Stomping Around in the Dark 7: “The Strangers”

Posted: October 28, 2008 in Jeff Holland, poetics
Tags: , , ,

A young couple is staying at a secluded family cabin after a wedding – and after a rebuffed proposal by the boyfriend. So things are…tense. They are made decidedly more tense when a silent, masked trio targets them for a terror campaign. They spend the entire night meticulously working the couple’s nerves with a series of physical and psychological attacks, until morning brings the inevitable confrontation.

“This isn’t a horror film,” says director Bryan Bertino of his movie, “It’s a terror film.” And he is absolutely right. The Strangers is a film entirely concerned with terrifying its audience, and in that sense, it’s very effective.

It is, in fact, a little too effective – everything feels designed for one specific purpose, everything is so deliberately paced and placed, that it hits every button the audience might have to induce maximum tension levels. But once the movie is over, it becomes clear that every button was hit, but no number was dialed, dig?

Every decision made by the movie is so clearly a decision made to get a reaction from the audience. And if you watch this movie in the dark, alone, you will have that reaction. Because you don’t know where that noise is coming from. You don’t know what the masked intruders want, and every moment they don’t tell you makes you more anxious.

But once the movie is over and your rational mind exerts control, the scaffolding around the film is that much more apparent. How you’re given just enough information about the couple to accept them as characters – but afterwards you realize you learned nothing about them.

All you’ve learned is Liv Tyler is a smoker, and Scott Speedman has a Joanna Newsom album on vinyl (and not because either of them even seem like people who would like Joanna Newsom enough to have one of her albums on vinyl – its because skipping a record with a girl with a weird voice who plays the harp makes for a deeply unsettling background noise). They are just blank enough that you can substitute yourself for the viewpoint characters.

The movie sets it up so that it’s you being terrorized in every way. And because the filmmakers know their business, it works. For one hour and twenty-six minutes.

What you feel after that is up to you. You may recognize and respect the film’s technical mastery. Or you may feel pissed off at a film so clearly designed to manipulate its audience.

A terror movie, but a little too thin to be considered an effective horror movie. Because ultimately there’s no bigger meaning, and nothing at stake, other than a few frayed nerves.

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