FEATURE: Shocktober - The Strangers

Over the course of October, I shall be watching one horror movie a day and reviewing it right here for your reading pleasure. I haven't seen any of the films I'll be watching before and you can find the full list here

Recommended to me by a friend who declared it to be one of the scariest films she'd ever seen, I had high hopes for The Strangers, despite the middling reviews it received on release. The film follows a couple, Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman), possibly on the verge of breaking up after she rejects his marriage proposal. They return to his family's country home, bedecked in rose petals and other romantic ephemera which now feel more than a touch out of place. As the pair attempt to mend their broken relationship, they are beset by three masked figures who are much more interested in tormenting the couple instead of seeing them get back together.

The Strangers is the second of this month's films to open with the promise to the audience that the film is something to do with true events. Director Bryan Bertino claims it was inspired by a series of break-ins that happened during his childhood, whilst others have made links to the Manson killings and the Keddie Cabin murders. I'm not overtly fond of stating that a film is inspired by true events. It makes more sense to say that the film is depicting true events as a certain level of dread is mined from the idea that you are watching something terrible unfold in reality. 

Some horrors have used this to pretty spectacular effect, The Blair Witch Project is one such example (and one that I keep going back to) and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is another. The Strangers doesn't quite match up to the promise of its technique-using predecessors. I'm not entirely sure what it adds to the film and in truth, actually distracts slightly from the more realist approach that Bertino later adopts. It points out that what you are watching is fiction, only inspired by true events rather than presenting what is apparently a real life horror story.

Aside from the ominous voiceover, the film's opening is fairly strong, beginning with the discovery of the ruined and bloodstained house. The rest of the film uses the wrecked version of a banal domesticity to produce an eerie atmosphere; furniture is upended, pictures askew, ornaments sent tumbling to the floor. It's a house, Jim, but not as we come to know it. Seeing the destruction of the tastefully decorated home over the course of the film therefore becomes a case of connect the dots ('oh, that's where that bloodstain comes from!') and adds another layer of dread to the proceedings. 

Bertino also uses everyday items effectively to produce an unsettling atmosphere. A lot of the film's soundtrack comes from the vinyl records that play throughout; a record skipping is one of those sounds that seems entirely innocent normally, but couple it with someone trying to break into your house and it becomes immediately terrifying. A simple knock at the door or a fire alarm sounding provides an unpredictable soundscape that underpins the static visuals. When silence falls again, it is just as effective.

The time spent with the couple navigating their broken relationship is an excellent opening to the film. Too often, horrors are quick on the killing, leaving their character development behind in favour of getting to the shocks. In The Strangers, we spend a considerable amount of time watching Kristen and James break apart before the first creepy knock hits the door. It helps to make their plight more emotionally effective as they're forced back together to cope with this new menace. Sadly, they become more than a little daft as the movie goes on so your sympathy wears off a little by the end.

Their antagonists though, the three masked strangers of the title, are the film's strongest asset (even if they do have the most amazing habit of disappearing entirely in a matter of seconds). Masks are inherently creepy and I don't understand anyone who says otherwise, doubly so when they're attached to the faces of people who want to torture you and kill you. Lacking any discernible motive either, the three strangers are all the more effective because of the decision to not give them a back story; even when the masks come off, the faces are never seen. There's no sympathy or empathy with these people and even daylight doesn't stop them. The film's worst scene is when the sun comes up, which breaks the rulebook slightly. Horrible things are only supposed to happen in the dark.

It's a shame then that much of The Strangers is clumsy in execution. I'm not normally one to notice goofs in movies and I'm never really enamoured with finding them out after I've seen a film. However, there are so many in The Strangers, I couldn't help but notice. Makeshift bandages disappear and reappear over the course of the film, limps suddenly seem to heal themselves and James' shirt is magically self-cleaning only to get all bloody again. After the care and attention that was put into creating the unsettling and edgy tension that flows through the film, it is easily shattered once you start noticing how many continuity mistakes there are. It's a daft thing to lose an audience with.

Whilst I wouldn't necessarily agree with my friend in terms of The Strangers' scare factor, it's a solid film, made better by the decision to keep its antagonists shrouded in anonymity, but with a lessened impact due to some silly and avoidable mistakes.

- Becky

You can check out the full list of Shocktober reviews so far here.

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