Stranger Danger

Minimalist American home-invasion thriller The Strangers is a bit like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games without the fun and games; a stripped-down, carefully modulated examination of what happens when a young couple are subjected to a night of terror at the hands of three masked psychopaths.

Returning late to their remote holiday home after a friend’s wedding, Kristen and James (Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman) were supposed to have a romantic night of champagne and swing music, but she has just turned down his proposal of marriage. The atmosphere already strained, things get worse when a strange girl bangs on the door at four in the morning, asking for someone who doesn’t live there. Slowly and steadily, the situation escalates, more banging on the door, strange messages written on the window, things going missing until, eventually, the intruders are inside the house.

On debut, writer and director Bryan Bertino shows his acute understanding of the fundamentals of horror storytelling – the unknown is terrifying, tension is everything and panic is contagious. After a lengthy set-up, the first encounter between madman and victim is well drawn, ending in a chillingly choreographed reveal as the masked psycho looms into frame behind Tyler’s back. We might have sent his sort of thing a thousand times, but it’s still frightening, particularly when Bertino focuses on sound to add an extra sensory dimension to the coming apocalypse. From that point, the stage set, the director pulls the few strings in his cat-and-mouse story taut, extending the stresses across his carefully composed widescreen with scenes played momentarily longer than expected and vibrato screams pitched just short of dog whistles.

What should result is a sense of dread and fear, but the mood is broken by nagging irrationalities and clumsy exposition. In these modern times, in order to properly isolate characters being lined up for gory execution, at least twenty minutes must be spent disabling their mobile phones. Here, in her first clue that something might be amiss, Tyler’s mobile is thrown on a fire by an unseen hand. Like filling out forms in a dentist’s waiting room, these scenes require processing before the real action can begin, but they are tiresome and time-consuming. Having established the victims as a couple on the verge of splitting up, Tyler and Speedman have nothing to do but race from one end of the house to the other, dodging the maniac’s thrusting blade, until they come to realise that their interpersonal problems don’t amount to much in the bigger scheme of things. In this, Speedman is a convincingly anonymous everyman but Tyler struggles to overcome her famous face, her absolute lack of ordinariness dragging us out of the fantasy.

In as much as you can extract a message from a film where young lovers are chased to their deaths by sadistic killers for 90 minutes, The Strangers real thesis emerges when, in a particularly sticky moment, Kristen asks James to find “his Daddy’s shotgun”. In a culture that sees itself as being under constant threat from and unknown and unreasonable external force, and must take every effort to defend itself, the first priority is an armed response. Kristen and James were unprepared, and look what happens to them.

As an exercise in controlled bedlam, The Strangers is efficiently, effectively scary, but it owes too many debts, from Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs to James Foley’s Fear, via the mocking European ironists like Haneke and the French thriller Them, which it more or less remakes, without acknowledgement.

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