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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Strangers is one of those movies that I think will ultimately divide people. About half the audience will find it to be one of the scariest, most nerve-wracking movies ever, while the other half will sit there wondering why the picture doesn't play nearly as creepy as its coming attractions trailer does. What will make the difference? I think the people most freaked out by it will be the ones who don't see many horror movies. On the other hand, those who do see a lot of them will recognize certain old stand-bys being hauled out one more time, albeit in a more low-key manner than normal. As for me, I'm in this group.

Let's clear one thing up right off the bat. A title at the beginning claims that this movie is based on a true story. In fact, that little tidbit has been at the center of all the advertising. It's malarkey. Notice a more telling disclaimer tucked all the way back in the end credits. You know the one; it says that the characters and incidents portrayed are "fictional" and that any resemblance to real people or events is "entirely coincidental." Even the director, Bryan Bertino, has acknowledged that The Strangers isn't based on any particular real-life occurrence. This "based on a true story" thing has become popular in horror movies, as filmmakers believe it adds a bit of natural shock to their stories. In fact, the Coen brothers invented this schtick with Fargo back in 1995, except that their claims were tongue-in-cheek.

Anyway, the movie begins with a young couple, Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) and James Hoyt (Scott Speedman), arriving at his parent's remote summer home after attending a wedding. The couple is on the verge of splitting up after she turned down his proposal, yet they are stuck together in the house until morning. Around 4:00 AM, they start to hear strange noises outside, and then a dazed young woman pounds on the door looking for someone who doesn't live there. The woman returns later, wearing a creepy baby doll mask and accompanied by another woman in a similar mask. Also with her is a large man with a burlap sack over his head. The three break into the house, whereupon they proceed to terrorize Kristen and James for several hours.

That's the entire plot, right there. Well, okay, Kristen and James try to hide/escape/fight back. This goes on for an hour and 15 minutes, at which point the 10-minute end credit scroll begins rolling.

The idea of masked psychos breaking into one's home is undoubtedly a terrifying thought. For a while, The Strangers generates some suspense from the concept. Bertino deserves credit for giving the film a (relatively) slow build instead of just jumping right into the mayhem. He takes the time to establish the relationship between the two main characters, and he often uses silence and dramatic pauses to build tension. Not enough horror filmmakers have this skill anymore, so I give Bertino some credit. He also stages some of the scare scenes in effective ways. I particularly liked the sequence in which one of our heroes is in the foreground, while a masked killer appears out of focus in the background behind him. We can't see the psycho clearly, but we know exactly what we're looking at anyway. That's good stuff. A couple other scenes similarly demonstrate that the director has a solid sense of how to compose an eerie shot.

For that reason, The Strangers might have worked for me had it not relied on some clichéd horror moments. For example, the one where a turntable gets bumped, causing the record to get stuck in a creepy-sounding loop. (The only people who even listen to records these days are characters in horror movies, and only because it allows for such things to happen. If you don't believe me, just ask the characters in The Skeleton Key and about two dozen other horror flicks). There are additionally a number of "how stupid can you be?" situations, such as the one where Kristen hides from the killers in a pantry. No escape from there. Good choice! It’s also kind of funny how the killers can hop around without being seen. They always seem to know exactly where Kristen and James are going to end up before they get there. Forget psycho killers; these guys are psychic killers.

I also saw a few plot "twists" coming a mile away. For a picture that wants to be gritty and raw, it's odd how formulaic it is. But that's another problem. The Strangers aspires to be a down-and-dirty horror shocker, like some of the seminal fright films of the 1970's. (Wes Craven's Last House on the Left in particular seems to be an influence.) Yet it's too slick looking to be genuinely pee-your-pants scary. Real shockers - like Craven's early films or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre - need to feel cobbled together. They need to be grimy and gritty and cheap, as though assembled by some psycho who didn't care if he messed your head up for life. Casting name stars like Liv Tyler and having a stylish look run counter that effect.

Then there's the ending. Man, I wish I knew what the makers of this movie were thinking. I was sitting there, not scared really but mildly diverted, when all of a sudden the story took a bleak, nihilistic turn. Suddenly, I felt sick to my stomach. Nihilism is fine and dandy in movies - it worked for Fight Club after all - but this just seemed nasty for the sake of being nasty. Are we supposed to be repulsed or turned on by the sudden goriness of the plot? I'm not sure. A title at the beginning tells us that 1.4 million acts of random violence occur each year, yet despite that dire proclamation, The Strangers doesn't seem to have anything to actually say about it. If the film is going to drag us through the muck, the least it could do is have a point.

Capping it all off is the most stupid, cop-out of an ending I've seen in years. But since I don't believe in spoilers, I won't say anything more. Just be prepared to groan.

Too bad, because The Strangers does have some solid filmmaking technique behind it, as well as a couple decent performances and spooky images. That said, the fact remains that this is a mediocre scare show that just happened to have one of the best trailers of recent times. At two minutes, The Strangers is terrifying; at eighty-five, it's lackluster.

( out of four)

The Strangers is rated R for violence/terror and language. The running time is 1 hour and 25 minutes.

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