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The Strangers [DVD]

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Caffeinated Clint
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Clint is the creator, editor and maintainer of Moviehole.

By Adam Frazier

You know what that means? It means a few things, actually. First, it means the events you are about to see depicted on celluloid didn’t happen at all – at least not as one inclusive story. The film you are about to see may contain an amalgam of factual events, while offering several stylized and completely fictional scenes that the filmmaker has chosen to enhance the story and make those true events even more frightening.

It’s a great marketing tool that several classic films have used, such as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” While Leatherface didn’t go on a killing spree in Texas with his signature chainsaw, real killers such as Ed Gein and Charles Manson inspired his blood-splattered cinematic debut.

This is the case with writer/director Bryan Bertino’s feature film, “The Strangers,” a truly terrifying film starring Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman. In the vein of John Larroquette’s iconic narration of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “The Strangers” opens with a similar, unsettling advisory:

“According to the F.B.I. there are an estimated 1.4 million violent crimes in America each year. On the night of February 11, 2005 Kristen McKay and James Hoyt went to a friend’s wedding reception and returned to the Hoyt family’s summer home. The brutal events that took place there are still not entirely known.”

The film’s premise is, in fact, inspired by a ‘true event’ from Bryan Bertino’s childhood, where a stranger came to his home asking for someone. Later, he found out that empty homes in the neighborhood had been robbed. With that memory in mind, Bertino created his debut screenplay, which also borrows from elements of the Charles Manson murders.

Soon after that disquieting advisory, we are introduced to Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) and James Hoyt (Scott Speedman), a young couple who have just pulled up to the Hoyt summer home. It’s idyllic and isolated, perfect for a romantic getaway. As the opening stated, the couple just spent the evening at a friend’s wedding reception, which prompted James to pop the question to his girl right then and there.

The result, however, wasn’t as planned. Kristen crushed James’s dreams when she confessed marriage wasn’t in the cards just yet. You get the idea that the car ride from the reception to the Hoyt summer home wasn’t a pleasant one. James is frustrated and Kristen is beautifully broken with tears (and mascara) running down her cheeks as they pull in the driveway.

After coming to an amicable resolution about what to do with the rest of the weekend, Kristen takes a bath while James loosens his tie and drowns his sorrows with ice cream. After she finishes her bath, Kristen joins James in the kitchen where their conversation is interrupted by a knock on the door. It’s 4:05 a.m. and they’re in the middle of nowhere, who could be on the other side of the door?

James reluctantly answers the door only to find a young blonde teenaged girl who simply asks, “Is Tamara there?” James explains that she must have the wrong house, and that Tamara isn’t there. The girl asks, “Are you sure?” and it’s at this moment that you know something isn’t quite right.

After calming down from the slightly creepy incident that just happened, James runs to the store to get some cigarettes for Kristen, as she can’t sleep without them. Kristen is left in a home all alone, and is startled once again by a knock on the door. Kristen doesn’t dare open it, but asks, “Who is it?” The reply is, “Is Tamara there?”

The chills start their slalom up and down my spine. It’s at this moment where I said to myself, “It’s just a movie.” I tried to force this realization into my brain, along with the facts about ‘true events’ but was unable to resist being fully engrossed by the film’s excruciatingly ambient atmosphere.

James eventually returns to the house with cigarettes in hand to find Kristen in a panicked state. She explains to James that someone must be in the house and that strange girl asking for Tamara visited her once more.

Unfortunately for James and Kristen, the knocks at the door and strange noises outside are only the beginning. We soon learn that two other strangers who insist on wearing strange masks join the girl. One, a young woman, is decked out in a “Pinup Girl” mask while the man, complete with suit and tie, is wearing a burlap bag over his head.

The events that follow, while not entirely true, are completely terrifying. I haven’t been this truly scared (and satisfied) with a horror movie since I was just a kid, watching movies I wasn’t allowed to see late at night on cable.

Though this is his first full-length feature, Bertino masterfully uses atmosphere, and ambient sound to create a tangible sense of fear. The deliberate stillness and silence of the film heightens the thunderous knocks and slamming doors. The pacing builds in conjunction with the suspense, elevating the watcher to a whole new level of horror.

“The Strangers” isn’t that original. It feels a lot like John Carpenter’s “Halloween” and the aforementioned “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and most recently “Funny Games.” There are a lot of horror clichés peppered throughout the film, like a girl grabbing a butcher knife from the kitchen drawer, but each one is done so well it feels less formulaic and more like an homage.

Despite its inherent inspiration from true events and those old horror classics, “The Strangers” is a masterful exercise in creating fear with nothing more than atmosphere. There are no cheap tricks in this movie, and Bertino goes to great lengths to make you care for the characters and keep you involved with the peril playing out on the screen.

Throughout my viewing experience of “The Strangers,” screams and gasps littered the theater like bits of buttered popcorn stuck to the floor. Every bone in my left hand was pulverized to dust as my girlfriend, who isn’t so fond of horror movies, proceeded to squeeze my hand without mercy throughout every scene.

I certainly recommend “The Strangers” for anyone in search of a good scare, and especially those horror lovers out there. It’s a real horror film, and the scariest thing is that there aren’t more of these movies anymore. We’re too busy overdosing audiences with buckets of blood and gore and cutting corners around storytelling and suspense.

Extras

Not a lot on here, but what is on here is pretty interesting – there’s a comprehensive making-of, as well as as a bunch of deleted scenes.

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Clint is the creator, editor and maintainer of Moviehole.

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