Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
At Quality 16 and Showcase
“The Strangers” is nothing if not efficient. It’s a lean, mean matchstick-house of a horror film built from the barest essentials with not an ounce of extra weight on its flimsy frame. Simply put, it wants to scare the hell out of you – ask anything more and it will balk and spit at your feet. But for what it is, and for what it tries to do, “The Strangers” is a remarkably fierce, well-executed experience, the sort of celluloid nightmare that doesn’t need gore to be unsettling.
A plot summary is almost superfluous, but for the sticklers: James (Scott Speedman, “Underworld”) and Kristen (Liv Tyler, “Armageddon”) arrive at a secluded country home for the night, in what was initially an attempt at a romantic evening on James’ part. After a devastating revelation James and Kristen find themselves feeling detached from each other and unhappy, wasting away the night as James waits for his friend to come and pick him up. Unfortunately, the night gets worse for them. A mysterious family begins stalking the grounds, harassing them with cruel mind games and threatening them with violence. Soon it becomes clear to James and Kristen that, whoever they are, these prowlers want to kill them, and that, in order to survive, the two must fight back.
Sounds standard? It is. In a sense, if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the film – there’s little more to it than what’s been advertised ad nauseum over the past few weeks. All the basic elements of any horror film are here: the secluded house, the dark woods, the masked maniacs and the sharp implements they use to terrorize their victims. But the very beauty of “The Strangers” lies in its simplicity. Like the best horror films, there are no explanations, no givens. And the attackers, with their garish doll masks (the patriarch of the family wears a potato sack over his head to distinguish himself), take on the same kind of inhuman, almost mythic air that characterized other cinematic monsters like Michael Myers (“Halloween”) and the shark from “Jaws.”
Most impressively, even with virtually every scene and plot twist spoiled in one preview or another, “The Strangers” still manages to retain its grasp over the audience and leave them rattled. There are certainly flaws – director Bryan Bertino relies too heavily on shaky camerawork and tight close-ups to create a feeling of unease, and the ending feels rushed and unsatisfying – but once the thrills start, the film simply never lets up: like a slowly winding jack-in-the-box, you wait intently with each passing minute for something to happen, for something to leap out of the darkness and terrify you. It’s a gripping experience, and ultimately the little missteps, including Tyler’s sometimes-flat performance, never really lessen the power of the experience.
It’s a horror film the likes of which we haven’t seen in a while, and a worthy way to be traumatized.
Four out of five stars
At Quality 16 and Showcase