Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Film Review: The Strangers

If there's one thing I hate more than shitty films, it's liars.

Sadly, The Strangers is both.

The super-serious narrator at the start tells us that, "What you are about to see is inspired by true events. According to the F.B.I. there are an estimated 1.4 million violent crimes in America each year. On the night of February 11, 2005 Kristen McKay and James Hoyt went to a friend's wedding reception and then returned to the Hoyt family's summer home. The brutal events that took place there are still not entirely known."

This is bullshit. What it actually appears to mean is that, at some point in time, somewhere in America, some people were murdered. What the narrator should have said is, “you have seen this already.”

What we know for sure is that the real-life Kristen and James were probably not as good-looking as Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, two improbably attractive people who arrive at James' uncle's holiday home late at night.

Via a couple of flashbacks we learn that, earlier in the evening, thinking that Kristen would be in the right mood to accept his proposal after a friend's wedding reception, James popped the question. Kristen rejected James’ puppy dog enthusiasm, but for reasons never fully explained, they decided to go along with their planned vacation anyway.

The unhappy couple sit around mumbling and sighing for 20 minutes before there’s a knock at the door from a weird teenage girl. James sends the girl on her way just as Liv realises that she’s run out of fags. James, determined to resurrect his chances of getting laid, heads out to get some, blindly ignoring the fact the mysterious girl is still waiting at the end of their driveway.

Just as Liv begins to kick back with some Joanna Newsom records, she hears scratching at the window and knocks at the door. So discombobulated is she that she forgets to call 911 and it’s not long before she’s in full-on Jamie Lee Curtis mode being chased through the house by two girls wearing doll masks and a lanky, wheezing asthmatic with a carrier bag over his head.

The strangers disappear just as James returns home. But it turns out he’s the weak, silent type who can’t even dispatch three shambling weirdos when he’s armed with a shotgun. The masked pursuers occasionally pop their heads up and James tries to play whack-a-mole with his firearm but it’s not long before he’s disarmed and the pair are tied-up and stabbed to death.

All that sound familiar? If so, that’s probably because it’s almost identical to Michael Haneke’s Funny Games that was given a US remake only a few months ago. Funny Games was just as unremitting but at least Haneke’s film sought to critique itself, the genre and the audience’s complicity in the violence as some sort of moralistic satire. The Strangers is just a two-hour wank from first-time director/writer Bryan Bertino that pales not only to the classics of the genre (Straw Dogs, The Desperate Hours) but to any of the recent run of killing-for-the-sake-of-it home-invasion creepfests like Vacancy, Wolf Creek and Ils.

Bertino fails to add any flesh to the blood of Kristen and James, to establish the gang's logic or even to adequately present the layout of the house, garage and garden. Without any of that, there can be no scares, no catharsis and no suspense. And, indeed, there aren't. We know they both die. So all we’re doing is watching two people get really scared for two hours. Bertino doesn’t seem to understand that there's only so much nihilism an audience can take without some sort of relief.

But even the sick, brainless fucks who get their voyeuristic kicks from watching hapless victims get stalked and tormented won't get off on anything here. There’s no gore and, ultimately, very little physical violence. To present itself as a true story is a crass misrepresentation of the truth undertaken only to set internet forums aflame with gossip. Yes, I know Fargo did it, but The Strangers is no Fargo.

Instead it’s fraudulent from start-to-finish, a despicable practical joke. I’d like to say that I really enjoyed this lightweight, lazy and derivative movie. But then I’d be lying too.

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