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.