"The Strangers: Unrated" DVD Review

October 16, 2008 by James Harvey

A total surprise when it hit screens earlier this summer, The Strangers was the sleeper horror hit of the summer, and deservedly so. An actually terrifying film, The Strangers is probably one of the most primal and intense horror films of the past five years or so. Able to succeed where so many recent horror films has failed, this movie has finally founds its way to DVD. So, do the thrills and chills hold up on home video? Well, for those looking for a few chills, you'll be glad to know that, more than ever, The Strangers is one of the best horror films of the past year.

The horrifying events that took place in the Hoyt family's vacation home at 1801 Clark Road on February 11, 2005, are still not entirely known. Champagne. Rose petals. Candlelight. It was supposed to be a night of celebration for Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) and James Hoyt (Scott Speedman). But after leaving a friend's wedding reception and returning to the house, everything had collapsed for the happy couple. Then came a 4 a.m. knock on the door and a haunting voice. Writer/director Bryan Bertino explores our most universal fears in The Strangers, a terrifying suspense thriller about a couple whose remote getaway becomes a place of terror when masked strangers invade. The confrontation forces Kristen and James to go far beyond what they thought themselves capable of if they hope to survive.

To me, personally, why I found this film so enjoyable was how it deviated from the norm. It's a movie where you expect there to be an endless amount of torture and porn, correct? Not so. Not here. This movie bravely uses atmosphere and the actual characters to tell a story and they do a damn great job. And, in doing so, it tells a lean, brutal, and simply unrelenting story. There's nothing to drag this movie down whatsoever. There's no pointless subplot or long speeches. Nothing like that. It's an hour-long attack directed at your nervous system. Sure, there's a couple cheap scares in there and some rather boneheaded movies, but we have probably one of the more visceral horror movies of the past year or so right here. It's a completely different animal than movies like Hostel or Saw< and that actually makes it a better movie-going experience. This isn't a movie where we wince because we just see a leg getting lopped off by a rusty hacksaw, no. Instead, we wince because we see something the main characters don't. We see their attackers entering the room behind them.

But all of that build-up, especially to the first major reveal of the attackers, is made all the more stronger by the two main characters themselves, and their current relationship problems. James (Speedman) and Kristen (Tyler) arrive at the cottage to see the night that could have been, a night of passion after a successful engagement. Candles and rose petals are strewn about. However. Things don't exactly go as planned and the night now finds this couple in an uncomfortable and awkward, possibly relationship-ending place. James wants to leave. Kristen can't stop herself from crying. And, if you've seen the trailers, you know that things get worse. Once the couple hears the first ominous knock on the door, their night heads in a direction neither of them could have predicted.

Things become a fight for survival, and it's incredibly intense. Director Bryan Bertino manages to make even the smallest of actions drip with intensity. The movie opens with voice-over narration, as we see the aftermath of a violent night of struggle, and then flashback to what caused it. Usually a weak storytelling move, here I found it to actually work in favor of the movie. Despite knowing how this is going to inevitably end, you hope for the two main characters to defy fate and survive. It's impossible, sure, but there's a glimmer of hope, one that keeps the viewer entranced until the very end. And, like I said, the two main characters make some rather moronic choices and there's the odd cheap scare, but, still, those don't seem to matter, or even really register with the viewer until after the end credits roll.

And, yes, the attackers look really damn creepy in the masks they're wearing. The two female attackers wear their cherub-white doll masks and the male a simple clothe sack. And those masks, those disguises, are more effective and terrifying than the commercials and trailers would leave you to believe. In fact, based on how the movie wraps up, it seems as though this movie is more about the attackers than the victims themselves, which one can assume will only lead to the inevitable sequel. Make no mistake, however, this movie is about James and Kristen, and it's a story that goes right for the jugular.

The Strangers is one of the best horror movies of the past year, one that rattles the nerves and will shake you to the core. The basic premise behind it, a senseless random attack, is one that that's really chilling. However, this movie succeeds because of the great character development on the leads, and the rather original approach to them, and the successful build-up to the first major appearance of their deadly attackers. And then from there, well, it's an intense unrelenting ride. Bertino borrows a lot from movies such as Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre by using actually using atmosphere and character to elicit horror instead of buckets upon buckets of blood. Bertino strips away all the unnecessary chunks that could slow down a movie and delivers a grueling emotional fright-fest, one that's savage and unforgettable. If you're looking for a truly frightening movie, then The Strangers comes Highly Recommend. I guarantee it'll stick with you.

The DVD:

Universal Home Entertainment unleashes The Strangers onto home video with this rather standard release. Please note the DVD included both the unrated and theatrical cut of the feature. We get the usual cardboard slipcase and no insert, but, what's surprising to me, is that the Universal has given this movie an actual disc label. The disc is drenched in red with the movie title peaking out. Nice change-up from the Universal standard.

The video is great for this release. I see no compression or artifacting, but there's a bit of grain present, which seems intentional to me. And, personally, I find that grain actually adds to the overall look of the movie. And then there's the audio, which is great for this movie. The audio mix is great, and is able to firmly plant the viewer in the midst of all this chaos. In the movie, the attacks terrorize the the main characters by banging on doors, walls, and windows, from all sides and, to great effect, the audio mix realistically translates that. The surround sound really picks up and just adds to an already frightening movie.

The only extras on the disc are some deleted scenes and a short "Making of" featurette. The featurette just lightly touches upon the movie's production without saying anything of real consequence. The deleted scenes are rightfully excised, merely adding a little bit more to the already perfectly told story behind the characters of James and Kristen.

While the DVD extras may leave something to be desired, the audio and video mix will firmly plant you in the right mindset for The Strangers, especially the audio mix. Sure, what might be scary to you may not be scary to others, but I believe this movie is guaranteed to frighten. It just has that effect, and how the movie builds up these attackers, and their methods, they truly are frightening. Bertino has made probably one of the best horror films of the past year, if not longer, and has done so by relying on what really makes a movie scary. It's not the buckets of blood or graphic dismemberment. It's the characters and the story, and Bertino nailed it here. The Strangers is one of the most effective horror movies in the past few years and it comes Highly Recommended.

The Strangers: Unrated arrives on DVD and Blu-ray on October 21st, 2008.

 

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