Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Strangers (USA, 2008)

"What you are about to see is inspired by true events. According to the FBI, there are an estimated
1.4 million violent crimes in America each year. On the night of February 11, 2005, Kristen McKay and James Hoyt left a friend's wedding reception and returned to the Hoyt family's summer home. The brutal events that took place there are still not entirely known."
Opening Narration

The couple Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) and James Holt (of Dark Blue [2002 / trailer] and Weirdsville [2007 / trailer]) return to the remote vacation home belonging to James's parents after attending a friend’s wedding. The mood is glum because Kristen has said no to James's marriage proposal. A late-night knock at the door by a mysterious blonde asking for "Tamara" evolves into a night of terror when the couple are confronted by a unisex trio of masked psychopaths out for a murderously good time….
According to first-time director Bryan Bertino, the inspiration for the lean and linear plot of The Strangers has its birth in a childhood event: one late night a stranger came a-knocking at the family home asking for someone unknown to him or his parents; later they found out that that very night other homes in the neighbourhood had been ransacked and burglarized. Bertino just took the event a step further for his film, making the late-night knock not a pre-robbery casing out but rather the search for targets by a trio of resolutely anonymous psycho killers.
Since the film has been released, on-line sleuths have found "proof" that the film is actually based on a relatively obscure and still unsolved quadruple murder known as the Keddie Resort Murders that occurred in Northern California on April 11, 1981: it seems that some of the lines in the opening 911 call are taken verbatim from the original 911 call of the Keddie Resort Murders. Other folks claim that the inspiration is the Mansion Murders (because the trio is unisex), but in all truth it is probably close to impossible to do a home-invasion murder movie without someone seeing a link to the Family. In the end, The Strangers is probably based on "true events" about as much as the The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974 / trailer) is based on Ed Gein and Fargo (1996 / trailer) or The Woodchipper Massacre (1988 / trailer) are on the Woodchipper Murder. (In other words: distantly and thrice removed at best.)
Here at A Wasted Life, we tend to think that The Strangers is inspired less by "true events" than it is simply an Americanization of the basic plot of the original Austrian version of Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997 / trailer), a film which Haneke himself also Americanized the very same year that The Strangers was released with a virtual shot-by-shot remake using Hollywood actors. But at least enough aspects are different in The Strangers that it can claim to be a film of its own (more or less) and not simply a rip-off. This, however, raises the next question: is The Strangers a good film? The answer is a resounding yes and no.
It’s plot—three psychopaths in masks terrorize incompetent yuppie couple—has all the depth of a mud puddle in the desert, but for that Bryan Bertino manages to wring more tension and horror than many a more experienced director has gained from a plot labyrinthine.
Filmed mostly using a handheld camera, The Strangers has a directness and intensity that feeds upon a basic fear shared by many: indiscriminate home invasion by unknown intruders. (And indiscriminate it is, as is evidenced when "Dollface" [top model Gemma Ward] answers Kirsten's questions of why with "Because you were home.") But for all the tension and terror wrung in the prolonged game of cat and mouse that takes up two-thirds of the film—the other third being primarily the introduction of the relationship-troubled couple and the film' resolution—somewhere along the way the viewer can’t help but start feeling that the couple are particularly incapable. OK, you do feel sorry for them and hope that they’ll survive, but really: they have a fucking gun, for Christ’s sake, and all they can do with it is shoot a friend? And considering that the psychos were smart enough to take the axe from the barn wall to break the front door, why is Kirsten too stupid to even grab a hammer? Hell, even the lamp she knocks over up in the bedroom could've easily bashed in someone's brains if swung right. (Kirsten is an exceptionally old fashioned helpless type of gal for the world of today; you know that her concept of Classic Literature is Barbara Cartland and that, had they gotten married, she would have stayed home to cook, clean and watch soap operas. But then, one can’t help but wonder after awhile whether James, if given a drill, would be able to drill a hole in the wall.) And while the final fate of the couple is heart-rending, the stabbing scenes tend to reduce the film to a level of torture porn better suited for a cheap exploitation film—which is what The Strangers sometimes feels like, despite all its craftsmanship. Worse, for all the scares and chills, the film begins to feel a tad too long rather quickly—a feeling that hardly justifies adding two minutes for an "unrated" DVD version.
The unrated version, by the way, adds absolutely nothing to the film but a few pointless minutes to the end which clarify the why behind where the Mormon boys find Kristen. The addition comes across very much as a desperate attempt to gain repeat viewings from those forever interested is seeing the "uncensored" version (although it is doubtful that the added minutes would have in any way affected the movies MPAA rating). Indeed, The Strangers would be even more unnerving and subtly horrifying had it been even shorter and simply ended, for example, with the scene in which "Pin-Up Girl" says "It'll be easier next time."
So, what you got with The Strangers? A well made film that thrills and chills most of the time but hangs around a tad too long. The lady in the room will probably find it scarier than the man—unless you're the type of guy that can't drill a hole in the wall.

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