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 THE STRANGERS ****

Directed by Bryan Bertino.

Starring Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman.

86 minutes USA 2008 Certificate: 15.

 

Released on limited edition Blu-Ray by Second Sight on September 28th, 2020.

 

With its then-ubiquitous “Inspired by true events” opening tag – accompanied by violent crime statistics – and a solemn documentary style voiceover echoing John Larroquette’s narration of the first two TEXAS CHAIN SAW movies, Bryan Bertino’s THE STRANGERS is very much a horror film of its time. Dolly shots of a suburban street and audio from a 911 call intend to make us uneasy about something that might happen to us, in the alarmist tradition of lip-smacking true crime TV shows. Unfolding over the course of a single night without humour or conventional resolution, it riffs on the American slasher cycle of the 1970s and 1980s but emphasises the ordeal of a home invasion over the more cathartic bloody kills and jump scares of that trend. It also replays the scenario of the superior 2006 French hit ILS (THEM), minus the “hoodie” twist that fed into a small spate of contemporary Brit horrors about hostile, remorseless youths.

 

The set-up is stripped down and the running time (like ILS) short, with limited character development and no tension-breaking cutaways to cops. If the use of the widescreen frame and the use of ominous white masks in pools of darkness obviously nod to Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN, that film’s sleek Stedicam is replaced by restless, cagey handheld cameras to add to the immediacy. Attractive young couple Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler return to the former’s South Carolina holiday home after a disastrous night out that culminated in Tyler’s rejection of his marriage proposal. An portentous knock at the door at four in the morning – and the odd behaviour of the strange young woman who asks “Is Tamara there?” – triggers a night of protracted terror for the couple as three masked weirdos invade their home, as intent on terrorising as they are murdering them.

 

Although Bertino isn’t interested in the lingering sadism and torture that came to dominate American horror in this period, THE STRANGERS is dedicated to conveying the relentless threat of violence, minimising dialogue, exposition and peripheral characters in its single minded mission to disturb. The home invasion scenario nods to Fred Walton’s WHEN A STRASNGER CALLS, with assailants who are already in the house at the point where we assume they are still lurking outside. Other than an entirely disposable pal of Speedman’s who turns up with classic bad timing just to get his face blown off, the two leads are the only characters in peril, reflecting a growing trend for survivalist chillers with tiny casts (OPEN WATER, FROZEN etc). The “Strangers” themselves spend a lot of time staring, hiding, tricking and rattling doors – like Michael Myers in Carpenter’s film, they enjoy scaring people and hiding in the shadows, with violence and killing almost an afterthought when the fun of being a living Halloween attraction wears thin.

 

For once, a mainstream studio horror film doesn’t feel the need to over-explain or delve into gratuitous backstory. At this point in time, the horror genre was determined to show us more than we ever wanted about the childhood of Leatherface or the origins of the HILLS HAVE EYES cannibals or the details of just how many times Michael Myers wet the bed as a kid. These “strangers”, identifiable only by their choice of face covering (and their faces never seen on screen), are disturbingly anonymous. They hardly speak and have no motive for hounding this middle class, good looking couple. We just assume that they do it because they can. Like Rutger Hauer in THE HITCHER, they just happen to have fun tormenting folks unlucky enough to be in their wheelhouse. In the creepiest dialogue of the 2008 movie year, an anguished Tyler asks them “Why”, to which the simple, chilling reply is “Because you were home…”

 

Bertino knows the importance of long periods of quiet and silence but also makes excellent use of Tomandandy’s atonal score and an assortment of heightened sounds: wind chimes, open fires crackling, creaking doors and, memorably, a succession of crackly old vinyl records. Merle Haggard never seemed so sinister. The movie has us looking for threats at the edges of the frame, sometimes outwitting us by revealing nothing when we expect something, and occasionally announcing a masked face at the window when we thought the coast was clear. Tyler, who spends much of the film on her own thanks to Speedman’s habit of ill-advisedly wandering off by himself like a classic slasher character, is a convincingly terrified, empathetic heroine and figures in the film’s signature “look behind you” scare (sadly exposed by the trailers): a sack-faced figure appearing in  the corner of the screen at the far end of the open-plan kitchen-diner. The climax is harsh and highlights the inexplicit but unpleasant suffering of its victims, while the very last scene stages a jarring last minute shock akin to the end of THE PROWLER that slightly takes the edge of the overall sense of hopelessness.

 

Extras- While carrying over archival extras from earlier releases (including a featurette where someone oddly brags it’s a “terror film not a horror”), Second Sight’s handsome new release triumphs with its lengthy, insightful new interviews. In a piece that lasts almost an hour, a humble Bertino talks frankly about getting fired from the project after initially selling his STRANGERS script to Universal at the point where he could barely pay the rent. He highlights the influences of HALLOWEEN’s techniques, TEXAS CHAIN SAW’s gut punch and “Helter Skelter”, while explaining the studio’s uncertainty about what to do with the movie, consigning it to the shelf and almost a straight-to-DVD fate before its theatrical release far outstripped expectations.

In his 43 minute interview, editor Kevin Greutert offers energetic, honest insight into the film’s evolution and how it changed in post-production. A veteran of the SAW franchise from the 2004 original to the imminent SPIRAL, he squeezed the STRANGERS gig in between SAWS III and IV. Although the trailer for this film was fashionably cut to be fast and brutal like a SAW picture, he talks of the influence of stately, grungy 70s films like TWO LANE BACKDROP in its comparatively sedate pacing, and of the need to keep the tempo quiet during sound mixing to heighten the relatively few overt shock moments. Particularly interesting is a walk through the test screening process, wherein the movie’s structure and narrative changed dramatically thanks to an early audience laughing at a key moment. Additionally, the finale was drastically reduced due to a combination of the studio not wanting to show the Strangers’ faces (visible in the original cut) and the MPAA’s insistence on trimming the climactic stabbings.

 

Elsewhere, “Pin-Up Girl” actress Laura Margolis talks of delving into “dark places in her soul” to play one of the masked killers, which begs for a Laurence Olivier-style “Have you tried acting, dear?” response. The stand-out extra, however, is the 17 minutes spent with a shy, lovely, modest Liv Tyler, who turns out to be a big horror fan, citing THE HAND and CREEPSHOW among her favourites. Displaying great pride at her work in THE STRANGERS and talking of the gruelling shoot, she also offers a fabulous anecdote about attending a screening where teenage boys were freaked out despite initially larking around. Tyler, like Bertino, also talks of her involvement in early conceptions of THE STRANGERS 2, a movie that ultimately became Johannes Roberts’ less downbeat but hugely enjoyable 80s infected THE STRANGERS: PREY AT NIGHT.

 

Steven West.

 

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