The Film: 4/5
What started out as a lovely evening for Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) spent at a wedding reception with her boyfriend James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) takes an unfortunate turn when she sadly rebuffs his own proposal of marriage. Surprisingly, the worst is yet to come for the them both when some planned respite at the summer home of James’ family is disrupted by the arrival of three intruders wearing unsettling masks – one man (Kip Weeks) and two women (Gemma Ward, Laura Margolis). It quickly becomes apparent that this mysterious trio of unexpected, and unwanted, guests has some deadly designs on our not-so-happy couple, and a series of physically violent and psychologically damaging assaults is set in motion. Since the house is in an isolated location, James and Kristen can’t just sit back and wait for a rescue from the local law enforcement. It’s up to them to battle their would-be killers and survive the night, but will there be anything left of them to tell the tale of their night from Hell once the sun rises?
Through its Scream Factory imprint, Shout! Factory has revisited the underrated siege horror film The Strangers in a new two-disc Blu-ray edition timed to the theatrical release of the belated sequel The Strangers: Prey at Night. Written and directed by Bryan Bertino, the original Strangers was dumbfoundedly granted an early summer release by Universal Pictures in 2008 – the same season when superhero blockbusters like Iron Man and The Dark Knight dominated the box office and more modest niche genre entries like Bertino’s feature were doomed to a quick and quiet drowning death at the hands of their bigger-budgeted competition. Fortunately, The Strangers managed to have some legs with moviegoers at the time and became a sleeper hit in theaters, grossing nearly $20 million during its opening weekend and concluding its run with a $52.6 total gross. Video rentals and sales and cable airings made it an even more tantalizing draw with horror fans who missed it during its theatrical run and the film’s shelf life hasn’t waned much since.
The most important virtue of The Strangers that has helped it endure over the last decade is that it is a legitimately great horror thriller, a refreshingly gore-free throwback to the relentless fright flicks of the 70’s like the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween that utilized tight pacing, artistic cinematography, and atmospheres of pure tension and terror to give audiences an experience that would live on in their hearts and nightmares for the rest of their lives. Bertino understands all too well the effectiveness of a sparse plot that functions as the foundation for a series of set-pieces with escalating mayhem and gives us relatable heroes and villains that could have sprang forth from the darkest recesses of our own imagination.
Bertino’s masked monsters are given no back story, motivation, or even faces, much like Michael Myers in John Carpenter’s original Halloween. The highly influential horror classic is a major influence on The Strangers, right down to the effective claustrophobic staging of the action, fluid cinematography by Peter Sova (Diner, Donnie Brasco) that draws heightened suspense from the isolated central location and creates a darkly beautiful world for the horror to play against, and the eerie, Carpenter-esque score composed by tomandandy (The Rules of Attraction). The screenplay graciously gives stars Tyler and Speedman flawed but sympathetic characters to play, and their restrained performances keep the audience on their side once the prolonged attacks begin. Glenn Howerton (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) appears briefly as another potential victim.
Weeks, Ward, and Margolis make for absolutely terrifying killers; with their faces concealed for most of the film and the script assigning them almost no dialogue (outside of its single creepiest line – “Because you were home.” – that was also used as the poster tagline), the trio is able to generate sheer through bone-chilling silence and their inhuman body language. It’s no surprise that they end up upstaging their more recognizable top-billed stars. Editor Kevin Greutert (who would later get into horror directing with two of the Saw sequels and the supernatural thriller Jessabelle) maintains a propulsive rhythm in the pacing that allows for brief breaks in the action so our besieged leads, as well as the audience, can catch a breather.
Had it been released a few years later during the resurgence in cinematic horror, The Strangers might have been a record-smashing box office blockbuster. At least it wasn’t ignored on screens and video in 2008 and the following decade has seen it age very well and lose precious little of its power to frighten and unsettle. Between the release of the sequel (which is doing decent business as of this writing) and this new Blu-ray, Bryan Bertino’s old-fashioned slow burn shocker should have no trouble holding on to its status as a minor classic of the genre for years to come. Just don’t believe the hype about this being “inspired by true events”. That line is about as true here as it was for Fargo.
The first Blu-ray release of The Strangers hit stores in October 2008 and contained both the 85-minute theatrical cut and the 87-minute unrated cut on a single 25 GB disc. Each cut of the film has been treated to an upgraded high-definition transfer for this set - with the new masters sourced from the 2K digital intermediate and HD inserts supplying the additional footage for the unrated cut - and framed in their original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio. In the name of ensuring their video and audio quality aren’t compromised from the extra disc space needed for the branching technology to function properly, Scream Factory’s new Collector’s Edition gives each cut of The Strangers its own disc.
The transfers from the previous Blu-ray were solid presentations of the dual cuts, but Scream’s new transfers outclass them on every level. Bertino and Sova’s color palette is a rich and vibrant array of dark reds and autumnal browns for interior scenes and inky blacks for the exteriors that allow movement to achieve the necessary visibility while retaining the atmosphere quality of the scenes. Softness is minimal and close-up details reveal the greatest improvement in clarity and sharpness. Watching the unrated cut, I couldn’t detect any noticeable differences in the integration of the HD inserts into the theatrical version.
On the audio side of things, both cuts of The Strangers come with 24-bit English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Surround and 2.0 Stereo tracks. If you want to immerse yourself in the film’s multi-layered sound design that adds immeasurably to the unrelenting aura of fear and tension, the 5.1 track would be your best bet especially if you’re experiencing it on a top-notch home theater set-up. Each element of the sound mix can be heard with stunning nuance and depth, and together they mesh beautifully without creating distortion or overlap. The full soundtrack is luxuriously spaced over all channels to create an absorbing effect that is bound to have you looking over your shoulder and into dark corners during the quieter moments (you know, just to be sure). I would recommend the 2.0 track if you’re watching this film on a standard television set as it achieves the desired effect of the surround option for less demanding speakers.
The new HD transfers are backed up by a healthy selection of supplements including two short behind-the-scenes featurettes and deleted scenes ported over from the 2008 U.S. and U.K. releases and new cast & crew interviews conducted exclusively for this edition.
The first disc is where you’ll find the vintage material, starting with the featurettes “The Element of Terror” (9 minutes) and “Strangers at the Door” (10 minutes). The former could be found on the U.S. DVD and Blu-ray editions, while both were included on the U.K. release. Containing a fair amount of interviews and on-set footage, the two shorts provide a basic overview of the production, from the initial concept to principal photography. Each is good for a single watch, but you’ll forget them once you check out the new supplements on Disc 2. The two deleted scenes, both rightly cut from the final film (5 minutes), three television spots, and the original theatrical trailer (1 minute) round out the first batch of extras. Neither the trailer nor the TV spots were included on the initial Universal release.
Moving over to the second disc, Scream has provided about 75 minutes of new interviews. The longest of which is “Defining Moments” (30 minutes), an extensive and informative chat with writer/director Bertino that’s about as close as we’ll ever get to a full-length audio commentary. At least the creator of The Strangers has plenty to remember and discuss about the film’s torturous production, including a prolonged development period that had directors like Justin Lin and Mark Romanek expressing interest in Bertino’s script before he took the helm himself. He also talks about how he studied Sidney Lumet’s book on filmmaking as the commencement of filming on his directorial debut approached, and the role the book Helter Skelter played as part of the inspiration for the story.
Next up are interviews with two of the film’s iconic killers. Kip Weeks is first up for “All the Right Moves” (11 minutes), and he uses his time to talk about how he secured the role of the leader of the intruders, working mostly behind a mask that could often be difficult for the actor, and much more. Similar ground is covered in “Brains and Brawn” (14 minutes), which brings in Laura Margolis for a comprehensive discussion about her work on The Strangers, developing professional relationships with her fellow masked co-stars, scenes of the trio unmasked that were filmed but ultimately cut from the final feature, and more.
Finally, editor Greutert talks at great length about his exceptional work cutting and shaping The Strangers into a taut, memorable fright flick in “Deep Cuts” (20 minutes). Budding film editors looking to get into working in genre cinema might find his observations and anecdotes worthy of study. The bonus features conclude with a still gallery. Scream’s Blu-ray set also comes with a reversible cover sleeve; new art by the CRP Group can be found on the front, while one of the creepy original poster images is provided on the opposite side.
One of the most terrifying films to be released in the 21st century so far, The Strangers has aged remarkably well thanks to its minimalist, old school approach to building tension and generating terror, the intelligent craftmanship of writer/director Bryan Bertino, and the performances of his excellent cast. Scream Factory has unsurprisingly done very well by this more recent catalog title with its upgraded picture and sound quality and informative supplements both old and new. For horror fans and anyone who enjoys the occasional scary movie created with class, smarts, and vast amounts of talent on both sides of the camera, the Collector’s Edition Blu-ray release of The Strangers comes with my highest recommendation.