AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY [LIMITED EDITION]: SEPTEMBER 28TH, from SECOND SIGHT
RUNNING TIME : 86 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera
In a secluded area, away from civilization, James Hoyt and Kristen McKay return from a wedding to James’ s secluded childhood summer home. Tension abounds between the couple, as Kristen rejected James’s marriage proposal to her after the reception. James calls his friend Mike and asks him to pick him up in the morning. Shortly after 4:00 a.m, there’s a loud knock at the door. A young blonde woman asks the couple, “is Tamara home?” She’s turned away by James, but this is only the beginning of a nightmare where they’re terrorised by three masked strangers.…
Amazingly, it was only two and a half years ago when I first got around to seeing The Strangers, and that was only really because the sequel was about to hit cinemas and I felt that ought to see it beforehand. I think the general opinion of it at HCF is that it’s good but has lost much of its effect due to the many imitations it spawned, but I wouldn’t really agree with that; I say that it’s still hugely effective, and it truly worked me up the first time around; though of course watching it late at night with all the lights turned off probably helped. Us horror lovers are a weird bunch if you think about it. The biggest thing that struck me though, and which I couldn’t get out of my head, was that, while Funny Games and Vacancy also came to mind, it seemed, more than anything else, to be an unofficial remake of the French home invasion effort Them from two years before, right down to having some extremely similar scenes including its ending. Yet Bertino has never mentioned it, so it’s probably just coincidence. Probably. In any case, Second Sight’s release of this nifty little chiller was a good excuse for me to watch it again. Virtually plot-less, it’s really just an exercise in tension and fright, reducing things to their most basic and primal – and for the most part one it succeeds in achieving its aim. In fact its first third is an object lesson in how to introduce characters and build up the atmosphere and suspense, and the film does this so well that the rest of it can’t help but exist at a slightly lower level – but then most Dario Argento fans would probably admit that Suspiria, brilliant as it is, never quite lives up to its incredible first ten minutes. Only some instances of our two main characters behaving stupidly significantly put a damper on things.
Writer-director Bryan Bertino’s screenplay was originally called The Faces, and was inspired by an event from his childhood when his parents were out and his little sister answered a knock at the door to be faced with some people asking for somebody who didn’t live there. Later on, he found out that these people were knocking on doors in the area and, if no one was home, breaking into the houses. Bertino states the Manson murders as also being a huge influence, particularly the film Helter Skelter. He entered the screenplay for The Strangers into a screenwriting contest in 2003, after which he sold its directorial rights to Universal Pictures. Justin Lin and Marl Romanek were both attached while Bertino was even removed from the project so others could remodel the script, but when Universal passed it onto its subsidiary, Rogue Pictures, Bertino was approached to direct and regained control of the screenplay. It was shot in chronological order, using a house on the outskirts of Timmonsville, South Carolina. During filming, in order to get an actual reaction from Liv Tyler, Bertino would tell her where to expect a loud bang from, but would then have the loud noise come from a completely different direction. Tyler came down with tonsillitis due to the extensive screaming her role required her to do. Following test screenings, the final scene was shortened so that the killer’s faces remained hidden instead of them being revealed. When released, many cinemas in the US were accidentally sent faulty reels containing sound problems, which made a few minutes to several scenes of the movie filled with a loud static sound, with many cinemagoers not realising the sound wasn’t supposed to be there.
We’re told that what we’re about to see is based on a true story before seeing some shots of different houses, and the first time around I wondered what on earth the point of the latter was. This time though, it came to me that these houses look rather like some famous horror movie houses, even if they’re obviously not the genuine articles. I didn’t quite recognise them all though I’m sure some of you lot will. It does provide a rather neat opening before we launch into both the ending and the aftermath of some terrible events with a woman ringing 911 screaming, “there are people here”, a knife, a huge dollop of blood on a wall, and two young boys entering what’s obviously a messy crime scene. The time-spanning editing is unusual though the point of the scene will become apparent. We first see our couple in their car, Kristen having been crying. A flashback shows him carrying her outside of a restaurant and giving her an engagement ring. Her response wasn’t the one he expected, and now the couple are tense and distant as they arrive home. He virtually begs her to take the ring, but is refused. She wants to talk to him but he doesn’t want to talk to her. The way that James and Kristen act and speak to each other, not spelling everything out, being evasive verbally yet using their body language to show how they really feel, feels very natural and both Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman deliver their lines perfectly. This pair seems highly believable, even when she comes on to him and they start to get down to it. Howewer, any thought of fantastic make up sex is gone when that first knock on the door comes, clever cinematography obscuring the face of the visitor in darkness without it looking forced, and when the Stranger has gone, the mood has gone too.
James goes out to buy some cigarettes, and then another knock leads to a splendidly creepy moment, the first of many where we see things that the characters don’t, when she’s in the kitchen and we see a masked person materialise in a darkened doorway and just watch her, she of course being totally unaware of the intruder. The guy just stands there for ages. One of the things, I think, that makes this moment so effective is its quietness. Tomandandy’s low ambient notes have been playing frequently up to now, and do so again afterwards, but for a few minutes they disappear as do any sound effects and we are now more, rather than less, scared. Kristen then finds evidence that someone has been in the house. After a few scares, she hides in the bedroom while the Strangers outside bash on the walls of the house. Eventually James returns and doesn’t believe the terror that Kristen has experienced until he sees a woman in a doll’s mask staring at their house from a distance. He goes outside to his car to get his phone, and here’s where some behaviour gets rather questionable. James keeps on leaving Kristen on her own, which surely ought to be the last thing he should be doing and something that Kristen ought to raise hell over seeing as the house is hardly secured and somebody was clearly in the house earlier and it stands to reason he may come in again [it’s never explained how he entered the house in the first place, though that’s probably just the way we like it]. The strangers are hacking at the front door with an axe, but Kristen decides not to use the gun she has, but to throw a chair at the door – and then remembers that she has a gun. And just watch James’s actions after his windshield is shot out – they make no sense at all unless he’s a total idiot.
But I shouldn’t complain about this stuff too much because the film maintains an edge all the way to its final act which seems to suggests that it may be going down the torture porn route before opting for a less sadistic yet still grim climax. In fact there’s far less bloody violence than you might expect, and even when it happens we don’t tend to see it all. Bertino’s also confident enough to stage much of the action in near darkness; sometimes lights are on inside the very ‘70s-style house and also outside it, but when it’s meant to be dark it’s really dark, and you wonder when one of the Strangers is going to appear out of the black, yet Peter Sova’s cinematography is good enough to make sure that we can still make out what we’re intended to make out. The three Strangers really make up a frightening threesome, partly because we don’t actually see them on screen very often even though their creepy masks may remain stuck in your head; they’re ones they probably picked up easily in shops, but aren’t they often the most unsettling? We never learn much about these people, the closest we come to any knowledge being the exchange, “why do you do it?”, “because you’re home”. They remain anonymous, with vague-at-best motivations, no morals or scruples, the worst of intentions, and being relentless in their delivery of fear and paranoia to their victims. And Tyler, who’s never been better, does them good with some terrific, Scream Queen-worthy screams.
The whole thing is shot with a hand held camera that never stays totally still and gives us a lot of close-ups, but thankfully things don’t burst into full ‘shakycam’ like they did in You’re Next. And Bertino knows what scares, doing such a good job that it’s a shame he seemed to disappoint [though I haven’t seen them myself] many with his subsequent films until his latest The Dark And The Wicked which has been well received. Possibly he uses certain devices one or two times too often, showing how his primary interest here is in winding up the viewer rather than telling a logical story; though if they work, does this really matter? The Strangers like to make things just a bit more of a challenge for themselves; we get several moments when they’re obviously able to kill, lingering “he’s behind you” moments; but when we next cut to where they should be, they’ve gone. We even get not one but two “hand on the back of the neck” moments, one following the other quite quickly, plus the employment of one of my favourite old devices – the broken record that repeats just a few seconds of music over and over again. Now I guess you can see a class theme if you like to find some meaning in your horror; one gets the feeling that these strangers are distinctly underprivileged, while James and Kristen certainly aren’t short of a few bob. You might even see the strangers as metaphors for all that tension that our couple clearly needs to resolve. But I’m not sure Betino was consciously thinking of things like this at all. He was out to simply deliver a stripped down, simple exercise in terror.
Theatrical Cut and Extended Cut
Second Sight are probably using the same restoration as Shout! Factory’s Region ‘A’ release. It’s quite something, handling the huge amount of black with no visible crush or fluctuation, though the dynamic range is very wide; you may need to turn your TV up at the beginning and then turn it down afterwards unless you want to frighten your neighbours; that banging on the door and walls is especially loud. I watched the Extended Cut as the version I’d previously seen was the Theatrical. I hoped that it would contain the climax as originally shot sans masks, but it seems that Bertino is happy enough with the ‘masked’ ending not to change it. We do, though, get an extra two-minute scene afterwards which prolongs one character’s agony and adds to the power of the film’s final act, though it’s possible that it may have been considered to be too much by preview audiences.
Because You Were Home: a new interview with Director Bryan Bertino [57 mins]
The Shout! Factory had four new interviews, plus the two deleted scenes and the two featurettes from the North American DVD, one of them an EPK promo piece. Probably unable to use the new interviews, Second Sight replace them with four other interviews, three of them with the same people, though they’re longer. This one with Bertino is nearly an hour! He talks in great detail about how he got into film-making, how being emotionally exhausted from A Woman Under The Influence and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre gave him the idea of wanting to make something like The Strangers, how he realised the film looked wrong and significantly changed it with just a couple of days to go, how the studio hesitated about releasing it, The Strangers 2;.Bertino just seems to love talking about this pet project of his and he never bores us in doing so. I especially liked the story of when a college friend walked by a restuarant and, not having communicated with him in ages, saw him having dinner with Tyler and Speedman. It virtually makes up for there being no audio commentary track.
The Fighter: a new interview with Actor Liv Tyler [16 mins]
Tyler tell of how she was obsessed with horror movies as a child, how the shoot was emotionally and physically grueling, and that she was asked to direct the sequel while still making the first! Her character was initially meant to be in it for the first ten minutes. We here more about the originally longer climax too; it seems that preview audience reaction was another factor in trimming down an incredibly intense scene. Tyler seems hugely proud of this film and being in it.
Cutting Moments: a new interview with Editor Kevin Greutert [43 mins]
Another long chat this, as Greutert briefly tells of how he became an editor, and working on the Saw films [I’d no idea that Saw 3 was intended to be the end, but then I’m not really a fan] before really going into detail about the cutting of The Strangers. We learn how a lot was taken out to make James getting his gun not happen so late, how the setting on fire of a car by one party was altered into the deed having been done by the other party, and how the producers hated one song but preview audiences loved it so it stayed in. However, said producers were right in asking that the screen time of the strangers be greatly lessened. Preview audiences clearly affected the changing of the climax, and Greutert mentions the MPAA as being another reason for shortening the ending.
The Pin-Up Girl: a new interview with Actor Laura Margolis [20 mins]
Margolis says how she was originally playing Kristen in rehearsals with Speedman, how she decided to run faster than the other two Strangers, and even more about this darn climax. She was apparently told that the full scene will be in a later version but it never materialised. It was possibly nixed by Universal who wanted the preserve the mystery of the appearances of the Strangers because of the sequel, which was planned way before it actually went into production.
The Element of Terror: interviews with cast and crew [9 mins]
A typical EPK piece with everyone saying how great the film is, but as usual we have short snaps of fun behind the scenes footage, including some major scenes being shot and the building of the interior house set.
Strangers at the Door: interviews with Director Bryan Bertino and cast [9 mins]
This DVD piece is more fluffy comments about the film along with more behind the scenes stuff. The trouble with these kinds of pieces is that I wish they’d dispense with the ‘bigging up’ and just show us all all the footage of stuff being shot as they have.
Deleted Scenes [4 mins]
Two ‘relationship’ scenes very close to each other; one a longer flashback to the restaurant, one a discussion just after the table scene. Both are well performed. I’d have liked for the second one to have stayed in the film, especially as much else seems to have been cut later on. Oh well.
English SDH subtitles for the hearing impaired
LIMITED EDITION CONTENTS
Limited Edition Box Set of only 3,000
Rigid slipcase with new artwork
Soft cover book with new essays by Anton Bitel and Mary Beth McAndrews plus stills and behind-the-scenes images
Poster with new artwork
Second Sight’s release of a modern semi-classic of the horror genre comes Highly Recommended.