With horror movies, particularly 21st-century ones, sometimes it’s better to ask “is this film effective?” and not “is this film original?” Because truth be told, there’s not much new and different about “The Strangers,” Bryan Bertino’s lean and mostly capable thriller. The whole “we’re not safe in our own homes” concept? It’s been done before better, and we’ve seen these characters creep under windows and cry a thousand times.
So “The Strangers” doesn’t get high marks for originality. But when a horror movie this spare and gripping juices your nerves like electrical wires, innovation’s something of a moot point. What Bertino lacks in originality he more than makes up for in execution. This is a director who understands that fear of the unknown and the tension that fear creates are what keep us up nights starting at every floorboard creak. Bertino builds this anxiety to unbearable levels using horror standards — the face emerging from the shadows, a car rendered useless by flat tires, the old peel-back-the-curtain-and-boo! — that get us squirming uneasily in our seats right up to the purely stupid ending.
“Tension” — that’s the watchword here. The film’s first act is all about tension, starting with the shaky relationship between Kristen (Liv Tyler, a fine scream queen) and James (Scott Speedman). The pair’s headed to his parents’ remote vacation home, and it’s clear early that something’s a little off-kilter. Things only get more awkward when they arrive at the house — turns out James expected a different answer to his marriage proposal. The house is filled with champagne and rose petals, all the trappings of a giddy engagement. Somehow Tyler and Speedman, B-level actors at best, capture the pain and strangeness surrounding this relationship speedbump beautifully, relying more on defeated facial expressions and body language than dialogue (in short supply here). They’ve hit a wall, they know it and they don’t know where to go next, or if they care enough to keep trying. There’s something sadly universal in that struggle that endears Kristen and James to us, makes them real people and not just bodies to be dispatched messily into the afterlife.
But don’t go fretting that there’s no action here and no bloodshed. After the sometimes-too-languid setup, “The Strangers” packs plenty of thrills, shrieks and spatters into the second half. Bertino brings on mayhem in the form of three masked intruders who proceed to unleash a hailstorm of psychological torment on Kristen and James. These mind games are the film’s meat. It’s the little moments, like the moved smoke detector, the missing cell phone charger and the doorknob rattles, that start to unglue Kristen and James. That sense of security a locked door and a security system provide go all to hell, and we can’t help but get dragged along.
Then “The Strangers” moves from mental to physical torture, and, well, that’s right about where things go a little sour. The characters start to do predictably illogical, dumb things — some mind-bogglingly so — simply because the plot requires them to. (Perhaps Bertino would have us believe fear makes logical people develop the I.Q. of sea kelp.) There’s more than one let’s-split-up moment that’s laughable. As the end approaches, “The Strangers” starts a downward spiral toward an end that is so outrageously over-the-top and contrived that it feels like it belongs in a vastly different and inferior film. The finale is an insult to our intelligence — except for the strangers’ frightening explanation of why they targeted Kristen and James — and it’s lazy to boot.
Does the end ruin “The Strangers”? It comes close, damn close, but the movie’s first half works perfectly as an intense psychological thriller, with Bertino shining an unwelcome light on that primordial human fear: that anyone can get to us anywhere at any time. And for much of the film this new director has the good sense to let tension run amock and let his actors run with it. Bertino would do well to revisit this strategy if he hopes to become anything more than a fifth-rate John Carpenter.