A retread of just about every home-invasion movie of the past 50 years mixed with elements of torture porn and chick-flick romance, this misguided tale of a couple who return from a wedding reception only to be terrorized by three mask-wearing psychos has nothing new to offer in the genre. If intended as counterprogramming, it will likely lose most of its target young female audience to the week’s other much more hotly anticipated estrogen-charged wide release, Sex and the City.
The plot, such as it is, is only there to lead us to the inevitable slice-and-dice finale. The Strangers starts out as an extremely slow-paced romantic drama, as Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman) return to his family’s secluded vacation home after attending a friend’s wedding. The house is decked out with rose petals and soft lighting for what looks to be a very special moment. However, something is amiss with the couple, and it takes a lot of awkward silences and arch dialogue exchanges before they finally get their romantic mojo back at around 4 a.m. Just then, a loud knock is heard at the door and, being mindless, moronic characters in a horror movie, they open it to discover a strange girl asking for “Tamara.” She goes away and so—inexplicably—does James, who says he will return shortly, thus setting up a lot of near-encounters between a frightened (and now, alone) Kristen and the masked invaders. When James does return, she must convince him they are not alone, something he discovers quickly when the terror-mongerers start to really strut their stuff.
Debut feature from writer/director Bryan Bertino is clearly influenced by everything from The Desperate Hours, The Shining and Straw Dogs to the more recent Funny Games and Vacancy. In the film’s press notes he says his desire is to make an emotional connection to the audience by scaring them first. He fails miserably on all counts, although there are a couple of decent jolts here and there. Bertino’s cameras cut most of the suspense by always letting the audience see the killers creeping up on their intended victims, thus severely limiting the jump-out-of-your-seat-moments fans of this kind of thing crave. Making matters even worse is the casting. Tyler’s bland kewpie-doll acting style just slows things to a crawl, and chemistry between her and the equally dreary Speedman is non-existent. We just don’t end up caring what happens to these two, which makes the last third of the film a real chore to sit through. Tyler’s screams are nicely pitched, however. As for the psychos (Gemma Ward, Kip Weeks and Laura Margolis) they spend most of the movie behind their masks uttering zombie-like threats. The lively Glenn Howerton as James’ friend shows up briefly with little to do but become a quick victim.
Although distributor Rogue Pictures recently moved from Focus to mother studio Universal, the switch, at least on the evidence of The Strangers, has done little to reverse the commercial tide for the struggling genre label.
Cast: Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman, Gemma Ward, Kip Weeks, Laura Margolis and Glenn Howerton.
Director/Screenwriter: Bryan Bertino
Producers: Doug Davison, Roy Lee and Nathan Kahane
Rating: R for violence/terror and language
Running time: 90 min.
Release date: May 30, 2008