The more movies one sees, the easier it becomes to spot the clichés and formulas used in those movies. Unfortunately for most movies today, the clichés are painfully obvious and only a blind man would miss them. But, like finding Waldo within a landscape of insanity, it's always refreshing when a film comes along and turns a cliché on its head.
The Strangers is such a film. The basic storyline of The Strangers is a couple (Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman) is harassed, stalked and eventually tortured by a group of masked killers. I know, nothing about that storyline sounds original in the least. But the presentation of the film and the ways in which these events unfold, particularly concerning the pacing of the film and the motives of the killers, make the film truly unique and terrifying.
If we exclude the opening of the film--a flash forward past the end of the film--we start with the couple on the way home from a wedding reception. She is crying, he is visually depressed. After they finish their quite drive back to the house, they have a quiet discussion about the events of the night and where their relationship is. It feels very much like a mumble-core romantic melodrama. It turns out she had turned down his marriage proposal; they've already been through a rough night, and it's only gonna get worse.
Once we get a knock on the door from a stranger and the terror and suspense begin, the film still keeps with its mumble-core sensibility. The killers are never running, never angered, always calm. But their never emotionless malevolences, like a Michael Myers; they always remain within a humanistic plane. Also the sound, editing and camera angles of the film remain subdued and slow, not at all like your standard slasher (with the exception of a couple brilliantly timed jump scares).
When Speedman leaves the house to run to the store, one of the scariest scenes of the movie takes place. Tyler is standing in the living room smoking a cigarette, and in the hallway in the background walks one of the killers in a mask. The hallway is completely dark except for his mask, which seems to hauntingly float there in the dark. Tyler does not notice, as she finishes her cigarette and pours herself a glass of water. As she walks toward the sink the camera follows her, leaving the man in the mask just in the corner of the frame. The man in the mask does nothing, and is gone once the camera turns away and turns back. How chilling a thought, that lunatics in masks could be lurking in the shadows of your home, completely unbeknownst to you. Nothing really happens in this scene, yet it's unbelievably creepy.
The sound throughout the film is simply superb. The juxtaposition between the quiet mumble-core dialogue and loud knockings and scratchings on the doors and windows really makes for excellent jump scares that truly puts the viewer on edge. Add in the simple but unsettling images of the killers' masks, a sewn-together twine bag reminiscent of the Scarecrow in Batman Begins and two dolled-up female clown masks, and you have the basic ingredients of an effective, suspenseful slasher.
The one line of dialogue from the film that really makes this film stand out as special among all its peers, comes at the end of the film. Speedman and Tyler are tied to chairs, awaiting the torture from the three masked assailants. Tyler, crying and hysterical, asks "Why are you doing this to us?" The blond girl in the clown mask answers, "Because you were home." These three teenagers in cheap masks are not out for revenge, to make a statement or some other realistic motive. They kill strictly out of apathy and boredom, choosing as victims whoever happens to answer the door on whatever random night. After her retort, the blond girl and her friends take turns plunging a kitchen knife into their victims' stomachs very lackadaisically, without any passion or enthusiasm, just for something to do.
Throughout the film at certain points there are montages of second-team style random shots of suburbia: houses, picket fences, basketball hoops. These shots suggest a statement about the young American suburbanite, suffering from ennui and apathy, who has probably played a few too many violent video games, as the adage goes, who, in search of a thrill bigger than raiding their inattentive parents' liquor cabinets, go around killing strangers.
So if you think slasher pics have run themselves into the ground, producing the same old crap over and over again, give this film a try, and see if your opinion doesn't change.