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May 30, 2008

Despite promise, film estranged from originality

[img id="80666" align="alignleft"] Supposedly, The Strangers is "inspired by true events." A voice-over at the beginning of the film gravely intones: "The horrifying event...[of] February 11, 2005 is still not entirely known"—implying that this film will, for the first time, shed light on a still-unresolved mystery. After exhaustive research—five minutes on Google—I'm inclined to say that the movie was inspired by true events in the same way that, say, Iron Man was: The only references I could find to these supposed "true events" came from online buzz about the movie itself.

The film follows the first voice-over with a second—a taped 911 call—while we see two young boys looking through the open door of a blood-filled house. Then the movie jumps back in time to when James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler) are driving in the wee hours of the night to a small house in the middle of nowhere. Judging by the look on James's face and the tears in Kristen's eyes, one might think that they too saw the opening scene and know their gruesome fates.

In fact, the couple is unhappy because James just proposed to Kristen—and she declined. The dynamic between the pair is compelling without being overdrawn. Perhaps the best compliment to the backstory of any scary movie is that the viewer is genuinely curious about what would have happened if the characters' lives had continued normally. At the same time, the beginning of The Strangers is refreshingly concise; we spend only about 15 minutes on character development, followed by an hour of unrelenting horror.

Kristen needs cigarettes; James needs to go for a drive. So he leaves, and then the strange stuff starts happening: Kristen's cell phone disappears, and the fire alarm goes off; people begin banging on the doors and windows; the phone line appears to be cut; Kristen sees someone wearing a scarecrow-type mask. James eventually returns, and it's not particularly difficult to imagine what happens from there. One of the movie's biggest problems is that it chooses to follow Tyler's Kristen, who is much less compelling than Speedman's James.

Kristen is annoyingly incompetent in the way females in horror movies are required to be: She screams a lot, cowers in the bedroom, selects a peeling knife as her weapon of choice, and makes a lot of other stupid decisions. Tyler adequately does her job of looking pretty and being scared, but the script simply doesn't make her character at all interesting.

By contrast, James acts as if he may have seen a few horror movies himself: He's competent and savvy, but only to an extent that seems realistic. Speedman even makes the most of his rare lines of dialogue. At one point, the couple finds a gun, but James admits that he doesn't know how to shoot it. This confession prompts Kristen to ask about all the times he had gone hunting with his father. "That was just something I told you," Speedman deadpans ruefully.

The Strangers is genuinely scary, but it tips its hand too early. The opening scene seems to remove any hope of the couple's survival. More problematically, the same techniques are used over and over to get the viewer to flinch. For example, the audience constantly sees a bad guy lurking near one of characters—none of whom has any peripheral vision!—as they continue to stare straight ahead obliviously. Another favorite is the villain-pretends-to-go-away-but-returns-dramatically-seconds-later tactic. But even though as often as not, you know exactly what's about to happen, most of the time you get scared—at least I did. Perhaps that's a credit to the film, or maybe it's just a strike against my nerves.

Like most horror movies, the final scenes disappoint. Near the end, the three villains simultaneously take off their masks—though, annoyingly, the viewers don't get to see their faces. At that point, I was forgetting the title of the film, hoping for a revelation. Maybe one of the now-unmasked characters would explain, "You bullied me in third grade. This is revenge." I don't know­—viewers deserved some kind of explanation.

Near the last scene, Liv Tyler's character asks, "Why are you doing this?" and one of them responds, "Because you were home." The murderers have no motive—is this some sort of broad indictment of society? A wink-and-a-nod commentary on other horror films? If so, it was lost on me, and the final scene with the murderers is particularly unsatisfactory.

In a similar way, the movie fails to provide a good reason for anyone to go see it. Sure, it makes you jump a few times, you care a little bit about the characters, and the leads are good-looking enough—but that's about it. If you do end up seeing it, ask yourself, "Why did you go?" And, of course, the film would suggest that you glibly answer, "Because it was showing."