Monday, October 27, 2008

DVD Review: "The Strangers"

Halloween Week is finally here and what better way to start than with a review of a horror movie? (And of course, since this is Halloween Week, I'll mostly be talking about a horror movies, so get over it).
Anyway, another summer flick I missed was The Strangers starring Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman in the story of a young couple terrorized by three strangers in a remote country home. Tyler and Speedman play James and Kristen, returning to James' family summer house after a wedding. It is soon clear that James had proposed to Kristen, who said "No." The two try to salvage what they can of their relationship and are about to have what will no doubt be great make up sex, when a knock comes at the front door (at 4:05 AM, no less). James answers, to find an apparently female figure standing in the shadows, who asks "Is Tamara home?" They send the girl away, explaining that she has the wrong house. The moment ruined, James offers to go get cigarettes for Kristin, knowing that neither of them will sleep, anyway. Once he is is gone, all hell breaks loose as three masked strangers (two women and a man, whose faces are never seen) proceed to terrorize the couple.
Not exactly original stuff, here. But first time writer/director Bryan Bertino is familiar enough with the genre to know a scary movie's best friend is tension, and boy does he pour it on. Creepy squeals and bangs from unknown sources; shadows glimpsed from the corner of the eye; the touch of an unfamiliar hand on the back of the neck - all expertly in play for the first hour of the film. Shot using plenty of hand-helds and claiming to be "inspired by actual events," The Strangers is, for the most part, an effective and creepy addition to films in the vein of Funny Games and last year's underrated Vacancy. Unfortunately, the last twenty minutes of the film are perhaps too over-the-top and turn what had been a relatively smart thriller into little more than a cheap torture-porn shocker.
Tyler (best known for The Lord of the Rings films) is as lovely as ever, but I hated that Bertino didn't give her anything else to really do but be a victim. Her performance was good, but she deserves to play better, more complex characters. The curiously "sometimes-he's-hot-and-sometimes-he's-not" Speedman is on the border here. I didn't quite buy his emotional distress as the guy who got turned down; and he didn't show off enough of his amazing bod to keep my interest (how shallow is that?). The titular characters are only referred to in the credits as "Dollface;" "Pin Up Girl" and "Man in the Mask" and are appropriately scary and completely anonymous as played by Gemma Ward, Laura Margolis and Kip Weeks.
Creepiest moment: tied to a chair after hours of psychological torture, Kristin asks her tormentors, "Why are you doing this to us?" Dollface replies, in a completely detached monotone, "Because you were home." Without a doubt, one of the more effective, if ultimately disappointing horror movies of late. **1/2 (Two and a Half Out of Four Stars)

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