The Strangers has one of the most gripping trailers I’ve ever seen. A couple returns home from a romantic night out. They profess their love for each other. They listen to the beautiful child-like voice of Joanna Newsom through a record player. Then, as the woman walks around her home suspicious of an intruder, a man with a bag on his head emerges from the darkness. It cuts to black, the record begins to skip, and scenes from what looks like the most terrifying home invasion movie ever made are shown briefly. The trailer is breathtaking. Unfortunately, that was not the film I saw.
The film begins in the early morning, as two children wander into a home that saw a lot of blood shed the previous night. We go back 12 hours in time, and are introduced to the couple who will soon inhabit the home, James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (a particularly annoying Liv Tyler) . He just proposed to her, and she said no for reasons that go unexplained. It seems like their romantic getaway has been spoiled. They don’t even know the half of it. They decide to spend the night in his father’s isolated holiday home as planned, but he’ll leave in the morning. There is a surprise knock at the door in the middle of the night. It’s a creepy young woman looking for someone named Tamara. She doesn’t seem too upset to find out she’s got the wrong house.
James goes for a late night drive, and Kristen decides to get changed. These are both bad ideas. She hears bumps around the house, and grows suspicious. Then comes the famous scene from the trailer, as baghead emerges from the darkness without Kristen realising. It’s a pretty fun scene to watch in a theater, as people slowly realise there is someone in the background, with varying degrees of terror and hilarity. But the scene goes on. And on. And on. Seriously. Kristen spends about two minutes drinking water in the kitchen without even realising there is a guy with a bag on his head watching her. By the time she turns around, he’s gone. When James returns home, all three of the strangers (credited as Doll Face, Pin-Up Girl and The Man in the Mask) are in full terror mode.
I will give credit where credit is due – these strangers are pretty good at psychologically terrorising people. They spend the majority of the movie creeping up behind them, and then disappearing just as one of the victims think they are done for. They also have a knack for appearing in any window the couple should look out of. Unfortunately, that is pretty much the extent of their terrorism. They attack the house with an axe, but then just leave after breaking down the door. They might as well have just teepeed the house with toilet paper.
Of course, their ferocity is saved for the final minutes of the film. I won’t spoil their final act of terrorism, except to say … that it’s not very good. By that I don’t mean evil (although it is). I mean, it’s just kind of boring. In fact, the entire movie is anti-climactic. We have to put up with the angsty-est couple in the world for the first half hour, and then a few moments of terror for the rest of it. By the end of the film, any goodwill I felt towards the clever psychological torture in the first half was replaced by a desire for a brainless slasher flick. I got so sick of seeing the strangers emerge from darkness I just kept praying that Michael Myers would turn up and show them how to really terrorise a home.
The film is very similar to Michael Haneke‘s Funny Games (the U.S remake by the same director is set for release next month). In that, an affluent couple and their child are held hostage by a couple of effeminate young men who proceed to torture them physically and psychologically. Funny Games is more of a message film than a thriller, and is Haneke’s no-holds-barred attack on audiences who crave the sight of innocent people being tortured. However, Funny Games is such a nasty, patronising, bile-inducing, audience-hating pile of boredom, the message (which is a stupid and obvious one) is lost. Thankfully, The Strangers doesn’t stoop to the level of Funny Games, which is a stain on one of the most horrifying of sub-genres: The Home Invasion thriller. However, there just aren’t enough scares in The Strangers to make it successful. It’s creepy – that’s for sure. But I guess it’s just hard for a movie about characters with bags on their heads to have any real teeth.
P.S. The final shot of this movie is possibly one of the worst decisions ever made by a director in the history of film. How could he think that the final second of the film wouldn’t make the audience walk out laughing?