Strangers, The (UK - BD)
Leigh Riding has a stab at reviewing the recent Universal chiller on Blu-Ray Disc
After an unsuccessful marriage proposal at a party, Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) and her partner James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) return to his father's remote home. After much suggestion of a trouble, the couple are startled in the early hours when a mysterious girl turns knocks on their door. Rather dismissively, they send the girl on her way. However, this proves disastrous, as the girl's anonymous masked 'family' arrive to terrorise the couple without motive, trapping Kristen and James in a domestic prison, and plunging them into a night of hell.
Much like the majority of the people who saw the advertising for The Strangers, I was drawn in by the claim that the film was 'inspired by true events'. Of course, now that the claims to fact have been revealed to be incredibly tenuous, we can move away from the vaguely fraudulent concept behind the film and view it as a far simpler psychological horror movie. Unfortunately, with the implied ring of truth removed from the film, what remains seems far more mundane and hollow, although the movie is far from redundant.
There's no denying the fact that The Strangers is largely plot-less. The first twenty or thirty minutes is low on narrative and high on conversation, and when the siege begins, the widely known lack of motive of the assailants robs the film and the viewer of a satisfying payoff. Having said that, it's obvious that the filmmakers are far more interested in creating atmosphere than they are in creating a plot driven exercise. This is an area where The Strangers undeniably excels.
While Tyler and Speedman do a far better job than one might expect given they have so little to work with, and the Strangers (particularly 'Daddy Stranger') appearing very ominous despite having little to no dialogue, it's safe to say that sound design and cinematography create a good deal of the scares and chills in the film. The shift in tone from the warming, glowing browns of the childhood home, to the dirty orange hellishness the house becomes is seamless, and the long, steady shots of a Stranger lurking motionlessly in the shadows while Tyler carries on about her business obliviously are oddly unsettling.
Sound design is The Strangers' friend. While the odd creaks and bumps create stock scares, it's the scratching and banging at the walls and doors that get the pulse racing; there is a simple scene where a Stranger throws a mud ball against a window that made me jump higher than any other horror film I've seen in the last six months or so. Effective sound design can save the most mundane horror; off the top of my head, I can think of Feast and Darkness Falls as examples of films where superior sound design raises an otherwise deeply average chiller's spook factor twofold.
Without the miracles of post production, The Strangers would be a very average film indeed. The problem with the film is that it feels largely pointless. The lack of modus operandi is what ultimately makes the film less successful in its execution than for instance its nearest relative, last year's (in my opinion) underrated and superior Vacancy. There is quite a difference between lack of motive and lack of purpose, and The Strangers, with its single-minded narrative and oddly neutered denouement, leaves the viewer feeling rather uninvolved. As a result, the film moves away from the superior chiller it could have been, and into the superbly crafted yet empty and uninvolving oddity that will be appreciated by viewers, but not necessarily embraced by them.
The 1080p 2.35:1 image Universal offer here is pretty strong. Despite occasionally coming across as a little soft in places, there is little evidence of grain, although I'll always take slight grain if it means I'll get sharper images. The lighting scheme is treated well by BD, with the muted indoor lighting pushing the ominous feel strongly. Black levels are nice and deep, but do not lose the shapes of the Strangers when they drift by in the shadows. Once daybreak finally comes around, the brightness of the image is suitably startling. Despite the relative softness, the image impresses.
As I said before, sound design is The Strangers's friend, and the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track serves the film superbly. The effects on display here elevate the film no end, and really make the thing worth watching at least once. The sound design builds as the film progresses, starting with tapping and creaks from outside, and builds as time goes on until it feels as though the whole building is rumbling, ratcheting the tension up to high levels. There is some effective 'jump' bass in there too. That is until the Strangers are skulking inside the house in the shadows, and the track becomes eerily quiet and still. Surrounds are superbly utilised, and on the whole the track makes The Strangers a film to watch at least once.
After seeing what treats Universal offer on their BDs, I have to say the supplemental material is very disappointing. Missing the interactive elements that finally sold me on Blu-ray, this would be a poor set of extras on a standard DVD. ‘The Elements of Terror’ is a rather dull puff piece that gives on set interviews with the cast and crew, plus an all too brief look at the audio design. Also included are some rather redundant deleted scenes and a link to BD-Live. It's also worth noting that there's an option to play either theatrical or extended versions of the film. Overall, rather poor for a new film.
Despite the fairly fraudulent claims to reality, anorexic plot and a DOA first act that is supposed to build characters the writer didn't bother to build, The Strangers isn't without merits. What the viewer loses out on in depth, narrative drive and characters to invest in, it gains in pure production craftsmanship. The effective mood, tension building and jump scares elevate the film to at least a curious watch. However, if you want something you can invest in more, with a stronger plot and better character work and like the sound of this, perhaps the similar but slightly better Vacancy would be a better alternative.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page.
Review by Leigh Riding
Suitable only for persons of 15 years and over
Release Date: 26th December 2008
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, DTS 5.1 French, DTS 5.1 Spanish
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: The Element of Terror, Deleted Scenes, BD-Live
Easter Egg: No
Director: Bryan Bertino
Cast: Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman, Kip Weeks, Gemma Ward, Laura Margolis
Length: 88 minutes