There's a fine line between making a film about nothing, and a film which amounts to nothing. 'The Strangers' straddles this line precariously, always on the verge of teetering over to one side -- the wrong side. That the horror genre has always been simplistic by nature due to its rigid rules and conventions (especially films like this, whose stories involve few characters and a single, isolated location), doesn't help the film's case. Here's a movie that deals with such mean-spirited and morally suspect subject matter that it needs a strong, assertive central creative vision to elevate it above the merely exploitative. It almost makes it.
The plot of 'The Strangers' is deliberately minimal. Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman play John and Kristen, an unhappily married couple who drive out to an isolated cottage in the hopes of reconciling their differences. As soon as they've settled in and night has fallen, a trio of strangers show up to harass and terrorize them. What follows is an exacting game of cat and mouse, as the Strangers torment John and Kristen to lengths which, even for a hardened exploitation movie fan like me, were surprising in their intensity and maliciousness. These Strangers mean business, and they don't intend to leave any survivors.
And that's it -- the plot is no more and no less. 'The Strangers' is a bit of a tease with it's initial slow build -- the opening scenes are genuinely ominous and foreboding, always hinting at something shocking to come. First-time helmer Bryan Bertino initially appears to be influenced only by the grindhouse films of the '70s, the ones that today's horror filmmakers continue to be so enamored with. But he quickly weaves in nods to Alfred Hitchcock ('The Strangers' remains relatively bloodless, allowing us to imagine far more than we actually see) as well as the more esoteric European sensibilities of early Roman Polanski (particularly 'Repulsion') and Michael Powell's 'Peeping Tom.' Bertino's sense of tonal balance is sometimes off -- is this an art film, or a horror film? -- but the effect is nevertheless unsettling. His refusal to rush things, his visual acumen, and the effective use of silence as suspense-building tool, are all refreshing given the bang-it-over-your-head tendencies of modern genre cinema.
Bertino (who also wrote the script) also pares down his three strangers to the point that they are ciphers. If nothing else, they are certainly not your garden-variety horror-movie serial killers. These motiveless thrill-seekers are chilling precisely because they seem to have no rhyme or reason to their sadistic glee. The sense of hopeless that permeates the film is disturbing. James and Kristen are not your typical horror movie idiots who make all the wrong choices, but rather their choices don't matter at all. No amount of reasoning with their attackers will save them, and they are decidedly outnumbered and outsmarted. 'The Strangers' is nasty not because it's particularly brutal or visceral, but so hell bent on rubbing our noses in its nihilistic worldview. I won't spoil the film's eventual outcome, but it is sure to polarize viewers -- which at least makes it challenging.
Unfortunately, for all the skill with which Bertino modulates the film's tightly-wound scares, ultimately he has little to say about his characters, his killers or even the genre itself. The facelessness of the Strangers is the film's initial blessing but eventual curse. There is simply damn near no point to the proceedings, unless the creation of unease in the audience is the goal. On that level -- purely as an exercise in suspense -- 'The Strangers' works. As a lasting statement on anything, or even a B-movie with a hint of emotional resonance, it fails. Which is unfortunate, because Bertino is a talented filmmaker who, if he finds more complex material, can surely deliver a film that offers both style and substance.
Universal presents 'The Strangers' in 1080p/VC-1 video, framed at 2.35:1. It's an excellent presentation, one that showcases difficult material in fine fashion.
As the majority of 'The Strangers' takes place in the last remaining hours before dawn, it's a relentlessly dark film. The source is pristine, with terrific deep, rich blacks. Shadow delineation is superlative here, with even the darkest shadows still revealing fine, intricate textures. The color palette veers towards a somewhat brownish, grindhouse '70s feel, but the slickness of the photography nicely balances out the grit. Colors are stable and well-saturated, and fleshtones are generally accurate. The image also provides nice depth throughout, with a strong three-dimensional appearance and nicely-balanced contrast. The encode is sharp as a tack as well. 'The Strangers' looks great.
A DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/24-bit) is provided here, and it's the equal of the video. This is a truly unnerving soundtrack, one that will give you goosebumps even if you cover your eyes for the whole flick.
Most impressive is the sustained sense of dread. 'The Strangers' is quite subtle in its use of silence, with only location and ambient sounds gently floating in the surrounds to unnerve us. Discrete effects occasionally clang out of the rears as well, and they often made me jump right off the couch. Tech specs are top notch, with rich and full-bodied dynamic range and strong low bass. The minimal score is also nicely bleed all around, for a consistently immersive experience. Dialogue is well recorded and always finely balanced in the mix. 'The Strangers' is an excellent horror movie soundtrack.
Is Universal planning a double dip of 'The Strangers?' How else to explain such a lame batch of supplements?
'The Strangers' is a well-crafted exercise in suspense, if an emotionally hollow experience. I can't deny I was often on the edge of my seat, but damn if I could find a reason for the film to exist. There is no doubt that this Blu-ray delivers excellent video and audio, though the extras are surprisingly lacking. 'The Strangers' is well worth a rental for horror fans, though I can't help but wish the film was a bit more ambitious in meaning and rich in theme.