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Movie Review: 'The Strangers' Starring Liv Tyler

With a prequel to 2008's The Strangers in theaters, here's a look back at the 2008 original.

By Sean PatrickPublished about a month ago 5 min read

The Strangers (2008)

Directed by Bryan Bertino

Written by Bryan Bertino

Starring Scott Speedman, Liv Tyler

Release Date May 30th, 2008

Published May 16th, 2024

Sociopathic thrill killing is a real thing. Real sociopaths have stalked complete strangers and taken their lives simply for the thrill of exercising the power of life and death. It's incomprehensible to anyone with a moral compass but some people have the ability to look at another person and take their life without so much as a scruple. That is the basic premise of the horror flick The Strangers. A young couple travels to a cabin on the outskirts of some nameless town and are then terrorized by three people in Halloween masks. The harassment goes from merely irritating to terrifyingly violent in short order, whether the young couple survives remains a mystery to the very end.

Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman) have just arrived home after attending a friends wedding. James had thought it was a good opportunity to ask Kristen to marry him but as we can tell from his hangdog expression and the tears in her eyes, it didn't go down as he had hoped. Nevertheless, they are together for the weekend, out of town guests at James's father's cabin. There is tension but mostly sadness between them as the love they thought they shared is reflected throughout the cabin where James had decorated the place for a celebration and romance to follow his popping the question.

The sadness is broken up by a 4 Am knock on the door. An odd young woman asks if Tammy is home. Assured that no one named Tammy had ever lived in the cabin the girl leaves. However, she isn't gone long and as James makes a cigarette run, the girl returns, again searching for 'Tammy.' Here is where my feelings about The Strangers diverge from my appreciation for the craftsmanship of The Strangers. I did not believe the reaction of Liv Tyler or Scott Speedman's characters to this intrusion. They are far too polite to someone who visits at 4 IN THE MORNING!

Not an angry word? No, hey it's 4 AM go home! Nothing. This facile politeness continues even as the visit from the strangers go from merely irritating to dangerously violent. Take for instance James who finds his car with tires slashed and the windshield broken. His reaction is to ask far too calmly why they had destroyed his car? From there he makes use of the films PG-13 allotment of F-words. The MPAA allows a PG -13 movie only one F-word per script, any more than that gets an R. The person who came up with that standard has no grasp on the absurdity of this standard.

Speedman, who I loved on TV's Felicity, in his film career slowly evolved into the Hugh Jackman we have at home, handsome and weepy. Watch the Underworld movies and he has his moments of cool but mostly he's dewy eyed and whiny. In The Strangers he plays one of the most notable wimps on film. As he and his girlfriend are terrorized by nutballs in halloween masks, Speedman's James is endlessly polite and even after there is a death, he remains deferential when it comes to the use of violence. At one point he gets his hands on a shotgun and gets the opportunity to use it on the masked wackos. He fails because he's too much of a dork to pull the trigger, even with his life and the life of the woman he loves on the line.

For her part Liv Tyler exists to be Liv Tyler. We know Liv Tyler well enough to empathize with her with little effort. We can't imagine Liv being the victim of psycho killers even if we can't really imagine her going badass in her own defense either. She being Liv Tyler, an actress we have know for years, we know that someone will come to save her. We know that. Right? If The Strangers gets one thing right it's convincing us that even someone as famous and likable as Liv Tyler might not survive this even as the logic of the recognizable damsel in distress trope, tells us otherwise.

Director Brian Bertino has a talent for telling a tight, compact story with skill and precision. His weakness is crafting believable characters to drop into the intriguing scenario. Bertino wrote the script for The Strangers and thus it's his fault that Speedman's James is weak hero and that the killers take on a supernatural quality that is at odds with the down to earth scenario. The killers are irritating because they aren't meant to be ghosts yet they take on some modestly supernatural abilities. They have the ability to be two steps ahead of their victims at all times. They can appear and disappear in the blink of an eye. These killers seem to be perfect in every way because they are indestructible, unflappable, and always out in front of our weak in the knees heroes.

The structural defect of The Strangers is a concept I like to call Deck Stacking. This is where the odds of opposing forces are stacked so heavily in favor of one side that your suspension of disbelief is broken. In The Strangers, it's impossible to believe that Speedman and Tyler have any chance of survival against villains who seem to possess super powers. Thus, The Strangers becomes tedious and repetitive. If there is no hope, no chance that our heroes can survive what is happening, there is no reason for us to root for them. The odds are stacked so heavily against Tyler and Speedman that The Strangers becomes a monotonous bore that I could wait to rid of.

Find my archive of more than 20 years and more than 2000 movie reviews on the archive blog, SeanattheMovies.blogspot.com. Find my modern review archive on my Vocal Profile, linked here. Follow me on Twitter at PodcastSean. Follow the archive blog on Twitter at SeanattheMovies. Listen to me talk about movies on the I Hate Critics movie Review Podcast. If you have enjoyed what you have read, consider subscribing to my writing on Vocal. If you'd like to support my writing, you can do so by making a monthly pledge, or by leaving a one time tip. Thanks!

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About the Creator

Sean Patrick

Hello, my name is Sean Patrick He/Him, and I am a film critic and podcast host for the I Hate Critics Movie Review Podcast I am a voting member of the Critics Choice Association, the group behind the annual Critics Choice Awards.

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