"The Strangers" is the third film to be released in less than a year, following 2007's "Them
" and 2008's "Funny Games
," in which an idyllic country home is besieged by murderous sociopaths. Though the premise is familiar, each one of these pictures is diverse enough in style and technique to stand on its own. As astutely and auspiciously crafted by first-time writer-director Bryan Bertino, "The Strangers" is perhaps the most conventional of the three, following a basic but classic horror-movie formula. That is not to say it's always predictable or pedestrian, because it isn't. Bertino does an expert job of setting up sympathetic and identifiable protagonists and then running them through the wringers as the terror mounts and the unthinkable, yet plausible, odds stack against them.
Following a friend's wedding reception, James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) and Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) arrive at the Hoyts' secluded summer home. The candles are lit on the dining room table, rose petals are romantically sprinkled over the furniture, and what should be a joyous night together for this couple is instead one drenched in melancholia. Kristen has just turned down James' marriage proposal, and as they try to figure out where they now stand in their relationship a knock at the door interrupts them. What follows is a night that brings to life any number of nightmares one might have about home invasion, as three masked strangers surround their property and prepare to attack.
In the style of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," "The Strangers" opens with an ominous narration alleging that the story about to be told is inspired by actual events. This is only half-true; while writer-director Bryan Bertino is said to have been influenced by the Manson murders, which claimed the life of Hollywood starlet Sharon Tate and several of her friends in August of 1969, the similarities between that case and this film are superficial, at best. Knowledge of this background information isn't really necessary for the viewer, though it does give the film some increased unsettling undertones.
Either way, "The Strangers" is an immensely creepy thriller, one that plays fair with the audience, treats its characters with unusual intelligence for the genre, and is all the more effective because Bertino chooses to keep the minimalist plot spare and straightforward. The antagonistsa trio of masked killers whom neither James nor Kristen has ever met beforehave no motive for their horrific actions, and, save for one instance early on set in shadows, are never revealed without their masks on. This only aids in the purveying mystery of the culprits' identities and backgrounds, and gives the movie's depiction of random attempted homicide a striking sense of reality. Everything that happens could, indeed, happen to any one of us, and when we least expect it.
In introducing James and Kristen as a troubled but likable couple who care for each other, but may want different things for their futures, the film quickly and economically sets up two characters that the viewer cares about. When those very lives are abruptly thrown into a life-or-death situation, James and Kristen defy the odds of most characters in horror flicks who are always doing stupid things at inopportune times and putting themselves in even greater danger. Resourceful and smart even when terrified out of their minds, they exhaust every possibility of escape and rescuethe way director Bertino deals with stripping them of the house line and their cell phones is especially craftyand are still left with nothing more than their own fight-or-flight mechanisms to rely upon.
Helping to keep the tension high for what, in essence, is an 85-minute game of cat and mouse are several virtuoso filmmaking flourishes. The repeated use of a record player to overscore stalking scenes is thoroughly disquieting, while a sequence in which James' best friend, Mike (Glenn Howerton), shows up at the house builds beautifully toward a tragic and unforeseeable sucker-punch. Bertino also remains subtle with his superb use of framing and backgrounds, reminding of 1978's "Halloween
" in the way shots are handsomely composed to suggest that danger could be lurking around every corner.
Scott Speedman (2006's "Underworld: Evolution
") fulfills the requirements of his role as James Hoyt, even going a little deeper in the first act as he tries to keep his honor and dignity after his marriage proposal is shot down. Still, he plays second-tier to Liv Tyler (2007's "Reign Over Me
"), whose Kristen McKay is front and center and unquestionably the main character. Tyler is always believable in an emotionally draining performance that is vulnerable, strong-willed and complex; she's a female heroine for any horror fan to be proud of.
"The Strangers" falters in only two respects. The first has nothing to do with the movie itself, but with its theatrical trailers, which give far too much away and reveal a ridiculous amount of money shots that should have been left hidden. The overly detailed marketing campaign does not ruin the experience of watching the filmnot by a long shotbut the mere sight of the frightening masks on display would have had a much bigger impact were they not all over the advertising. The second quibble is the very last shot before the end credits, a would-be jump scare that feels obligatory and leaves in its wake an unanswered question that should have been more finite since the picture is, after all, claiming to be a docudrama. No matter. Gloriously mature and R-rated in a sea of modern-day watered-down PG-13 genre fare, "The Strangers" is a sensational suspenser, sure to please horror buffs and anyone else looking for an alarmingly good time.