The line between gory bloodbath horror movies and calculated suspense horror films is thick and distinct. Horror should be one or the other: go for the gut and let all the blood spurt out or go for the cerebral cortex and let the nightmare begin. On the one hand we have the likes of Saw, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Hostel. On the other hand we have films like The Ring, Psycho, and Mulholland Dr. Yes there are a few films that reach the ranks of fitting into the sweet spot right in the middle, but few succeed at being both. Many manage to be neither and fall onto a huge pile of meaningless, forgotten horror movies that never quite hit the jugular. The Strangers is one of those movies.
The Strangers is about a couple who go to their country house and get mentally tortured and then murdered by three people who wear masks. It is “based on true events” and seems to take this fact very seriously. A deep voice-over reads the words that come up on the screen once you hit play: “What you are about to see is based on true events…The brutal events that took place [in this house] are still not entirely known.” A good horror movie makes you feel like it could happen to you. At that point of the movie I did feel a little like it could happen to me. After hearing that booming inhumanly deep voice, I was a little scared. I was ready to go home and have nightmares.
Unfortunately, Writer/Director Bryan Bertino lost me within 20 minutes. He consistently misses opportunities to connect with what would truly push the audience member over the edge. When the strangers first appear, the male with the bag over his head and the women with their faces covered in masks, it is terrifying. They are hidden in the background for the audience to see, but the victims never turn around early enough to see the strangers lurking. The movie is missing that early-on moment of sheer terror, when the victims realize what is going to happen. That a-ha moment of “oh shit, we’re going to die” happens over the course of the movie, rather than in one, jaw dropping pop-out scary moment.
There is one thing that you can learn from this movie: Liv Tyler is still amazing. And, luckily, you can learn it with me right here, right now, just by reading this review. Her long-tall-sally lithe frame exudes the kind of beauty that is effortless and should never be bloodied. That is why a role like this could have been perfect for her. The camera loves her. She does something in this movie that I’ve seen few other actors do successfully in a horror movies: she flinches. She’s jumpy the whole movie. When her character hears new noises, you see the energy rushing through her body as it electrifies with fear. She never quite brings the energy to choking, hard breathing, shaking, hysteria, but I believe that is the fault of the director. He consistently errs on the side of subtly throughout the film.
This movie is tepid. Bertino brings his audience to the precipice of terror, but never takes us there. This type of teasing is a theme throughout the movie. It’s not quite suspenseful enough. We figure out early on that “The Strangers,” are just that: strangers with hatred on their mind bent on terrifying and killing Kristin (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman). Once we realize that these beautiful actors are going to die, the suspense is dead. Knowing that they will not escape is just bad horror filmmaking. If the audience has no hope that the characters will survive, there is almost no reason to invest enough emotion to be truly scared.
The movie is not quite active enough. Although there are a few neat scenes with Liv running around after her leg gets broken, there are no scenes of her getting stabbed/shot/punched and then running away, bloodied and bruised. The strangers really just hover, aimlessly damaging material goods until the very end. The finale of the movie consists of the Strangers impotently stabbing the couple, with no frills, no torture, and no intestines on the floor. We see that they have been tied up, but we don’t get to experience them being tied up. We are not taken through those final moments with Kristin and James as they truly understand that they are going to die. The unrated version includes a juicier killing scene, but most of the gory details are edited away with shots of the trees outside of the house.
In the beginning of the movie there is a recorded 911 call that has the caller saying “there is blood everywhere. There is blood on the walls.” This 911 call makes a promise that never quite gets delivered. There is, technically, blood on the walls at the end of the movie, but the movie itself is not nearly bloody enough. Instead of show and tell, this movie is hide and seek. Bertino keeps too much from the audience and the result proves that too much subtly can easily kill a horror movie, or just anticlimactically wound it fatally.
The disc includes the theatrical version (86 min) and the unrated version (88 min). With the unrated version being probably a little less than two minutes longer than the theatrical version, it’s amazing that they are advertising it as heavily as they are. The only real difference between the two is that there are a few more screams from Liv and a few more stabs in the end. It’s hardly worth the “un” in “unrated.” If the unrated version were to be released in theatres it would most certainly be an easy R.
There are two deleted scenes included on the DVD. They both display more dialogue on the plotline of Kristin and James’ doomed relationship. The first is just an extended scene with no real talking, where James puts his hand on Kristin’s face. The other consists of the couple talking back and forth about the moment she rejected his marriage proposal. It’s a conversation that no right minded couple would ever allow. Who needs melodramatic scenes of love gone wrong in a horror movie? The fact that these scenes were even shot just reminds me of the incompetence of the director.
There is one featurette called “The Elements of Terror.” It is fairly interesting and informative. It goes from “Where Terror Lives,” to “The Sound of Terror,” to “The Feel of Terror,” to “The Impact of Terror.” Production designer John Kretschmer explains that they are making a “terror” film and not a horror film. He claims “I think this is more of a terror film, as opposed to a horror film. It’s an absolutely new approach to the genre.” If we’re talking about a new genre, maybe I should re-write my review? Kretschmer explains “Where Terror Lives” and goes into the sets designs. “The Sound of Terror” is cool, and makes you respect Liv even more for her awesome screaming abilities. “Sound” takes you through some of the audio challenges of the film. “The Feel of Terror” touches on the rigorous impact making a “terror” movie has on its actors. Liv explains that she was bloodied and bruised at the end of shooting, which is interesting. “The Impact of Terror” takes us through a scene with stunt doubles and shows how many times they had to crash into a parked car in order for it to get that mangled look.
There is no director’s commentary and I think that is a wise choice. With a horror movie, just like with a magic trick, you don’t want to give away too much. The featurette alone is spot on.