30 May 2008
James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) had it all planned out: Attend a friend's wedding, propose to his girlfriend Kristen (Liv Tyler), spend a romantic night with her at his family's remote vacation home. He didn't plan for Kristen refusing his proposal, creating the ultimate awkward situation when they reach the old house for what he thought would be a celebration of their own.
The opening minutes are crucial to The Strangers, the debut from writer-director Bryan Bertino. The protagonists in most horror movies come in groups of vapid teenagers or random people thrown together for the first time. The history between James and Kristen gives The Strangers a lived-in feel that makes the terrifying events that unfold seem not so farfetched.
At about 4 a.m. there comes a knock at the front door. A girl (Gemma Ward) asks, "Is Tamara home?" No, James and Kristen reply. She is persistent. "Are you sure?"
After convincing her to leave, James decides he needs to go, too—not to anywhere in particular; he just needs to be away from Kristen for a while.
All is quiet in the house as Kristen sits alone. The only sounds are the crackling of a fire, the music of wind chimes—until another knock at the front door. It's the same girl.
"Is Tamara home?"
"You've already been here," Kristen tells her sharply.
"Are you sure?"
Kristen closes, locks the door. It's clear this is more than a lost girl looking for her friend. Knocks on the front door become banging on the walls, writing on the windows. And these visitors don't stay outside.
James returns and insists no one else is in the house. But the masked strangers have just begun their torment.
The film has its share of "Boo!" moments, but Bertino understands the need to first build tension. He lets it burn hot, simmering, threatening to boil over at any moment. When it finally does, it's effective enough to get people jumping out of their seats at a critics' screening and that's a pretty tough crowd.
The Strangers is the work of a born filmmaker who shows a remarkable command of tone and pace. It is a new classic in its genre that recognizes that not every crime has a tidy explanation; some are nothing more than random acts of depravity. Nothing in the movie is more horrifying than the answer Kristen receives when she asks the strangers, "Why are you doing this to us?" The reply: "Because you were home."
(Rated R for violence/terror and language. 90 minutes.)