The rookie writer-director desperately tries to instill this moody debut with a retro feel that goes deeper than the rec-room-inspired set decor. He tries to turn The Strangers into a minimal scarefest reminiscent of early John Carpenter: A stripped-down thriller that uses long takes, point-of-view camera gags, analog effects and lots of breathing on the soundtrack to create a real-time -- and earnestly delivered -- sense of fear.
There's no doubt Bertino nails the look with his yellowish filters and wood-panelled frames, but he fails to add anything significant to the backdrop.
The story is bare bones. And the characters have no flesh. At this point, there should be nothing left to butcher, but Bertino insists on taking us down a very familiar road once he's introduced our central players: James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler), a longtime couple about to revisit James's childhood country home -- a little bungalow in the middle of nowhere.
Of course, you'd think a quaint old house in the country is a safe place. After all, that's why people move out of the city. What too may urbanites fail to take into consideration in their quest for pastoral paradise is the apparent overpopulation of mask-wearing mass murderers out to disembowel you and your family.
Usually, a movie that revolves around a slow-moving series of stalking shots ratchets the suspense slowly, develops character with each new event, and sets a trap for viewers to steer us away from the conclusion before the rousing finale.
Bertino seems satisfied with simply stalking his characters. Thanks to a pretty solid performance from Liv Tyler, who makes the most from each quivering moment behind the closet door, The Strangers is almost watchable -- but there's really only so much quivering in a closet one can handle before it gets boring.
At times, the scenes featuring Tyler in the house "alone" -- after discovering her cellphone has gone missing -- are so laborious, they're laughable. When the ax-wielding mask-family arrives to do their thing, it actually comes as a welcome relief because at least now, something will happen.
Or so you'd think.
Bertino can't even get that straight. His big gotcha moment comes when the couple inadvertently kills someone, but not even that character-building moment amounts to any meaningful dialogue -- or any great drama -- just a gory hazard for our characters to trip over.
The movie can't even deliver a good ending.
By the time we realize it's all over, we have no answers or any insight into the apparently random homicidal spree. In hindsight, Bertino had a chance at cashing in on the mortgage crisis with a little macabre humour -- but he does nothing on that score, either.
A truly frustrating effort that offers no rewards, except for fans of both hard-plastic and sack-cloth masks, The Strangers isn't worth knowing.
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Now playing at: Galaxy Theatres
Starring: Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman, Glen Howarton
Directed by: Bryan Bertino
Parental advisory: Violence, fightening scenes running time: 86 minutes Rating:
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