Review Date: October 21, 2008
Released by: Universal
Release date: 10/21/2008
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 2.35:1 | 16x9: Yes
After the post-modern pastiche brought upon the genre by Scream
, Urban Legend
, I Know What You Did Last Summer
, and its ilk, the slasher genre had played its course. There was nowhere for it to go but back to the basics. Producers took that literally by remaking every moderately successful slasher with nary a wink to be found. There have been a few though, like All the Boys Love Mandy Lane
and The Strangers
, which have crafted new stories on the old template. The Weinsteins still don’t know what to do with Mandy Lane
, so here we are instead with this year’s horror sleeper, The Strangers
. Is this the old school the genre needs?
We begin with a tongue anywhere but cheek recapitulation of the introductory narrative to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
. The speaker does his best John Larroquette, letting us know this is based on a true story. Nobody really knows what happened, though, so not really. Anyway, slasher mythology would dictate that now that the pretext is out of the way, it’s time to introduce our zany batch of young adults. Err, not really. Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler
) and James Hoyt (Scott Speedman
), mope into his summer house. They went to dinner, she talked to some people he wasn’t really comfortable with, he tried to propose, she ran away, and now they just mope in silence. For about twenty minutes. He helps her take off her necklace. She has a few scoops of ice cream. That darn smoke detector doesn’t work.
It’s around four in the morning when finally, to break this endless relationship trifle, someone knocks on their door. James goes to answer it, but can’t seem to turn on the porch light to see who’s there (I hate it when that happens). Turns out it’s some girl who is lost and a little vacant. Whatever. So they mope around a little more. James lights a fire. Kristen realizes she’s out of smokes. James says he’ll go get some. A few more pregnant pauses. James leaves and then three people in masks start terrorizing the shit out of their house.
Kristen fights for her life, as people bang on doors from all spectrums of 5.1. All this fuss has caused the record player to skip and skip and skip and skip and skip and skip and skip. James gets home, but sure enough there are no strangers to be found. Just when James is about to write off his girlfriend as crazy, that same porch lady is seen out their window silently standing like she’s been taking posture lessons from Michael Myers. James leaves Kristen once again (they never learn), and the formula basically repeats until blood is let and the cast list dwindles considerably.
, or more fittingly Ils Strangeurs
, is minimalism anorexia. It’s one thing to have a motiveless, faceless killer. Final Exam
proves that yes, the formula can work when other variables are developed enough to give the killer subtext. He may be a cipher, but with a diverse cast of personalities, he works as their yang. In The Strangers
we are presented with nothing. We know nothing about the killers, less about the protagonists and even less about the plot. You can see how Universal bit on first-timer Bryan Bertino’s pitch. The log line is the script. Simple. How does it last ninety minutes, then? Atmosphere. When you have no story though, excessive atmosphere is like a tree clanking on your window when you’re trying to go to bed. Annoying and aimless.
Instead, Bertino finds a new way of recreating paint drying for the silver screen, with the most laborious and self-important first act in slasher history. Pretension is thinking we should care about Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler’s petty relationship issues simply because they are Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler. I guess in a society infatuated with Britney at the beach or Angelina at a rest stop, we had it coming. When the scares finally do come, they are executed with the predictability of someone who has studied Halloween
one too many times. At first though, it’s admittedly effective.
All the requisites are there. The scope frame with the leads cooped up in the corners so the rest can lay tensely empty. The final girl close-up only to have the masked killer quietly enter the back frame out of focus. Swings moving with nobody around. The oh-no-the-killer-is-coming-through-the-front-door-oops-it’s-only-my-boyfriend macguffin. On their own these devices are admittedly effective – always have been. Strung together though, and repeated almost elliptically, it becomes downright tedious. The blame doesn’t fall on Hollywood, with it’s faux-indie handheld aesthetic, or on the actors, who act like real people even if they aren’t written like them. Yes, the fault lies solely in the script.
The Great Train Robbery
pioneered cross cutting between different scenes for a reason. It just becomes dull sitting in the same situation and the same place with the same characters. It became dull in the early 1900’s, and The Strangers
proves it still is today. Bertino aggravates the problem by giving us no characters to care about, and then rubs his intentional ambiguity in our face when the killers all unmask for the protagonists but never for the camera. So not only is it aimless, but it’s also pretentious.
What Bryan Bertino asks us to do, basically, is to care about two people he doesn’t develop outside of having a fight, and to care about three killers he refuses to unmask, develop or explain on camera. Is there a reward? Let’s see: No gore. No kills. No explanation. No rules. No curfew. No pulse. That’s the tagline for Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead
, but if this is what lies ahead for slashers, then it may as well die too.
Bertino casts the film in a warming brown hue throughout, both nostalgic and embracing as he tries to shatter your sense of familiarity. It could be neon green and I’d still be reaching for fast forward. Luckily on DVD, I can. The image quality is as pristine as you’d expect from a recent Hollywood production. Anamorphic and progressive, this 2.35:1 film is very sharp and high on detail. No edge enhancement was visible, and the colors cast an always consistent and flattering tonality. It looks good.
has great sound design. This Dolby Digital 5.1 track really comes at you from all directions, which is very important since much of the film relies on the whereabouts of the killers through the clinks and clangs they make throughout the perimeter of the house. There’s always that low intensity bass rumble too, and that shows up with decent resonance. Dialogue is of course crystal clear, and, well, how much hiss do you hear on modern Hollywood productions? Tomandandy, always underrated, provide an effective music mix to complement the rest of the sound here, and it is all put together very well in this sterling sound track.
As advertised on the front of the packaging: “2 Movies In 1”. What they really meant was: “The theatrical version and the theatrical versionwith a two minute scene added near the end.” Yes, the “unrated” cut is really only the theatrical cut with a single sequence of Liv Tyler struggling during the final attack, crawling along the floor to reach for a cell phone. It’s a pretty effective scene, and gives the anemic finale a bit more beef. Definitely a keeper, but sort of anti-climactic considering all the “terror” is so PG-13 throughout. You’d think they would have at least had one more gore shot on the cutting room floor.
As for extra material, this release is nearly as lean as the film itself. There’s a really puffy 9-minute featurette with interviews with Liv Tyler, director Bryan Bertino, and a few other topical crew members. They do that thing that I really hate, when they try to convince themselves the film they are making is not a “horror” film, but something new. As if horror in itself had polio. Lame. The featurette has some nice shots on set though, and does show the one gore effect in application.
The only other extra are a couple of deleted scenes. Guess what, there were even MORE mope scenes than what was featured in that already epically drawn out opening. Five minutes worth. Ouch.
is like paying a prostitute to engage in foreplay for a couple hours before promptly going home without a word. You have no idea about the characters, there’s no story, no payoff and worse yet this one wears a mask throughout. The image and audio look and sound sharp, so fans of this “terror film” should have no qualms about getting this for home consumption. You may want to wait, though, because the extras are short and shallow, and the unrated cut is really just a single added scene without any extra blood money. Considering the hit it was in theaters, this should be ripe for revisiting. I just wish it would stay a stranger, though. Leave my slasher genre alone.
Movie - D
Image Quality - A-
Sound - A-
Supplements - C
- Running time - 1 hour 26 minutes [Theatrical]
- Running time - 1 hour 28 minutes [Unrated]
- Rated R
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English Dolby Digital 5.1
- French Dolby Digital 5.1 [Theatrical only]
- English subtitles
- French subtitles
- Spanish subtitles
- "The Elements of Terror" featurette
- Deleted scenes
- Rated and unrated cuts of the film