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The Strangers (2008)

Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Blu-ray Disc Released: 10/21/2008

All Ratings out of
Movie: 1/2
Video: 1/2
Audio: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 10/15/2008

Back when I had my laserdisc collection (yes, I'm old), my brother-in-law would always peruse them, stop at a title and say, "Is this good?" And my answer would always be, "If it wasn't good, I wouldn't have it." But, that got me to thinking -- what constitutes a "good movie". Is it something which works while we are watching it, something which lingers with us long after it's over, or both. I've just finished watching The Strangers and I'm still trying to decide in which category this movie falls.

As The Strangers opens, we are introduced to James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) and Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler), a young couple who have just returned from a wedding & reception. They arrive at the summer home of James' parents, which is on a rural road. It is the middle of the night, and both are very tired -- not just from an evening of celebrating and drinking, but from the fight that they've had. This fight was so bad that James calls a friend to come pick him up. As James and Kristen are talking about their issues, there is suddenly a knock at the front door. James answers to find a young woman who asks for someone that doesn't live there. Following this, James goes to run an errand. While he is gone, the young woman returns, but she isn't alone. Kristen suddenly finds herself being terrorized by three people in masks. James returns and the two become involved in the most terrifying night of their lives.

Looking at the categories listed above, most of The Strangers certainly works while you are watching it. This certainly isn't the first home invasion movie that we've seen, but this one does open with a novel twist. Typically, those being terrorized at either having a good time (as in Funny Games) or they are at least having a normal day. Having James and Kristen both being sullen and quiet begins the film on a different note from what we are accustomed. From there, the movie begins to amp up the suspense. When the girl arrives at the front door, her face bathed in shadows, and asks "Is Tamara home?" is a flat voice, it's quite creepy. And one can't helped but be unnerved when the masked man is in the house unbeknownst to Kristen. The sound design in the film is fantastic and the banging on doors and windows in various parts of the house keeps the viewer on edge. Also, that song which is playing when Kristen is alone is just creepy. The second act of The Strangers offers some solid jump scares and some creepy moments. Watching it at home, you'll be checking your doors and windows during these scenes.

Unfortunately, the beginning and ending of the movie are weak. The Strangers uses my least favorite plot device, as it begins by showing us the aftermath of the film, and then begins the story. I never have liked this approach and don't understand why filmmakers use it. If we know the ending, how can their be any suspense? From there, we get the somber James and Kristen. Again, this is a novel idea, but it makes it difficult to engage these characters. Once the full-on terrorizing has begun, the movie begins to lose some of its steam. At first the question, "What do they want?" is scary, but then it becomes, "No, seriously, what do they want?", as the acts of the three intruders become more and more random. Their mind games seem to devolve into confusion, as they are in the house and then outside and then in the house. The movie also suffers from the fact that any reasonable viewer will be saying, "Why don't they find a room with no windows and just hide?" The film's biggest flaw is the ending. That was probably the only way to end the movie, but it's still very anti-climactic. And while this isn't necessarily a knock against The Strangers, the fact that the invaders often stand completely still outside of windows owes a lot to Halloween.

So, it would seem that first-time writer/director Bryan Bertino has assembled half of a good movie. The middle-section of the film contains some truly intense moments, and he clearly has an eye for staging scenes. But, the story is just too thin and once you research the "Inspired by True Events" angle, you only be angry. So, to answer our earlier question, The Strangers is a movie which only works while you are watching it. Unless you live alone on a rural road in Florence, S.C. (where the movie was filmed), you probably won't think about it again. And, I'll be honest with you, I've seen scarier things in Florence, S.C.

The Strangers terrorizes Blu-ray Disc courtesy of Universal Studios Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the Disc contains a VC-1 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 20 Mbps. The image looks very good, as it's quite sharp and clear. The image shows only a trace amount of grain and no defects from the source material. This movie is quite dark at times, but the action is always visible here. The colors, most notably reds and blues, look good. The image has a nice depth, but doesn't show as much detail as some other Blu-rays which I've seen. The Disc offers a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 3.5 Mbps. This is a frustrating track. On the positive side, the stereo and surround sound effects are top-notch. The banging on the doors and windows comes from all around the room and the deep thud of someone hitting the front door resonates through the subwoofer. The placement of these sounds in conjunction with the on-screen action is flawless. However, James and Kristen practically whisper throughout the film's opening. I can only assume that this was a conscious decision, so that the banging on the door would seem very loud. The problem is that the volume has to be adjusted to make out the dialogue and then quickly turned down when the banging starts. This isn't as much of a problem in the film's second half where everyone is screaming.

The Strangers Blu-ray Disc contains both the R-rated and unrated cuts of the film, but it should be noted that the running times listed on the box are inaccurate. The box claims that the R-rated is 1 hour 26 minutes, when it reality it's 1:25:11. The big difference is with the unrated. The box states 1 hour 31 minutes, when it's really 1:27:31. I just wanted everyone to be warned.

The Strangers Blu-ray Disc contains only two extra features. The Disc contains two DELETED SCENES which run about 5 minutes. One offers a somewhat longer glimpse of what happened at the wedding, while the other shows Kristen and James talking. The others extra is "The Elements of Terror" (9 minutes), which is a brief making-of featurette. Here, Production Designer John Kretschmer says, "I think it's an absolutely new approach to the genre." Apparently John went back in time and made a lot of other movies non-existent. The piece looks at the design of the house, the sounds in the film, the physical approach to the film by Liv Tyler, special effects makeup, and stunts. In a refreshing twist, this extra contains only on-set footage and no clips from the film. (It must be noted that it's odd to not see "U-Control" on a Universal Blu-ray.)

Universal Home Entertainment has also brought The Strangers to DVD.  The film is letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs.  The image is sharp and clear, showing only a hint of grain and no defects from the source material.  When placed side-by-side with the Blu-ray Disc, the most obvious difference is that the DVD transfer is much darker.  It's not so dark that one can't see what's happening in the film, but it does effect the mood of the movie -- the fact that Kristen is being attacked in a well-lit house increases the tension in the second act -- and it renders the movie's most powerful shot almost pointless.  The colors look good and despite some occasional softness, the image is nicely detailed.  The DVD carries a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track.  This track provides clear dialogue and sound effects.  As noted above, the audio is very important to the film, and this track is serviceable.  While it pales in comparison to the DTS-HD MA track on the Blu-ray Disc, the track does provide notably good stereo and surround effects.  The knocking comes from the front and rear channels accurately reflecting the on-screen action and the sub emits a nice, ominous low tone.  But, the audio simply isn't as powerful or as crisp as the lossless track found on the Blu-ray.

The DVD contains the same extras as those found on the Blu-ray Disc.  And, as with that other release, the DVD contains both the R-rated and Unrated cuts of the film.

Review Copyright 2008 by Mike Long