The Strangers (2008) dir. Bryan Bertino
Starring: Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman
I’m confident enough to say “The Strangers” is one of the scariest films I’ve ever seen, and would easily make my short list of the best horror films ever made. Bryan Bertino, with only his first feature film has made a film as simple yet terrifying as John Carpenter’s “Halloween”.
Bertino has essentially made a home invasion/cabin movie –a very familiar set-up in the horror genre. James and Kristin (Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler) are a dating couple attending a wedding and staying at their weekend home in the country. The night doesn’t seem to have gone well, a conflict of some sort has resulted in visible tension between the two.
As the two try to resolve their conflict they are interrupted by a suspicious knock on their door. Who could be around at this time of night in such a remote place? A seemingly innocent girl is looking for a friend of hers. When James leaves to get some cigarettes for Kristin, the girl returns with more nefarious intensions. With a trio of masked assailants laying siege on their home it becomes a battle of strength and will for James and Kristin to survive this harrowing game of home invasion.
Bertino manages to distill away all the salacious and superficial genre elements and concentrate solely on pure terror. This is the hardest part about the genre. Gore can be achieved through technical elements, but fear is the work cinematic skill. Bertino paces the film with a careful speed. Beginning with a slow, quiet build-up of tension. It’s misdirected tension though. James and Kristin’s conflict causes them to split apart which leaves Kristin vulnerable and feeling alone physically and emotionally. When the ‘strangers’ arrive Kristin and the audience are at their most vulnerable and manipulative.
Since the film is secluded within it’s single location and limited characters Bertino is forced to put the audience in the protagonists’ shoes. James and Kristin, for the most part, remain intelligent and logical characters throughout the film. At one point they voluntarily split up, which I wouldn’t have done that situation, but Bertino expertly covers most ‘what would I do this situation’ issues which often cripple these pictures.
Bertino is simple yet absolutely precise with his camera angles and his editing, thus maximizing fear. Perhaps the best shot in the film is the introduction of the male masked stranger. Wearing a creepy white hood with randomly cut eye-holes the psychopath is seen while Kristin is in the kitchen on the phone. The man appears slowly out of focus in the background. No sound announces his appearance, and he barely even moves, but his white mask is so clearly defined in the background, our eyes are drawn to the space. The film follows this path of quiet, slow-moving terror.
As one can expect it’s difficult to find the light at the end of this dark tunnel. Warning SPOILERS ahead… despite the heavy material there’s actually a throughline and character arc which is achieved at the end. This is why Bertino was so careful with his opening scenes and establishing the broken relationship of James and Kristin. Imagine yourself going through the ordeal and you’ll find the most terrifying moments is when Kristin or James are alone – not knowing what’s happening to the other. In their last moments, the tortured couple, though about to die, are together side by side comforting each other through the final agonizing moments, completely in love with one another and in a sick and twist way at peace.
"The Strangers" is one of the best films of the year.
“The Strangers” is available on DVD in Canada from Alliance Films.