2008, R, 90 min. Directed by Bryan Bertino. Starring Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman, Gemma Ward, Kip Weeks, Laura Margolis, Glenn Howerton.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 30, 2008
First-time writer/director Bertino scares up a solid genre success with this debut outing. The Strangers covers familiar horror turf with its story about an inexplicable home invasion in the middle of the night, in which masked human ghoulies torment the baffled young lovers who reside within. There’s little that distinguishes this movie’s basic plot from scores of other fright films over the decades, but The Strangers is more effective than most because of Bertino’s deft manipulation of the storyteller’s tools. University of Texas filmmaking alum Bertino creates a palpable sense of fear through the shrewd use of sound, imagery, and performance – often using the bare essence or absence of these rudiments to scare up some truly visceral viewer responses. The Strangers' images are bereft of the virtuoso visuals, bloody effects shots, and pure "torture porn" of the Saw franchise, and the crux of the film has none of the moral engineering of Michael Haneke's Funny Games movies. Instead, Bertino creates untold frights with things like the offscreen sounds of running, clanking, dragging, and slammed doors – sounds detached from their source. A smoke alarm going off or a phonograph starting up in another room is enough to alert the protagonists that they are not alone. Kristen McKay (Tyler) and James Hoyt (Speedman) are a young couple spending the night in Hoyt's vacation home in a remote country area. The drama builds slowly as the two arrive rather wordlessly, conveying relationship trouble that does not jibe at all with the romantically rose-petal-strewn and candlelit house. A sudden, middle-of-the-night knock on the door is weird but not upsetting. But soon, as the interruptions continue, the masked tormentors begin to make their presence felt. The utter creepiness of two people in China-doll masks and another with a gunny sack over his head cannot be underestimated. Add in kitchen knives, rifles, and other objects of mayhem and the horror turns full-blown in the blink of an eye. Tyler (who turns out to be a darn good scream queen) is not a buff mama like Jodie Foster in Panic Room or an effete dowager like Olivia de Havilland in Lady in a Cage. Her Kristen is simply a beautiful young woman who tries to cope with and make sense of this random occurrence. "Why are they doing this?" she frequently wails. "Because you were home," comes the eventual answer. Younger viewers who've cut their teeth on the instant horrors of modern "torture porn" may find The Strangers' pace and psychological upsets more slow going than they might like. Yet a film like this may be just the bracing corrective the modern horror film needs. (For more on the film and an interview with Bertino, see "Guess Who's Coming to Terrorize Your Night," May 30.)