How bad is a stalker/killer flick when it’s just as lame whether the victims live or die? All suspense and no payoff doesn’t look clever, just lazy.
After a blowup while attending a friend’s wedding, a broken couple, Kristen and James (Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman), try to get through the worst and last evening they’ll spend together for a while, maybe forever. Then comes a knock at the door followed by a mysterious girl asking for someone not inside the house, setting off a chain of events that first terrorizes Kristen before both she and James are victimized. Far from defenseless, the couple try to beat the mysterious strangers at their own game of hide and stalk, but in the end, who these people are and why they’re here doesn’t matter… first to the filmmakers and finally to the audience.
I’m going to blame the limited success of the remake When a Stranger Calls for this new stalking genre. It isn’t fair to slasher flicks to compare sneaking around and breathing hard for two hours to the pure body count of your average Friday the 13th installment. No, these are more like suspense films where the only thing you can hope for is a good kill, whether by the stalkers or the victims. When you get neither, you have to ask the question “What was the point?” These kinds of films are like taking the last ten minutes of a regular mystery (where the stalker and victim dance once last time) and stretching it painfully to ninety minutes or more.
Sadly, Scott Speedman’s counterpart from Underworld, Kate Beckinsale, had this misfortune of starring in last year’s version of this, Vacancy. At least she had the better story, about a couple trapped in a off-the-beaten-path motel who had resorted to staging snuff films with actual guests rather than depend on real tourist business. What killed Vacancy was also what ruins The Strangers: nice setup, lame payoff. The only goal of these films seems to be creating an atmosphere but doing nothing with it. Personally, I’d like to see “the strangers” stalk the house and find Speedman and Beckinsale playing their Underworld characters… now, wouldn’t THAT be fun?
Have any of these filmmakers seen John Cusack’s Identity? It’s an amazing example of how to use atmosphere to drive story and create the uneasy feeling that gives that story weight. Then when the ending comes, it’s a payoff that feels like being hit by a bus before riding it out of control over a cliff while clinging to the back of the seat in front of you. Sadly, Vacancy was the better of these two films, but from the final cut of The Strangers, no one seems to be paying much attention to where the story is going, only what it feels like getting there.
(a one skull recommendation out of four)