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Cyphers don't add up to scary characters in 'Strangers'

The Baltimore Sun

Whichever candidate you want to pick up the White House phone at 3 a.m., The Strangers makes one choice clear: Scott Speedman is not the actor you want to answer a knock at the door at 4 a.m. As James, the male half of the couple terrorized in a remote vacation home by three masked marauders in The Strangers, Speedman is the weak, silent type. And his better half, Kristen, played by Liv Tyler, isn't that much better.

Sure, they go through a choppy tunnel of love right at the start. Figuring she'd be in the right mood for a proposal after a friend's wedding reception, he intends to win her hand with rose petals, champagne and an engagement ring, only to find his puppy-dog eagerness has the opposite effect.

But when they open the door to a strange girl who, from the shadows, asks, "Is Tamara here?" (there's never been any Tamara living there), James doesn't guess that the mystery gal loosened the porch-light to keep her face in the dark. He thinks nothing of the incident; he even leaves Kristen alone for a bit. And she gets so rattled she appears to forget you can call 911 on your cell phone even when it's charging.

After a variety of hyped-up bumps in the night, the strange girl reappears in a clownlike "Dollface" party mask with a friend hiding behind a Betty Boop-like "Pin-Up Girl" mask, and a man who follows serial-killer film tradition by wheezing behind a sacklike mask.

First-time writer-director Bryan Bertino thinks he's brought a new aesthetic austerity and emotionalism to the torture-and-kill horror subgenre (emphasis on the sub). And maybe he would have, if there were any rigor to his camerawork and storytelling and any flesh as well as blood to his characters. As the home invaders escalate their threats, and the hero and heroine grow more panicky and helpless, Bertino fails to establish the gang's logic or even the layout of the house, shed and yard. And without that kind of clarity, there's no suspense.

The cold, faceless villains appear and reappear at will: The only question is whether they mean to do the couple in themselves or goad them into self-destruction. Aside from a sick-joke murder midway through, the film concentrates on arbitrary jolts. Bertino's decision to siphon all personality from the psychos and pour it into their victims backfires; you wish they'd mask James and Kristen just to put us out of our misery.

Michael Meyers in the Halloween movies and Jason in the Friday the 13th movies wore masks, too; the one novelty in The Strangers is that we're not supposed to care why these killers do. All it offers is sadism, impure and simple. Opening against Sex and the City, it's counterprogramming that runs counter to any sane notion of art or entertainment.

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