Cinema Knife Fight: THE STRANGERS (2008)
by Michael Arruda and L. L. Soares
(The scene: A summer home exterior, in the woods. We are taken inside a rustic living room. MICHAEL ARRUDA stands in front of bloodstained walls with busted furniture and broken household items strewn about, indicating a struggle had occurred earlier.)
MA: What a mess! What is this, Lon Chaney’s vacation home? LS, you around? Anyway, today LS and I are here to review THE STRANGERS, the new thriller starring everyone’s favorite female elf from the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, Liv Tyler.
(From behind MA, a figure in a mask appears and creeps up behind him. MA turns around. The masked figure is gone.)
MA (addressing camera): You know, if any of you find this sort of cat and mouse stuff scary, you’ll enjoy THE STRANGERS. Otherwise, you’ll be disappointed.
(There’s a loud pounding at the thick, wooden door. MA opens the door to find L. L. SOARES waiting to come inside).
MA (looking at LS): Now, that’s scary!
LS: I’ll give you scary (lifts an axe over his head, then stops as he notices the mess). What the hell went on here? I told you not to watch THE VILLAGE again.
MA: That movie still makes me so damn angry!
LS: So, what did you think of today’s movie?
MA: Glad you asked. Let’s get this review started.
THE STRANGERS tells the story of a young couple who spend the night in a secluded summer home, only to have their romantic evening interrupted by the titled “strangers.” These strangers are three people who knock on doors in the middle of the night, press their masked faces up against windows, and do other mysterious deeds before breaking in and terrorizing our frightened leads with the sole purpose of eventually killing them. It all sounds much scarier than it actually is.
The film begins well, in terms of storytelling. We meet the two leads, and we immediately find out that something is wrong, and that “something” is that James (Scott Speedman) has proposed to Kristen (Liv Tyler) earlier in the evening and she said no. Suddenly, here they are at a romantic hideaway planned by James, and it’s like “Oops! Kristen said no. How awkward!” I liked these characters, and I was ready to enjoy a movie about them.
Too bad the events that follow aren’t worthy of these characters.
At first, there is a sense of eeriness, as strange things happen, like loud knocks at the door at 4 a.m., banging on the windows, cell phones going missing. Then a trio of masked intruders starts terrorizing the couple, first individually then all at once. I’ve mentioned the leads, and I thought their performances were solid, but that’s it. Nobody else stands out. The masked killers spend too much time appearing and disappearing to be truly scary, and we don’t really learn anything about them.
And things unfold too slowly. I found myself looking at my watch thinking, when is something going to happen? When that something does happen, it’s a major disappointment. I expected a “blow me away” ending, but I thought it was flatter than old soda.
Who are these masked people? What are they doing there? What do they want? Why are they intent on terrorizing the young couple? The answer, explained in one brief line uttered by one of the masked intruders toward the end of the film, is supposed to be scary because of the complete sense of randomness it invokes. It’s not. It’s just lame.
(A tall man in an ALFRED E. NEUMAN mask steps in front of the camera and scratches his head.)
ALFRED: What, me worry?
LS: Get outta here! (pushes ALFRED down the cellar stairs). Y’know, I had kind of a mixed reaction to this movie. I was excited by the trailer, which showed some real potential for scares. I don’t think the movie lived up to it, but I didn’t hate it as much as you did.
I actually thought that it moved quickly, and I didn’t look at my watch once. I liked the leads and I found them sympathetic, but I wished we’d learned more about them beforehand. I also liked the brief performance by Glenn Howerton as Michael, a friend of Speedman’s, who comes by at one point. Some people might recognize Howerton as one of the goofballs from the FX show IT’S ALWAYS SUNNY IN PHILADELPHIA, and it was interesting to see him in a dramatic role for a change, even if he’s not around long.
I also thought the constant popping up of masked figures, and then their disappearing, was effective at first, but then got tiresome as it went along. It was a case of too much sizzle and not enough steak. The movie does have a heightened sense of suspense at times, but the cat and mouse games do go on too long.
MA: They go on forever. They don’t stop til the end, and by then, it’s the end. It was like this movie forgot to have a middle. It has one very long beginning and then skips right to the end.
LS: And there were too many stupid moves.
MA: Way too many stupid moves!
LS: Like the way Speedman insisted on separating from Tyler and didn’t leave her a weapon to protect herself.
MA: The stupidest.
LS: I can understand how fear can create bad decisions, and I get that maybe he wanted to take these people out on his own like some action hero, but if you know dangerous people are around and can get in and out of the house with ease, why leave your girlfriend alone and vulnerable? Even if she did turn down your proposal of marriage!
MA: I agree.
LS: But, aside from way too much teasing, and some dumb moves on the part of the leads, overall I liked this movie. I liked the killers and I liked the way it ends, for the most part.
MA: The old saying “truth is stranger than fiction” is true. Things happen in real life that are completely random, horrible, and unfair. This film, for instance, according to the moviemakers, was inspired by true events.
LS: Every movie is “inspired by true events” these days, and I’ve heard that the true events this movie is” based” on include the Manson murders, which is pretty tenuous. “True events” usually spells “bullshit” in my book, and it’s just meant as a cheap scare for the audience, by saying “this could happen to you.”
(A woman wearing a BETTY BOOP mask creeps up behind them)
BOOP: Boop boop be doop!
MA: (Throws BOOP out of a window as he’s talking) However, there’s also an old rule in fiction writing that says you don’t want your stories to be random. Fiction is not real life and doesn’t play by the same rules. In fiction, to craft a compelling story, you need reasons, motives, things that go together. A sense of randomness, generally speaking, doesn’t work in fiction. It leaves the reader or viewer disappointed. It doesn’t work here, either. You’re left feeling- what was that all about?
LS: Hell, rules are made to be broken. I actually liked the nihilistic streak at the center of this movie. It differentiated it from assembly-line Hollywood horror flicks like the recent PROM NIGHT remake. I like when directors don’t play by the rules, and if I felt disappointed, it was more in the way the story unfolds rather than in its denouement. I don’t feel the need to have a story spoon-fed to me, and some of my favorite movies don’t explain every detail of what’s going on. And I actually liked the fact that we never see the real faces of the Strangers, even when they take their masks off toward the end.
MA: I thought the PROM NIGHT remake was better than this movie. That film took a stupid idea and crafted a compelling movie, even if its plot was lame.
LS: PROM NIGHT compelling? Yeah, right. (laughs). THE STRANGERS was way better!
MA: (sneers) THE STRANGERS took a compelling idea and fell asleep at the wheel with it. Still, there were things I did like about THE STRANGERS. I liked the masks, for instance. There’s a long line of memorable masks in the history of horror. You can go back to the PHANTOM OF THE OPERA movies, most notably the Lon Chaney (1925) and the later Claude Rains versions (1943); you’ve got John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN series with Michael Myers’ mask; the mask from the SCREAM franchise, and so on. I liked the masks in this movie, and they were scary.
LS: Yeah, people who know me know I have a thing for masks as well. I thought they were great.
MA: Speaking of John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978), the scene where the masked killer appears silently behind Liv Tyler for the first time is directly inspired by a similar scene in HALLOWEEN.
(A kid in a HOWDY DOODY mask pops up from behind the sofa and laughs! LS kicks him in the head)
MA: Other than this, I was very disappointed. Like you, I enjoyed the trailer, so I had expected to like this movie.
LS: I didn’t think the movie was as good as the trailer made us think. But I didn’t completely hate this one.
MA: I also thought the filmmakers did a poor job at establishing a sense of place. The action takes place inside a summer home, but director Bentino never gives us an establishing shot. Are they in the middle of nowhere? Surrounded by deep woods? Are they on a mountain? By a lake? In a town with people in homes not too far away? Just where the hell they are is never clearly established, other than inside a summer home with woods outside the house.
LS: I thought Bentino gives us enough of a sense of place to let us know that this is a secluded house, far from neighbors, but there is some kind of community around (otherwise, how could the Mormon kids who discover the aftermath get there?). The fact that we weren’t always sure how far the boundaries of civilization and wilderness were added to the feel of the film.
MA: I was confused. I wasn’t so sure this was a secluded house. I mean, there’s a road out front that even in the dark didn’t look like some dirt path in the middle of nowhere. I thought it sloppy filmmaking. As a whole, I thought the direction by Bentino and the writing (he also wrote the screenplay) were flat, as was the music by tomandandy.
LS: I thought you loved the work of tomandandy!
MA: That’s Tom and Jerry. (Footsteps are heard coming from a back room).
(Speaking over his shoulder) Don’t even think about coming in here with Tom and Jerry masks! (A high-pitched mouse-like voice shouts an obscenity). You’d better run away!
Anyway, the whole thing was flat. THE STRANGERS is about as strange as an unexpected noise in the middle of the night, creepy at first, but easily forgotten. It’s a poor movie and not worth anyone’s time. And to give tomandandy credit, I did enjoy their score for THE HILLS HAVE EYES remake.
LS: As far as the soundtrack goes, I also want to point out how effective the use of Joanna Newsom’s song “Sprout and the Bean” was. With her spooky, child-like voice and the refrain of “Should we go outside?”, I thought it added to the film’s eeriness.
I didn’t think THE STRANGERS was perfect, but I think it’s worth checking out. And there are parts I truly enjoyed. I didn’t think it was flat, I just think there was too much reliance on teasing and not enough real action.
MA: And that’s why I didn’t like it.
(A man in a V FOR VENDETTA Guy Fawkes mask, standing behind them and holding a large machete, laughs as he turns off the lights).
This review was first published on Fear Zone on 6/2/08
© Copyright 2008 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares