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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

THE STRANGERS -- DVD review by porfle

Remember that famous shot from the original HALLOWEEN in which Jamie Lee Curtis is standing in a dark doorway, and Michael's masked face slowly materializes behind her?  

THE STRANGERS (2008) wants to extend that same creepy chill for its entire running time, and in large part it succeeds.

After leaving a friend's wedding reception, James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler) return to his family's secluded lakefront vacation house late at night, obviously in the midst of a wrenchingly emotional relatonship crisis.

It seems James just popped the question and Kristen responded with the old "I'm just not ready" routine, and now things between them are, to say the least, strained.

 But just as they begin to engage in what promises to be some hot, impulsive makeup sex in the livingroom...there's a knock at the door. Answering it, they find a strange young girl standing in the dark, her face obscured as she says simply: "Is Tamara home?"

This is the point where nothing in the lives of James and Kristen will ever be the same again, and THE STRANGERS begins its grueling descent into sheer terror. It's one of those horror films with a simple storyline riddled with various cliches of the genre, and the main interest comes from seeing how imaginatively the filmmakers tweak these cliches and feed them back to us.

A silent intruder, wearing one of those eerily bland masks, keeps entering the frame behind our main characters. Avenues of escape or contact with the outside world are cut off one by one, and cell phones suddenly become unreliable. James says "Wait here" and disappears, leaving Kristen alone. Kristen, of course, eventually falls while running and sprains her ankle.

And there's the old nailbiter that has her cowering in a closet, watching through the slats while the killer slowly searches the room and casts ominous looks in her direction. Even the old hand-grabbing-the-shoulder routine, a staple of 50s B-movies, is shamelessly revived. None of this is a problem for me, though--I like seeing new life breathed into old cliches if it's done well.

With a big-name cast and fine production values at his disposal, first-time writer-director Bryan Bertino has crafted an unusually stylish slasher flick that looks way better than most films of its kind (the cinematography is especially sumptuous during the early scenes) and he knows how to handle the scary stuff.

 Scott Speedman is a strong, sympathetic presence as James, while Liv Tyler not only handles the drama well but also proves to be an excellent screamer. The killers (there are three) are an interesting mix of the familiar and the inexplicably strange--I don't want to describe them in much detail, but the senseless, arbitrary nature of their attack is unsettling. And in addition to an ominous musical score, the sound design is highly effective from that very first hollow knock at the door.

The DVD is 2.35:1 anomorphic widescreen with Dolby 5.1 sound; both are very good. In addition to two minor deleted scenes, a featurette entitled "The Elements of Terror" gives us an interesting look at the making of the film. Both the theatrical and unrated versions are included, although there's little discernible difference between the two except for an extra scene near the end which is interesting but contains no added violence. Subtitles are in English, Spanish, and French.

What THE STRANGERS does very well is to isolate its main characters in a nightmarish, hopeless situation and then make us experience every minute of fear and panic with them. There's a high level of suspense throughout, with some scenes almost unbearably tense. And it all leads to a final sequence that is both sad and depressingly inevitable. By no means the feelgood movie of the year, THE STRANGERS gleefully tapdances on whatever fears of home invasion you may have ever entertained.


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