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The Strangers

The following review is based upon true events. Every opinion written has come from actually sitting through The Strangers. That runs counter to the movie itself, which claims a root in truth it simply couldn't have.

That's not to say it isn't without scares. Director Bryan Bertino has a sense of patience that serves suspense well. However, he's also working extremely hard to cover up for the flaws of the screenwriter, coincidentally himself. Aside from having created that somewhat scary question and answer: "Why are you doing this to us?" "Because you were home", Bertino resorts to mostly clichéd dialogue and unexplained behavior. Some of that is meant to be chilling, but eventually, it just gets tiresome.

It begins with a stentorian voice-over giving crime statistics. Since we've seen and heard that device in several bad slasher movies, let's all just admit that means a movie's sinking before it even begins. Then the voice-over admits that what happened to James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) and Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) isn't really known. So let's give in to ninety minutes or so of as creepy speculation as we possibly can.

What we do know is that Bertino dances around this being the night they would have broken up. Rose petals litter the floors of James' country house, in hopes that Kristen would have accepted his marriage proposal. Despite flashbacks of happiness and loving looks, she said no, leaving the two for an uncomfortably silent weekend in the country.

If only that strange blonde girl hadn't knocked on the door and asked "Is Tamara here?"

Okay, so that gives the script two genuinely creepy moments, because for some reason, the name Tamara evokes psychotic ghosts in my mind. Apologies to all readers named Tamara; I'm sure that none of you give off ectoplasm. Nor does anyone in this movie, as the horror is all supposed to be real.

For a while, and again, it's testament to Bertino's patience, the horror does all come from a legitimate sense of the unknown. A frightened Kristen wanders around the house after sending James out for cigarettes - in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the night - and many of the jumps and chills could be in her own head. Then the guy in the gunny sack mask steps out behind her and…

Well, there's where things move effectively even as they fall apart. The audience gets freaked out, but eventually this bizarre game of standing behind the victim becomes rote. Why it doesn't make sense is that it's done for our benefit, not for any one's in the film, thus knocking us out of what effective reality Bertino wants to create. Perhaps the title should have been The Mindeffers, except that despite Kristin's fear, the strangers aren't doing nearly as much to her as they are to us.

Still, they play a couple of nifty tricks, though Bertino misses a couple of possibilities when a third relative innocent (Glenn Howerton) enters the scene. Eventually, Bertino and the killers run out of things to do. Once the creepy masks play out, it becomes a game of "oh, yeah, we forgot about this detail."

Suddenly the house has a lonely, wind-blown swing set. When Kristin trips in front of it, you just know that means we're suddenly going to see one of the killer dolls swinging lazily in it. Midway through, the gunny sack face develops asthma - a nice touch, but one that feels like an afterthought when just standing menacing isn't enough. (Few people realize this, but Jason Voorhees suffers from gout.)

If this had been a short film, it would have been terrific. Of course, short horror films don't really play in this market, but it could work. Bertino manages to achieve a lot without any gore, so that when blood finally does spatter, it seems like a sop to audience expectations. By that time, blood and bone offer only cheap thrills.

So Bryan Bertino may be a director to watch. It would be interesting to see him on something with a little more heft to it, instead of just cheap thrills that can all be spoiled in a movie poster and a two-minute trailer. And if you've seen those, you've seen all you need to of The Strangers.

Derek McCaw

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