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Dustin Putman

The Strangers  (2008)

Reviewed for by Dustin Putman

The Film
3.5 Stars
(Originally reviewed for the 2008 theatrical release.)
(Release Date: March 6, 2018) – "The Strangers" is the third film to be released in less than a year, following 2007's "Them" and 2008's "Funny Games," in which an idyllic country home is besieged by murderous sociopaths. Though the premise is familiar, each one of these pictures is diverse enough in style and technique to stand on its own. As astutely and auspiciously crafted by first-time writer-director Bryan Bertino, "The Strangers" is perhaps the most conventional of the three, following a basic but classic horror-movie formula. That is not to say it's always predictable or pedestrian, because it isn't. Bertino does an expert job of setting up sympathetic and identifiable protagonists and then running them through the wringers as the terror mounts and the unthinkable, yet plausible, odds stack against them.

Following a friend's wedding reception, James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) and Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) arrive at the Hoyts' secluded summer home. The candles are lit on the dining room table, rose petals are romantically sprinkled over the furniture, and what should be a joyous night together for this couple is instead one drenched in melancholia. Kristen has just turned down James' marriage proposal, and as they try to figure out where they now stand in their relationship a knock at the door interrupts them. What follows is a night that brings to life any number of nightmares one might have about home invasion, as three masked strangers surround their property and prepare to attack.

In the style of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," "The Strangers" opens with an ominous narration alleging that the story about to be told is inspired by actual events. This is only half-true; while writer-director Bryan Bertino is said to have been influenced by the Manson murders, which claimed the life of Hollywood starlet Sharon Tate and several of her friends in August of 1969, the similarities between that case and this film are superficial, at best. Knowledge of this background information isn't really necessary for the viewer, though it does give the film some increased unsettling undertones.

Either way, "The Strangers" is an immensely creepy thriller, one that plays fair with the audience, treats its characters with unusual intelligence for the genre, and is all the more effective because Bertino chooses to keep the minimalist plot spare and straightforward. The antagonists—a trio of masked killers whom neither James nor Kristen has ever met before—have no motive for their horrific actions, and, save for one instance early on set in shadows, are never revealed without their masks on. This only aids in the purveying mystery of the culprits' identities and backgrounds, and gives the movie's depiction of random attempted homicide a striking sense of reality. Everything that happens could, indeed, happen to any one of us, and when we least expect it.

In introducing James and Kristen as a troubled but likable couple who care for each other, but may want different things for their futures, the film quickly and economically sets up two characters that the viewer cares about. When those very lives are abruptly thrown into a life-or-death situation, James and Kristen defy the odds of most characters in horror flicks who are always doing stupid things at inopportune times and putting themselves in even greater danger. Resourceful and smart even when terrified out of their minds, they exhaust every possibility of escape and rescue—the way director Bertino deals with stripping them of the house line and their cell phones is especially crafty—and are still left with nothing more than their own fight-or-flight mechanisms to rely upon.

Helping to keep the tension high for what, in essence, is an 85-minute game of cat and mouse are several virtuoso filmmaking flourishes. The repeated use of a record player to overscore stalking scenes is thoroughly disquieting, while a sequence in which James' best friend, Mike (Glenn Howerton), shows up at the house builds beautifully toward a tragic and unforeseeable sucker-punch. Bertino also remains subtle with his superb use of framing and backgrounds, reminding of 1978's "Halloween" in the way shots are handsomely composed to suggest that danger could be lurking around every corner.

Scott Speedman (2006's "Underworld: Evolution") fulfills the requirements of his role as James Hoyt, even going a little deeper in the first act as he tries to keep his honor and dignity after his marriage proposal is shot down. Still, he plays second-tier to Liv Tyler (2007's "Reign Over Me"), whose Kristen McKay is front and center and unquestionably the main character. Tyler is always believable in an emotionally draining performance that is vulnerable, strong-willed and complex; she's a female heroine for any horror fan to be proud of.

"The Strangers" falters in only two respects. The first has nothing to do with the movie itself, but with its theatrical trailers, which give far too much away and reveal a ridiculous amount of money shots that should have been left hidden. The overly detailed marketing campaign does not ruin the experience of watching the film—not by a long shot—but the mere sight of the frightening masks on display would have had a much bigger impact were they not all over the advertising. The second quibble is the very last shot before the end credits, a would-be jump scare that feels obligatory and leaves in its wake an unanswered question that should have been more finite since the picture is, after all, claiming to be a docudrama (the Unrated Version available on Blu-ray includes an extended, largely preferable denouement that makes this final beat feel more organic). No matter. Gloriously mature and R-rated in a sea of modern-day watered-down PG-13 genre fare, "The Strangers" is a sensational suspenser, sure to please horror buffs and anyone else looking for an alarmingly good time.

Read Dustin's Theatrical Review

Blu-ray Picture/Sound

"The Strangers" was originally released on Blu-ray from Universal Pictures shortly following its 2008 theatrical release. For Scream Factory's 10th-anniversary two-disc Collector's Edition, the film has received new HD masters of the respective theatrical and unrated cuts taken from their 2K digital intermediates. The 2008 transfers remain largely solid, but the 2018 masters are a notch better, particularly in regard to the image's increased dimensionality and added detail stability. This is a fairly dark, moody film (save for bookend scenes, it is set entirely at night), but don't let that fool you: there is a vibrancy and immediacy that jumps out almost immediately, with deep reds, inky blacks, and rustic, woodsy greens and browns giving lifelike texture to its setting and surroundings. Lensed on 35mm, the film carries a lovely filmic appearance with a fine, entirely natural grain field. Save for a single instance of moiré spotted in the shingles of a house during the opening montage, one would be hard-pressed to find any issues at all with this top-shelf, newly refreshed high-definition transfer.

Both cuts also come with two audio options: 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. The 5.1 track is my preferred version, providing an active, eerie, layered surround experience which does full justice to its outstanding score and indelible soundtrack cues (including Joanna Newsom's "Sprout and the Bean" and Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried"). Moreover, bangs on the door sound like they are coming from the viewer's own door, and the anguished screams of its put-upon protagonists threaten—in a good way—to send a shiver down one's spine. Dialogue is also always clean, clear and well-situated within the film's sonic design.

Blu-ray Features
Disc One
  • NEW HD Master of the R-rated theatrical cut taken from the 2K digital intermediate (1:25:10, HD)
  • NEW "Strangers at the Door" Featurette (9:37, HD) – a solid EPK featuring vintage interviews with writer-director Bryan Bertino and actors Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman, Gemma Ward, Kip Weeks, Laura Margolis and Glenn Howerton
  • NEW TV Spots (1:34, HD)
  • NEW Theatrical Trailer (1:11, HD)
  • "The Element of Terror" Featurette (9:12, HD) – a holdover from the original 2008 Blu-ray release, this insightful short making-of features interviews with production designer John Kretschmer, writer-director Bryan Bertino, executive producer Sonny Mallhi, production sound mixer Jeffrey Bloomer, key makeup & prosthetics artist Vincent Schicchi, stunt coordinator Cal Johnson, as well as actors Liv Tyler and Glenn Howerton
  • Deleted Scenes (4:46, HD)
Disc Two
  • NEW HD Master of the unrated cut taken from the 2K digital intermediate (1:27:34, HD)
  • NEW "Defining Moments: Writing and Directing The Strangers with Bryan Bertino" Featurette (29:37, HD)
  • NEW "All the Right Moves: Kip Weeks on Playing the Man in the Mask" Featurette (11:34, HD)
  • NEW "Brains and Brawn: Laura Margolis on Playing Pin-Up Girl" Featurette (13:44, HD)
  • NEW "Deep Cuts: Kevin Greutert on Editing The Strangers" Featurette (20:29, HD)
  • NEW Still Gallery (4:02, HD)
Bottom Line
The original Universal Blu-ray release of "The Strangers" featured a respectable HD transfer of the period, but was left wanting in bonus content. Scream Factory's two-disc Collector's Edition is superior in every way. The fresh 2K masters give the image increased dimensionality and life, while brand-new featurettes and interviews with writer-director Bryan Bertino, editor Kevin Greutert, and actors Kip Weeks and Laura Margolis are welcome additions as they provide their perspectives on the film ten-plus years removed from making it. Beyond all this, "The Strangers" is, simply put, one of the most singularly effective mainstream horror films of the 2000s, a skillful, shivery exercise in simplicity and tension that also doesn't skimp on the astute, touching character work of its actors. Scream Factory's new two-disc Collector's Edition is absolutely worth the upgrade, particularly for fans of this modern classic of the genre. Highly recommended.

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© 2018 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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