The horror genre is probably the most perplexing genre in the cinematic medium, not because of its inherent qualities but because of the countless ways in which a movie stops being scary and starts rolling eyes. In a successful scary movie, one can expect a finite amount of characterisation mixed with tension and adequate construction of dense atmospheres and antagonists if there should be any. In The Strangers, such a sweet spot is achieved many times throughout, and it's during these moments that writer/director Bryan Bertino shows that he knows how to craft an eerie and downright scary experience to be part of. Yet too often does the film collapse under its own weight as laziness creeps in. Outside of Bertino's more refreshing techniques, he irritatingly resorts to tired clichés, dull narrative and predictable storytelling; it's a mixed bag of brilliantly executed originality and formulaic, cookie cutter banality.
Taking place for the most part in a single summer home, The Strangers is a claustrophobic nightmare that persists in its will to take that image of safety (home) and turn it into a confinement of horror. Through this general idea Bertino crafts an extremely effective way in which to engage the viewer; the warm comforting log cabin fireplace, the folk music, the backdrop of isolation and tranquil wilderness, all combining to create a sense of false security that always reeks of foreboding doom. Focusing the first twenty minutes on troubled couple Kristen McKay and James Hoyt, the script introduces us to the domestic heart of the story; a squabble and misunderstanding between two lovers. Not only does it add to the light hearted feel of the opening sequences but it develops the characters into heart-driven, fully empathetic beings, and when terror comes knocking at the door, we too are feeling the fear.
Unfortunately for all the good that the director does through the film's first act, the quality suddenly begins to dip shortly after the climax of tension has been reached. The second act of the story is much less coherent and more bumbling in its pace; there are genuine scares scattered throughout as a result of these freaky little visitors to the couple's cabin at four in the morning, yet the general structure and workings behind the scenes draw too much attention to themselves at key points. Everything from the screaming female tripping and breaking her ankle to the hereditary 'split up' of the pair for no logical reason but to satisfy the already developed structure frame are here, and it's irksome more than terrifying. Through this mix of studied technique and less than inspiring storytelling which too often puts structure ahead of natural storytelling, The Strangers feels satisfying in its ability to deliver horror, but simply doesn't do enough to cover up the glaring holes in its unconvincing façade.
As characters, Bertino neglects his three catalysts of fear to mere device-like movement only; they are facades and masks, and no real identity to them is ever given. This technique works well during the film's earlier moments when the director's aim is to scare out of their unknown presence, yet when the feature moves on and on and the three masks are exploited at every time to scare, their lack of motivation hurts the film's ability to sustain suspense. As protagonists, Kristen and James are of standard horror movie build; she is fragile and prone to screaming, and James, although a lot less macho than most male leads, is just as ill-fated to poor decision making. Individually, neither of them ever show any real sense of compelling attributes to cling onto, yet as a pair they at least share enough dynamics and chemistry to warrant the movie's key moments of characterisation.
Thankfully the movie doesn't end in a big bang and there is little in the way of cliché to be found leading up to it; it's unenlightening sure, but it's got enough conviction to carry off the film into positive light. This hollow note that finishes it all off is representative of the film as a whole, and of course Bertino's skills as a director of horror. Despite obvious flaws in storytelling, the majority of what is on display here is genuinely thrilling at its peaks and mildly compelling in its valleys. Through a startling score that punctuates the atmosphere poignantly and photography that captures the eeriness of these strangers' ominous presence, Bertino employs all the tricks in the book to deliver the scares, and while the whole product as a whole feels more like an exercise in technique, there's nevertheless plenty to behold regardless of any inconsistencies in narrative. Taken as a whole, The Strangers is a strong first attempt from newcomer writer/director Bryan Bertino who shows definite flair for crafting suspenseful scenes of terror and bringing out strong emotion from all his cast.
- A review by Jamie Robert Ward. For more reviews of all the latest movies please visit: http://www.invocus.net