe side. Is everything the way you left it? Is the door locked? Think…you remember locking the door, right? Keep turning the lights. What's that out of the corner of your eye? That window, did you leave it open? Turn on the light, turn on the light.

There is universality to this fear. Home is our safe zone, our womb, and home invasion is one of the most disturbing crimes because it robs us our security. This was a huge part of why the Sharon Tate killing at the hands of the Manson family carved its way into our consciousness: These were intelligent, active, well-off people whose safety measures failed them, and they suffered mightily at the hands of monsters—monsters who thought someone else actually lived in the home, all the carnage chalked up to mistaken identity.

Writer/Director Bryan Bertino plays into these fears almost diabolically with The Strangers, a chilling little film that breaks recent genre conventions by creating a subtle mosaic of nail-biting suspense.

James and Kristin arrive home after an evening out. They're staying at James's parents' country house, a nicely furnished, out-of-the-way place. They've had a disagreement, and James, who'd planned a romantic homecoming, is embarrassed. They are not arguing, but talking quietly. They start to make up when there's a knock at the door—strange in this isolated place, and at 4 a.m. It's a young girl asking for "Tamara." They tell her that she has the wrong home, and she goes away.

James goes out for cigarettes and a drive to clear his head, leaving Kristen by herself. She's a little uneasy, and then little things starting looking amiss. Then, the girl comes back, again asking for Tamara. Kristen again sends her away, but she's developing a strange feeling about these visits. She notices some things have been moved around—it's as though she's not alone in the house. When she hears more banging, she becomes frightened. When she looks out a window, a face with a mask appears, terrifying her.

Even more terrifying is what she doesn't see: someone's in the house with her, a person in a mask, watching her. And two other masked people are outside.

Who are these people? What do they want? Why are they tormenting this couple?

Too often, horror movies spend a lot of time with set up and justification. We get a long series of scenes that introduce the characters—as a rule, a not very interesting lot with some quirks overlaid—followed by a long midsection of mayhem (the gorier the better), and then a contrived finish with some troweled-on rationale.

Bertino's film subverts these clichés. When we meet Kristen and James, they are in the middle of a quiet personal crisis. While we get a couple of flashbacks to earlier in the evening, the film doesn't dwell on this. It's merely a slice of their life, not a device to kick start the plot.

Like The Haunting, The Strangers uses sound to convey terror—footsteps, door bangings, scrapings, all played at different levels. Much of the sound—including the music—is subtle and menacing, so that loud scenes are more effective. In addition, the music doesn't cue as us to when we should be afraid, creating a sublime and sustained creepiness rather than quick and forgettable jolts.

The Strangers is essentially a two-character piece, Bertino gets very good work from his stars, Scott Speedman (Felicity) and, especially, Liv Tyler (Stealing Beauty). Tyler has a lot more to do here; she's in practically every scene, and her reactions of dread and horror help carry the film. Both actors bring with them a nice maturity. The Strangers would not have been half as effective had been cast with high-pitched, hyper teenagers running madly about. James and Kristen react pretty much the way you'd expect people to react to being terrorized, sometimes logical, sometimes on impulse. These are not the standard "let's go in the woods and look"-style idiots.

The Strangers themselves barely seem human, but they are not superhuman, either. They remain silent throughout, menacing, attacking, creating mayhem—but why? James and Kristen could get rid of them if they'd only say what they wanted. They have to have a reason—why don't they just take what they need and go?

When The Strangers opened, some critics were put off by how nihilistic it all is. The "big reveal" is not especially big and doesn't reveal all that much. Rather than a "Gotcha!" we're left with a quietly overwhelming sense of horror and disgust and a realization that's too horrible to consider. I personally found this more powerful than the cleverly solved puzzles of most horror films.

The disc looks and sounds fine; the film is dark, but there's a decent level of contrast, and the 5.1 surround track gives a good rendering of the all-important sound effects. Annoyingly, you can't switch language or subtitles using the remote; if you decide to watch this in French with English subtitles, you've got to go back to the main menu.

We get two versions of the film, the R-rated theatrical and the unrated. There's really not a whole lot of difference, just a few seconds of up-ratcheted violence. Also, the unrated loses the French dub, for some reason.

Extras are skimpy: a couple of deleted scenes and a featurette, "The Elements of Terror," which is a not-terribly-compelling, nine-minute "Making of." We hear a lot from Bertino and Tyler as well as some crew members. What's surprising is there's no trailer.

In his review of the Blu-Ray disc, Judge Paul Pritchard said: "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." I concur with Judge Pritchard's opinion.

The Strangers is one of the creepiest and most disturbing American-made chillers to come along in a while. Snatch this one up as part of your Halloween viewing. Highly recommended.

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 90

Perp Profile

Studio: Universal
Video Formats:
• 2.35:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
• English
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Unrated
• Horror
• Suspense
• Thriller

Distinguishing Marks

• Deleted Scenes
• "The Elements of Terror"


• IMDb
• Official Site

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