Movie News & Reviews

The Strangers scares, but climax falls short

These days, my favorite movies to go see are the ones where I haveabsolutely no idea whether they're going to shine like the sky or sucklike a suck-monster.

Textbook example: the trailer for The Strangers. Creepy ashell, yeah, but it also had that scene where the trio of maskedassailants stand over their victims like a posse of J-horror rejectsdressing down their victims about not appreciating their comfysuburban lives.

Utter scarefest? Or 90 minutes of foolish nonsense? Horror moviesare often so bad hitting the eject button on your remote will spit theDVD directly into the trash, but sometimes they surprise you. It'sthat hunt for the proverbial unopened Ding Dong in that vast landfillof uninspired horror trash that makes it all worthwhile.

The Strangers' plot is about as straightforward as it gets: ona late night, Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman head to a rural house.It's supposed to be a romantic getaway, but their relationship hasjust gone on the rocks.

Right before Speedman leaves to pick Tyler up some cigarettes, a girlcomes knocking, looking for a friend who isn't there. WhileSpeedman's out, someone knocks again. Rougher. Aggressive. It isn'tuntil several minutes after a hooded man's snuck into the house thatTyler realizes her cell phone's stolen and that, though Speedman'sstill gone, she's in no way alone.

Good Lord, I got creeped out again just thinking about it. TheStrangers is primally, bowels-liquefyingly scary. I don't tossthat out lightly — out of the hundreds of horror movies I've seen,there's maybe five or six that spook me out so bad I spend the nextfew nights scared to go outside and thinking, in the few moments I canspare between glances over my shoulder, about what I would doif attacked by terrifying monsters and madmen. In real life, ofcourse, I'm scared by everything from needles to heavy traffic, but asfar as movies go, they rarely drum up the kind of animal terror thatwould be embarrassing if it weren't also so damn real.

First-time writer/director Bryan Bertino accomplishes this throughmasterful pacing, a minimum of musical cues, and top-notch soundediting. That, and drawing out the suspense until you twist yourlimbs so far into the theater seat's armrests you becomeindistinguishable from human ivy.

Yet some people are deriding The Strangers for being anunoriginal home invasion story. Like that means anything at all — ifsomeone made a movie about the Three Blind Mice, and that movie was soscary I could no longer see white canes or oversized sunglasseswithout dropping a brick out my pant leg, I don't think I'd care ifI'd read something similar when I was six years old. Sometimes it'snot about the story, it's about how you tell it. Bertino'sdirectorial skills? They pay the bills.

Things do slow down in the chase-heavy third act, though. It's true Iwas long out of adrenaline (as well as several other bodilysubstances) at that point, but it just doesn't have the samepropulsive terror behind it. And rather than capping everythingthat's led up to it, the ending just kind of happens; intentional ornot, that lack of resolution simply isn't satisfying.

Not to say it's a bad ending, only that it doesn't live up to thesanity-pummeling terror of that first hour. In recent years, horrordirectors with a knockout debut have gone on to some pretty shoddyfollowups. With any luck, Bertino's going to go on scaring thebejesus out of us for years to come.

Grade: B+