May 29, 2008

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The Strangers (R)
A couple go through a searingly painful experience and then are tormented by masked sadists in The Strangers, which is not so much a date movie.

A horror- or suspense-type movie is usually a fairly reliable date movie — all thrills and no relationship-y stuff that could bring up discussions later. But this movie throws in a bit of couple drama with its suspense. When we first meet Kirsten (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman), she has a few dried tears on her face and he is all tense. They open the door to his family’s vacation home, where they are going to spend the night and where clearly James had planned a much happier night than the one they seem about to have — rose petals cover the bed and the bottom of the tub, a table is set with candles, champagne chills. Instead we see a forlorn, ring-sized velvet box and a couple spending most of their time not looking at each other and speaking in one- or two-word sentences — kind of makes you happy when the creepy girl shows up to knock at the door and ask for Tamara.

Shaken from their horrible personal situation, the couple dazedly remarks on how strange it is that someone is wandering around this desolate area so late at night. There’s some more halting discussion, a rookie-mistake decision for one to leave in search of cigarettes and then comes another bang at the door.

This movie’s strength lies in the slow build of the horror. What starts out as a weird encounter slowly escalates into something that seems like a cruel prank and then morphs into what is clearly a life-threatening plan for sadistic torture. The way the movie mixes the danger with the personal turmoil of James and Kirsten makes the horror that eventually becomes the story’s focus all the much more suspenseful. Instead of “don’t go in the basement” we want to scream “fight about your relationship later, call the police now!” The characters are emotionally stirred up when we meet them, before any trouble begins. This rawness seems to make their recognition of the real, mortal danger slower and their reactions much more intense. I don’t know how much of this is intentional and how much just worked out that way on the screen, but the result makes for some unexpected layers to this cool little horror flick.

Of course this movie’s strength can sometimes be its weakness and this movie is a good argument for why this kind of story, even done well, needs to be short. Even at barely 90 minutes, The Strangers can feel draggy at parts and even a little showy in how it amps up the hysteria-filled score but delays the actual terror. There is a fine line between tension and tedium and occasionally this horror movie stumbles to the wrong side of that line.

But well-built sense of terror mostly keeps the movie going, terror that comes from the the panic at realizing that something is wrong and the vulnerability of not knowing just what the wrongness. For quite a while we’re not even sure who is tormenting our young protagonists or how many of them there are. Instead of close-ups of the baddies, we see a figure in the back of the frame or a lone figure standing half in shadow out in the night. This movie is a good demonstration of the theory that the thing you can’t see is always scarier than the thing you can see. B-

Rated R for violence/terror and language. Directed and written by Bryan Bertino, The Strangers is an hour and a half long and will open in wide release on Friday, May 29. The movie is distributed by Universal Pictures.