Film reviews and more since 2009

The Strangers (2008) review

Dir. Bryan Bertino

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★★

Even by the standard of horror movie plots, it’s hard to find one much more slender than that of The Strangers, a competent, frequently unnerving chiller that rocked festival-goers and the mainstream public when it was released ten years ago. The story revolves around a couple (Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler) who shack up at his remote summer home after a friend’s wedding reception. They’re both exhausted and irritable, and their own relationship is on the brink of collapse. The two soon find themselves stalked and terrorized by three masked individuals who are circling their otherwise cozy home. At one point, he leaves to go to the gas station and she is all by herself when she finds out she’s being watched. By the time he returns home, the two both realize they’re going to need to fight back if they want to see another day.

The Strangers is at its most impressive thematically. The film goes against the traditional subtext of slasher films, which suggested — by their very nature — that young people who engaged in illicit behavior would be punished by Jason’s machete or Michael Myers’ butcher knife. Of course going out to a party and drinking isn’t quite the transgression in and of itself, but these were the eighties, after all. In the case of The Strangers, however, our two characters have done nothing explicitly wrong. The minimalist drama we see unfold directly impacts them and them only as we can infer he popped up the question too early or perhaps sees their relationship dissolving quicker than he could offer any kind of kneejerk solution. Both characters are indiscriminate enough to have ostensibly been cherrypicked from a totally different, dramatic film, in the midst of their own conflict before being dropped into one at the hands of a new writer/director.

Bryan Bertino is the man behind The Strangers, and despite any directorial experience under his belt prior to this film, one can easily tell from the conceit that this was a project he had in mind for some time. Again, however, his most impressive move is to make The Strangers not simply a one-dimensional experience but a contemplative one as well. Masking the film’s rather ordinary sense of cinematography and fleeting suspense are ideas of murder, something that has undergone a big change in terms of optics. Murder is no longer broadly seen as premeditated and carefully orchestrated in most cases, if it ever was. The ubiquity of crime miniseries, Netflix docudramas, and 24 hour news shows us that murder can often be random and without justification. Done for fun. Done for kicks. Conduced with no real motivation other than to wreak havoc and cause widespread unrest in a community or neighborhood.

Bertino makes The Strangers take a step further, not only confirming some of our unspoken suspicions about murder in the 21st century, but subverting our most romanticized notions about simple, country living. One would understandably assume heading out some place remote, in the rural countryside, would remove you from the common perils of the city (you can almost see sociologists across America wince at the idea that murder is exclusively an urban problem). But in conjunction with depicting murder has something random and without explicit motivation, Bertino uproots the story from where we assume it would take place. Not in a vertical city. Not in the woods that are rumored to be haunted or cursed. In the rural flatlands of America.

On the basis that The Strangers made me think about all of this during it short runtime, I’m giving it three stars. As a horror film, I don’t find it as effective as some. It’s an intriguing film for what it shows and indirectly tells, but not always fascinating in terms of how it carries everything out. It’s repetitive at times, and by the third act, it feels as if it’s kept boiling and boiling for so long that it’s unsure of how to come to a head, so to speak. Even if it left me cold in some sense, by doing that, it allowed me to zero in on something I sure hope a lot of viewers didn’t miss when they watched it.

NOTE: As of this writing, The Strangers is available to stream on Max.

My review of The Strangers: Prey at Night

Starring: Scott Speedman, Liv Tyler, Kip Weeks, Gemma Ward, and Laura Margolis. Directed by: Bryan Bertino.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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