The other night I went to see The Strangers with my favorite person, Ngoc Nguyen. The film begins with a caveat, "The horrifying events that took place in the Hoyt family's vacation home at 1801 Clark Road on February 11, 2005, are still not entirely known." We are also told that the film is "inspired by actual events." Those inspirational events most likely included watching Helter Skelter and maybe Fatal Vision. But the "based on actual events" gimmick is a tried and true one; and one indicative of The Stranger's formula-following strengths and weaknesses.
Is there anything scarier than hippies?
One guy went to the trouble of mapping the address given in the film and many others have taken the opening claim as truth. I'll try to help by adding that I heard the cry of a Great Horned Owl at several points and I've included this handy map of their range so that we can narrow it down further.
In interviews, speaking of his influences and tastes, first time director Bryan Bertino praises The Blair Witch Project ("I'm one of the people who loved The Blair Witch Project. I don't care that the camera is shaky and Heather says f**k a lot"), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Descent. He also mentions John Cassavetes and Terence Malick, whose work is reflected in the main characters' strained relationship and the film's measured pacing. By and large Bertino succeeds in creating a low budget '70s vibe. The summer home (a ranch home, naturally) is furnished in heavy, brown furniture and lit by 15 watt bulbs (apparently the owners are either photosensitive or very energy conscious). Crackly records of Gillian Welch, Joanna Newsom and Merle Haggard play. It almost feels like a Pinter play or a Bob Rafelson drama.
The film story begins (like last year's not-entirely-dissimilar Vacancy) with a couple traveling in a car-- their feelings for each other obviously strained but not entirely explained. As the preceding events become more clear, the tension slowly and expertly builds on the viewer's anticipation of something awful. Nothing happens and yet we know something will. Nothing new here, but it's well done and sticks to the thriller formula closely so it works.
Unfortunately, when the villains show up, the film switches gears. Whilst maintaining the slow pacing that worked in the first half, in the second it works to the film's detriment. The villains seem designed with more the toy market in mind than to create terror. The cutesy nickname given them by the filmmakers are Pin-Up Girl, Dollface, and The Man in the Mask. The girls have Mark Ryden-inspired masks that seem completely out-of-place. The Man in the Mask lumbers around like Leatherface and wears a sack like pre-hockey mask Jason or Bubba Ritter (Dark Night of the Scarecrow the Phantom Killer in The Town That Dreaded Sundown or the Zodiac Killer) which, to his credit, is one of the scarier looks available to psychopathic killers although not terribly original.
Bertino has also named Alien as an influence. But in Alien, a lot of the fear was created by never seeing the alien clearly or for too long. In The Strangers, the ample screen time the villains are afforded allows us to grow comfortable, even bored with them. The viewer also has too much time to question the painfully obvious contrivances necessary to maintain an unrealistic situation in which two languid teenage girls and an overweight asthmatic effectively terrorize a couple with a 12 gauge. The couple's actions become maddeningly nonsensical and unlikely. This could be chalked up to following formula too closely too, I guess. After all, many horror-thrillers have become unintentionally dull when the initial tension is replaced by goofy, obnoxious antagonists, as in The Hills Have Eyes.
It's too bad that it takes such a predictable and unfortunate turn into the over-the-top territory. What made the first half so enjoyable is that it avoided being like the film it becomes in the second half. But, despite some disappointment, it's a better-than-average exercise in suspense that may stick with you for an evening but it's not something you'll likely go back to.
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