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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

The Strangers (review)

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Just what the world needs: a 1970s throwback horror movie combining the kind of outrageous elements of that decade’s scary stories with all the real-life fake nightmares of the 2000s. Like so: It’s not like anyone back in the day really thought they’d find themselves on the run from a chainsaw-wielding maniac or living in a haunted house that dripped blood from its walls. But now, in the environment of relentless ongoing random violence we’re all supposedly living in, we are supposed to fear things like, oh, having our children kidnapped by total strangers or getting blown up by terrorists or being eaten by killer sharks at the beach, even though such things happen only very, very rarely.
Or — as The Strangers wants to alarm you — being the victim of a home invasion. There you could be, just minding your own business in your own house, and suddenly, you’re being terrorized and tortured by a gang of psychopaths getting off on your pain and fear. Never mind that most violent crime, in the real world, is not random. Bring the dog in! Protect your kids! Lock your doors! Don’t look out the window! Don’t answer the doorbell! It’s better if you’re scared all the time, because, well, I don’t know. Apparently someone thinks it just is, because that’s what we’re living with.

Good thing The Strangers isn’t actually scary in the least, because then I might really have to off on a rant about how our entertainment overlords are conspiring with our government to keep us timid and afraid.

First-time writer-director Bryan Bertino really wants you thinking of the 70s: he opens his tale with one of those serious voiceover voices telling us this is all based on a true story (it isn’t) and throwing in the kind of detail that lends it that versimilitude. Like the date: February 11, 2005. Although the “horrifying events” that took place are “still not entirely known.” Scary, right?

Not so much, in fact. A handsome couple, James (Scott Speedman: XXX: State of the Union, Underworld) and Kristin (Liv Tyler: Reign Over Me, Lonesome Jim), are at his family’s vacation house in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night, when the doorbell rings. It’s 4am, and they’re still up because they’ve just returned from a wedding, where they apparently had some sort of fight and haven’t gotten to the apology (or breakup) part yet. On the doorstep is a girl whose face they can’t see — the porch light is out — who asks, “Is Tamara there?”

There’s no Tamara, of course, and there’s none of the ooga-booga Bertino clearly intends this pseudo-dramatic bit of dialogue to be. You can practically hear him crossing his fingers behind the camera, desperately wishing for this to become some sort of instantly classic movie line. You know, like instead of saying, “Landshark” or “Open up, it’s Dave, I got the stuff,” when someone behind a door asks, “Who is it?” we’ll all start saying, “Is Tamara there?”

Ain’t gonna happen.

The slow creepy menace continues — loud bangs on the doors, faces wearing masks at the window, that kind of thing — which just gives you plenty of time to think, Call the police, you idiots. And since it isn’t the 1970s but the 2000s, the menacers can’t merely cut the phone line — cell phones must be dealt with, which happens in ridiculous ways. Implausibility is built atop implausibility as the movie and the menace continues, but worst of all is how the attackers have no motive at all, so they can do anything… or so Bertino seems to think.

When a creepily masked invaders looms in the background behind one of our protagonists, who never even knows the invader is there, what purpose does that serve, within the context of the story? A victim who doesn’t know his or her doom is looming over him or her is not effectively terrorized thusly… which means the invader is there merely for our benefit, in the audience, as if the invader knows we’re watching. I’m not sure what purpose Bertino means that to serve, but it does remind us how phony the whole thing is.

MPAA: rated R for violence/terror and language

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb
  • Jason

    Wow, you sound like a profoundly bitter person. It’s one thing not to like a movie, (which I haven’t seen) and it’s another to tear it to pieces and not bring a single positive aspect to it. I’ve seen other reviewers give this an A, so I’m not sure how you could find zero redeeming qualities. It just makes you sound like an unhappy and unpleasant human.

  • Signal30

    That’s funny… to be accused of being bitter, unhappy and unpleasant for not enjoying a movie what comes across as Torture Porn-Lite.

    After the Indiana Jones review, I’m not exactly 100% with MaryAnn’s tastes (I thought it was a tired mess) so I’ll still go see this one (especially since it’s the only horror scheduled up until The Happening) but my tastes align with hers enough to suspect that she’s probably dead-on in this case.

  • WG

    Are you able to block people on this thing? I have to admit, I would read more comment boards if they weren’t populated by so many trolls like the above guy “Jason” anonymously wrecking the thread like the fat kid in 5th grade blurting out a swear word in order to halt the teacher. As a result it seems like a lot of your administrator posts are spent sparring with the rude tools rather than engaging in civilized debate over the film.

  • Joe

    Not sure if the movie is good or not, RottenTomatoes sure doesn’t like it, but Maryann’s review does seem more bitter than analytical. For example, her rant about the creepy fellow looming in the background while Liv Tyler frets unaware is pretty silly. It’s called suspense, Maryann. But don’t take it from me:
    “Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. … The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!” – Alfred Hitchcock

  • MaryAnn

    I can block people here, and I’m extremely hesitant to do so. I’m also very reluctant to ask people to leave and not return… but I have done that in a few cases.

    I’m not going to delete Jason’s comment or ask him not to post any others, unless he gets trollish. (I wouldn’t classify his comment as trolling, and actually I think it does reveal quite a bit about what people think about film critics.) But feel free to ignore him and start a discussion actually based on what I wrote.

  • MaryAnn

    Not sure if the movie is good or not, RottenTomatoes sure doesn’t like it, but Maryann’s review does seem more bitter than analytical.

    What on earth would I have to be bitter about?

    For example, her rant about the creepy fellow looming in the background while Liv Tyler frets unaware is pretty silly. It’s called suspense, Maryann.

    Oh, for pete’s sake: When a character onscreen does something that makes absolutely no sense whatsover within the context of the story, that is not “creating suspense.” It’s the director cheating. Your comparison with the bomb is in no way a valid one, and Hitchcock would hate this film.

  • Joe

    Hey, just wanted to point out that one way of creating suspense is to put a protagonist in a jeopardy they’re unaware of. You didn’t seem to think this was worthwhile:

    A victim who doesn’t know his or her doom is looming over him or her is not effectively terrorized thusly… which means the invader is there merely for our benefit, in the audience, as if the invader knows we’re watching. I’m not sure what purpose Bertino means that to serve, but it does remind us how phony the whole thing is.

    Hitchcock may well have hated this movie (and I might too), but it looks like a creepy little scene. In the larger context (which you’ve seen), perhaps it falls flat, a wasted opportunity. I’m arguing about the principle of suspense, not its execution in “The Strangers”.

  • MaryAnn

    But the protagonist is NOT in jeopardy at that moment. That’s the problem.

  • Joe

    There’s a masked, sociopathic killer that plans to torture her to death, whose crept into the same room with her… This must be some strange, new definition of the word “jeopardy” I wasn’t previously aware of. ; )

  • Jurgan

    Joe: Though I haven’t seen the movie, I think I know the reason your analogy falls flat. The “bomb under the table” exists for a clear reason- to kill the characters. Does the character in this movie “loom” in the background for any reason? What is he trying to accomplish? Is he spying on the protagonist? Is he trying to steal something from her? Is he trying to kill her? Suspense for the audience is great, but it’s secondary to story. If there’s no reason within the story for something to happen, then it’s just a cheap trick.

    “he opens his tale with one of those serious voiceover voices telling us this is all based on a true story (it isn’t) and throwing in the kind of detail that lends it that versimilitude”

    Curse John Laroquette for saddling us with that one.

    Your complaint acutally reminds me of another movie that was supposed to come out (I saw a preview for it in front of The Mist). It looked like a phony snuff film that was supposed to be real, but was pretty obviously not. The one thing I remember was that the events were “discovered” in September 2001. I remember thinking that that makes it plausible that people had never heard of these horrific crimes- other things were dominating the news at the time.

  • Jurgan, the movie you’re thinking of is The Poughkeepsie Tapes:


    It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, but has not been widely released anywhere yet. My recollection of the trailer was a feeling of “yeah, torture porn meets Blair Witch“. To which I say, “Pass!”

    As far as this movie goes, I respect the notion that evil people will sometimes do evil stuff, well, because they can. “Why are you doing this?” “Because you were home.” Evil doesn’t always have to have a motive, just opportunity. It’s as good a reason as any, and as a bonus it doesn’t require any explanation. It just is.

  • Jurgan

    The google informs me that the movie I was thinking of is called The Poughkeepsie Tapes, and apparently already came out. Looks like utter shit.

  • The Clayj is faster than the Google. ;-)

  • Joe

    Jurgan – my point is quite clear, that suspense can be created by putting a protagonist in a jeopardy which the audience is aware of, but which they themselves are not. It falls exactly in line with Hitchcock’s example.

    Does the character in this movie “loom” in the background for any reason? What is he trying to accomplish?

    ; ) I think the purpose of these characters (the masked sociopaths) is quite clear- they mean to kill the hapless couple. Apparently this is foreshadowed in the opening, so the only questions presented to the audience are When, Where and How.

  • MaryAnn

    suspense can be created by putting a protagonist in a jeopardy which the audience is aware of, but which they themselves are not.

    There’s no disputing that. But the bomb under the table does not have motives. A character looming in the background does… or should. And at that particular moment, this one does not.

  • Joe

    As I said to Jurgen, the purpose (motives) of these characters is clear, and from the foreshadowing they apparently succeed. The suspense their appearances are supposed to engender is from the audience wondering “Is this it? Does Liv Tyler die now? What’s going to happen”, etc.

    I’m not saying people should feel the suspense of this moment, as Maryann obviously did not. It could be (to me) a pretty boring movie, and in seeing the whole context of the scene we’ve been discussing I won’t feel any suspense at all, either because I don’t care about the characters, or the camerawork stinks, or a myriad of other reasons.

  • John

    I think the problem with the suspense analogy here is that the bad guys do not intend to kill the couple until after they have terrorized them for a long time.

    Since their intent is to terrify, looming in the shadows does nothing to accomplish their goals.

  • GoldsteinsBook

    I got this off of WikiPedia:

    “The movie is inspired by an event from the director, Bryan Bertino’s, childhood. A stranger came to his home asking for someone. Later, he found out that empty homes in the neighborhood had been robbed. With that memory in mind, Bertino created this, his debut screenplay.”

    It sort of reminds me of how the “actual events” that “inspired” Hostel was really just Eli Roth reading about some crap about Thailand in the internet.

  • MaryAnn

    And considering how young Bertino is, he probably *was* still in the throes of childhood in 2005!

  • Signal30

    I’m pretty sure that Bryan Bertino is thirty. Still Gen X, if you will.

  • okay. i have no idea how you thought this movie wasn’t scary. I almost peed. I thought it was a really good movie. the only thing i didn’t like about it was how they left the ending so open. also, they said it was based on true events. the only event this movie was based on is people being killed. but,actually, i enjoyed the movie was extremely good, and i would pay to ggo and see it again.

  • Signal30

    Actually, I was wrong… after seeing the flick, now I don’t think that MaryAnn was dead-on. In this case.

    Personally, I feel that it was a surprisingly effective piece of work, and that it evoked the essence of ’70s horror without being a hamfisted caricature (the way these things end up with Rob Zombie and Eli Roth).

    Speaking of those two, I also appreciated that when it could have went with the torture porn, it instead maintained restraint. If Bertino had eliminated all the f-bombs and pulled a PG-13 rating, this might have redeemed the concept of a PG-13 horror flick. As in, a PG-13 horror film that was actually scary.

    What I also found refreshing about it was that it was just a lean, mean horror machine. Sparse dialogue, sparse characterization and more than a little ambiguity. Sometimes ambiguity is nice. Most of the time I don’t need things spelled out for me like I just wandered away from listening to Rush Limbaugh.

    Not a lot of dead weight in the first act, just set up the protags and get the menace rolling in the first fifteen minutes (and I felt that the young couple were joined at a perfect moment, vulnerable and isolated while in the same car…thinking that they were at the worst moment of their lives, but still a short drive away).

    And while I generally don’t like loud noises used to get the jump out of the audience, it worked here. Probably because of the use of ambient noise and a sparse, minimalist soundtrack.

    As far as the first reveal of the invader looming behind Tyler? Sure, realistically it was sort of off, but cinematically it was pretty damned creepy. Well, judging from the reactions of my date and the rest of the audience. It didn’t work for me because, well… I saw the god-damned trailer. So I’m sitting there going, “Well, this is where that happens.”

    Glad it worked for the rest of the crowd, though. They must not have seen the poster for the movie… because marketing also uses that shot for the poster! Damn.

  • Jigsy Q.

    Remember when you were a kid swapping ghost stories with other kids, and it was the stupid kid’s turn? Being a moron he couldn’t really create tension or build suspense, so he would usually just use the direct approach: “you’re walking in the woods at midnight and then… Frankenstein jumps out and chops your head off!! The end.” Well that’s what every American horror movie seems to have become these days.

  • Hdj

    I cant stand people ranting about torture porn and how pg-13 can actually be scary.
    I didn’t need Maryann’s review to tell me this movie lacks suspense and why it wasn’t scary. Though I did read it and every word is basically my impression of how the trailer perceived me.
    One , the bad guys or bad kids look like the archetype of what Marilyn Manson’s kids are going to look like.
    Two, based on the scenes were only the audience knows the person is in danger, isn’t scary because its been done to death , dating back to Michael Myers.
    Three its PG-13, lets face it if you don’t have an R rating you can loosen up to the fact there wont be to many F bombs , heated scenes, or intense blood baths.These so called bloodless pg-13 horror movies just keep racking up, along with these watered down remakes of 80’s slashers.
    Four, who is this guy Bertino guy? They probably thought he was Joseph Gordon-Levitt, well i think they look alike. Anyways who is he , like normally horror directors have to do some sorta mini horror for exposure.
    Five this movie looks like Halloween meets Vacancy, and that really sums up why I wont be seeing this flick.
    Looks like were have to wait for Halloween for a good scary movie, naturally thats how it works,I know the summers bad for horror films but what I wanna know Isn’t time for another Hostel movie?

  • Oddly enough, this past weekend’s Doctor Who episode proved that you don’t really need more than a PG-13 rating to come with material that’s genuinely scary.

    But for all I know, Hdj probably hated The Others and The Sixth Sense, two movies that proved the same thing as well.

    To each his own.

    Isn’t it time for another Hostel movie?

    No, it isn’t.

  • Dan W

    Just saw movie yesterday. I got hooked from the start…I thought it was based on true events. Does anybody know any websites that tell about what really happened? I’d like to know what was true and what wasn’t. There were times I gave out a scary: “whoa look out” and jumped in my seat. I did like it but ending left me thinking: “you kidding me…what the?” Did Liv Tyler die? Never really explained where killers came from or show their faces.

  • Fayla

    I thought the movie, The Strangers was very scary. I would be afraid if these people showed up at my house and I were alone.
    I thought it had great suspense and was very creepy!!!
    I would even give it another viewing, so I think it was very well done!!!

  • MaryAnn

    Does anybody know any websites that tell about what really happened?

    Nothing really happened. The movie is not based on a real event.

  • It’s supposed to be based on the Charles Manson murders at Keddie Resort, they probably didn’t do a good job basing it of that- it was probably all for hype that they said it is… I haven’t seen it, but I don’t get why people make crap like this, it is kind of demeaning to make “entertainment” supposedly about a true story, but then have it suck and serve no other purpose than to poke fun or make light of an event.

  • Eric

    Well, if THE STRANGERS was torture porn then it was very softcore, because there were very few splattery money shots and they didn’t even show the climactic deaths.

    I saw it at a sold out show where they had several guards actively kicking out the under 17 crowd that was trying to sneak in. The audience went absolutely bugshit. I mean screaming, laughing, yelling at the screen. This was the definition of a film experience that you cannot get on dvd. I say see this at a crowded showing and let it raise the hackles on your neck. Director Bryan Bertino has got game and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

  • Eric

    Bryan Bertino, the writer/director said in an interview that he was inspired by THE KEDDIE CABIN MURDERS and the Manson cult activity of “Creepy Crawling” where members were instructed to break into random homes and carry out various tasks, this ultimately lead to the famous murders which included Sharon Tate. To be honest there is not a whole lot connecting this to the real events, but this is also true of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE which was very loosely inspired by serial killer Ed Gein.

  • Hdj

    -Kruger “The Others” and “Sixth Sense” are a thing of years past. It’s very hard to make a scary ghost movie, its event harder to make a believable ghost movie.
    Like those shows like Ghost hunters or paranormal state its all fake, its not real. When people on the show freak out ,its stupid things like cob webs and bats.
    Pg-13 is usually only good for a rare surprise scare that no one expects. Recently they’ve been making movies like ” Prom Night” and ” When a stranger calls” to make really bad unscary pg-13 horror movies. And “The Strangers” from the feedback it has been getting, and from the looks of the trailer I’m not betting on this movie being one of those rare surprises.

    I’m actually a huge fan of M. Night and I haven’t missed any of his movies since the sixth Sense.
    If you look at the rating of is new movie its R.
    Maybe you didn’t like Hostel, but I can find more then a hand full of people who did.

  • Jim

    I liked The Strangers but there were holes in the movie. Like the final scene when the killers drive by the Christian kids: their truck has no sign of damage at all when just an hour before, it repeatedly rammed into Scott Spellman’s car. And, when the killers made all that noise outside the house, moving things around, scraping, smashing stuff on the front porch, when Liv Tyler opens the door, nothing in the front porch or yard is moved or tipped over.
    Continuity issues beside, it was an effectively scary film based on events that happened in Cabin 28 at the Keddie Campsite in Northern California.

  • Josh

    I wasn’t very impressed by the movie.
    Though in all fairnes I thought it was kind of clever that James is the one to kill his friend. It all went downhill from there though. Like what happened to James for the entire movie between the time he left for the barn, and when he comes crashing through the window? And why are the christian kids so damn calm walking into the aftermath at the end of the movie, just chillin with the corpses, when at the beginning they’re crying on the phone? Maybe theres some significance of Kristin waking up for one last scream?

  • kumar

    well this movie left me with a lot of unanswered questions such as what really did happen? I know this movie is based on true events but how really similar is the movie compared to the actual murder?
    I enjoyed the movie but a lot of things were just too confusing to leave the theatre with a “WOW” that was really scary.

  • MaryAnn

    It’s not based on true events.

    Did you actually read my review, or any of the comments here?

  • sharon

    OMG!!! What is this guy talking about!!This is one of the scariest movies that i have ever seen!!!I love scarey movies and this was just nuts. I think what makes this so scarey to me, is the simple fact that this can and has happened. I mean come on, who hasnt been home and thought what was that noise, and then pulled the covers over their heads. I think if you even like scarey movies an ounce, you should see this movie. Ok so on the second hand what about the fact that this movie was based on actual events

  • MaryAnn

    Oh, for the 18 thousandth time, this movie is not based on actual events.

  • Zahon
  • Angela

    I’ve not seen the film yet as it’s only just being advertised here in the UK.

    However, the trailer and synopsis you’re discussig sounds very much like a French film ‘Ils’ where a couple in a remote house are threatened, chased and tortured by a bunch of kids. Only, these kids supposedly did it becasue the couple wouldn’t play with them as opposed to just because they were home …

    …is this supposed to be an English Language remake? Or is it just similar ? The UK trailer looks quite good but if I’ve seen the French one which was really jumpy – I’m wondering if it’s worth a trip to the cinema ? It looks really promising from the trailer and I like the concept of it, just wondered if I would go and find too many similarities with ‘Ils’.

    Any views from the US? Cheers!

  • MaryAnn

    There’s no mention anywhere of this being a remake. It’s just unoriginal. :->

  • bobby

    you’re not much of a writer are you?

  • MaryAnn

    Whom are you addressing, bobby, and what do you mean by your statement?

  • Beck

    I really enjoyed The Strangers.
    I Think that people occasionally like the feeling of contolled fear.
    The film accomplished just that. It didn’t use cheap tricks and alot of gore. The affect of the music and camera angles did the trick.

    It left me feeling hunted.
    The senseless motive and the unanswered questions made me leave the theatre thinking about the movie for weeks.
    I wanted more, “did she live”, “why did they do it” and “what would make someone do something like that”.
    Lets face it…these things do happen in the real world.

    It was the scarist movie I have seen in a long time. And who cares if there was no point to the bag headed man standing in the hall, It scared the shit out of me…and look the story may not have been true but hey it still gets you thinking..and isn’t it a movies job to entertain??

    I think overall good job…hey its got us all talking about it.

    also I think that it remined me a bit of the manson murders. mind games…freaky.

  • Ingrid

    well i’ve just been to see the movie this week, though was unsure cause it’s had so many bad reviews, but i’m glad i did, it was the best horror i’ve seen for a while, and i jumped more than 5 x which is not the norm for me, well worth a watch will be getting it on dvd when it’s realsed in the UK

  • MaryAnn

    Methinks the studio trolls are checking in, trying to drum up interest for the DVD release.

    Or else people are waaaay easily scared.

  • Ral

    Who cares if this movie isn’t or is based on true events? (Although it did state it was “inspired by” not a remake of actual events.
    I have not seen a film that actually really scared me for a long time and the strangers did the trick.
    I think the unclear ending added to the feel of the film, (seeing as everyone is discussing it), as you can all take away something different from it.
    And anyway the whole point of a scary film is to be jumpy, unpredictable and engage the audience’s full attention which it did. Once the film finished i did not recall one person who didn’t say “that was really scary”, or “i’m staying over your house tonight” or words to that effect.
    I would definitely recommend it to others or see it again myself.

  • Methinks the studio trolls are checking in, trying to drum up interest for the DVD release.

    Or else people are waaaay easily scared.
    –MaryAnn Johanson

    Which naturally reminds me of this quote:

    I know where I came from – but where did all you zombies come from?
    –Robert Heinlein, “All You Zombies”

    Not that I’m implying that anyone else on this site is a zombie but still…

    I doubt I’m the only sci-fi buff here who gets the reference.

    As for the movie, anyone else here disappointed by author Stephen King’s endorsement of this movie in one of his recent columns for Entertainment Weekly? Frankly, I haven’t taken his opinion on movies seriously since he endorsed Dawn of the Dead ’04 but still as a former King fan who still recommends the hell out of King’s Danse Macabre and On Writing, I did found it disappointing. He also praised The Happening as well.

    * Sigh. *

  • MaryAnn

    Frankly I can’t believe anyone’s still reading *EW.* :->

    the whole point of a scary film is to be jumpy, unpredictable and engage the audience’s full attention which it did.

    Ah, thanks for explaining, Ral. I never did get the whole point of scary movies, but now I understand. I loved it. It was much better than *Cats.* I’m going to see it again and again.

  • Frankly I can’t believe anyone’s still reading *EW.* :->

    I don’t suppose it would improve my credibility to note I usually only read it while I’m waiting in the dentist’s office.

  • MBI

    I am really honestly surprised anyone can just dismiss this movie out of hand as ineffective. I’m not endorsing it, understand — what starts out as sharp and terrifying ends as simply bleak and ugly and depressing, but seriously, what kind of a person could just scoff at it? Jeez.

    Stephen King (and for that matter, the Flick Filosopher) are totally right about Dawn of the Dead ’04, for the record.

  • MaryAnn

    I’m surprised anyone can just call this movie “sharp and terrifying” out of hand. What kind of person would do that?

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