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With: Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman, Alex Fisher, Peter Clayton-Luce, Gemma Ward, Kip Weeks, Laura Margolis, Glenn Howerton
Written by: Bryan Bertino
Directed by: Bryan Bertino
MPAA Rating: R for violence/terror and language
Running Time: 89
Date: 05/29/2008

The Strangers (2008)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Knocked Off

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Bryan Bertino's directorial debut represents a conundrum. It's an outstanding example of the horror/suspense genre, made with a refreshing approach. But it contains elements so creaky and pathetic you want to scream. It's like a yummy sandwich made with curdled mayonnaise. The first mistake is an ominous, yet useless "based on a true story" title card, which suggests elements of real life in a film that quickly steers away from them. Scott Speedman (Weirdsville) stars as James, who, after a friend's wedding, returns to a remote cabin with his girlfriend Kristen (Liv Tyler). By piecing together flashbacks and snippets of their clipped, tense conversation, we can infer that James proposed to Kristen and she refused. They settle in for an awkward night (the house is full of champagne and rose petals), when a knock comes at the door. A strange girl asks for someone who isn't there, acts oddly and leaves. James goes out for cigarettes. The girl returns and knocks again, asking the same question. More strangers appear, lurking around the house and wearing odd, expressionless masks. Things get creepier and creepier. In some scenes, director Bertino plays with astonishing compositions, as when Kristen putters nervously around the kitchen while an out-of-focus ghoul watches her from the background; he holds the shot for an amazingly long time, and the payoff is not what you'd expect (it leaves you even tenser rather than providing a release). Bertino makes do with a minimum of dialogue as well as exciting use of sound and editing. A record player provides eerily off-kilter tunes (most of them by tomandandy) and a turntable skip adds unbearable tension to one scene. But the behavior of the characters is thirty years old, straight out of Halloween (1978) and its many knock-offs. The killers apparently have supernatural powers that allow them to remain one jump ahead of their victims, making them rather less interesting. And the victims fail to take even the most basic, logical steps to protect themselves. It's what my friend Rob Blackwelder calls the "why didn't they just..." syndrome, as in "why didn't they just lock the door?" In a way, it's like Michael Haneke's remake of Funny Games, but without the sneering contempt for the audience's interest. However, Bertino presumably didn't care enough to create characters that would match the heights of his style. The Strangers

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