I admit I didn’t have all that bad of a time watching The Strangers, but I put that down almost entirely to watching the film with an audience made up of teenagers who screamed at every shock effect, while offering occasional insightful remarks. For a time, I thought the young lady directly in front of me had only a three-word vocabulary: “Oh, my God!” The occasional embellishment of a descriptive term in front of “God,” proved at least a passing familiarity with one other word. However, she later impressed me with a colorful array of invective hurled at the intellect of Liv Tyler’s character, Kristen McKay. This started with, “What a dumb ass,” but quickly—and not without reason—evolved into ever more elaborate and vulgar assessments of Ms. McKay’s intellectual prowess. The entertainment value of this was considerably in excess of anything offered on the screen.
If you’ve seen the annoying trailer for writer-director Bryan Bertino’s singularly pointless debut feature, you’ve seen all the film has to offer—minus 88 minutes of tedious sadism. There’s an appallingly acted framing setup involving two God-peddling kids (identified in the credits as Mormons, but presented as generic hot gospelers in the film) who come upon the not-all-that-spectacularly-grizzly aftermath of the mayhem that makes up the body of the film. The film then quickly transitions to a flashback of the mayhem in question, or more precisely, the setup for the mayhem in question. Bertino makes the mistake of believing that anyone likely to shell out good money for this movie actually cares about the backstory of its meat-on-the-hoof leads, Kristen McKay and James Hoyt (Scott Speedman, Underworld: Evolution). There might have been some justification for this if the characters had been even slightly interesting, but they’re not.
Eventually, Bertino gets the lead couple to the Hoyt family summer residence—a singularly ugly ranch house where the decor is frozen in time in a style that might charitably be called “Nixon awful,” right down to the endless bric-a-brac and shag carpet. Once there, our leads find that strange things are happening. From here on out, three masked psychos terrorize them while the duo engage in increasingly stupid behavior to assure maximum psycho success. That’s all there is; there ain’t no more.
The psychos are played by Gemma Ward (apparently a model), Kip Weeks (apparently an actor) and Laura Margolis (apparently a TV actress). But since the two women wear masks and Mr. Weeks sports an inside-out potato sack with eye and mouth holes, large chunks of the film might well have been played by anyone who happened to be handy on any given day. Characterization is nonexistent, except that Weeks sounds like he could use a Primatene inhaler. (Whether or not this defames asthmatics is a question that perhaps bears investigation.)
All of this leads to a magnificently underwhelming climax that I’m honor bound not to reveal. Yes, there are a few effective “boo!” moments of the Shock Effects 101 variety, and one (count it) genuinely creepy bit that was shown in the trailer (something that had no discernible downside to its Pavlovian impact on the audience). But there’s nothing here—apart from the glumly sadistic tone of it all—that you haven’t seen before and haven’t seen done better. Of course, it’s all supposedly based on a real event—a statement sure to find ready acceptance with proud owners of the Brooklyn Bridge and parcels of Florida swampland. Bottom line: This week’s Sex and the City movie is a lot scarier. Rated R for violence/terror and language.