A young couple at a remote house get some very-latenight, highly unwelcome visitors in debuting writer-director Bryan Bertino’s effectively stripped-down thriller “The Strangers.” Offering home invasion horror on a less intellectualized plane than the recent “Funny Games U.S.,” “Strangers” should court correspondingly more robust patronage from mainstream fright fans — even if this exercise, too, might leave some viewers wondering what the point is at the punishing journey’s end.
In an opening that appears to reprise, with seriousness, ’70s genre cliches parodied in “Grindhouse’s” mock horror trailers, a male voice grimly reads onscreen titles informing us that the events we’re about to see actually took place at 1801 Clark Road on Feb. 11, 2005. (This is a ruse, as Bertino has said the story isn’t based on any particular case.) We then see two boys on bicycles bearing Christian literature cautiously step into a home whose destroyed front door is just the first sign of violence.
On the soundtrack, a woman’s hysterical call to 911 is heard.
Rewind to the night before, as Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman) silently drive back from a wedding reception, she in tears. Reaching his family’s old vacation home — strewn with candles and rose petals in anticipation of a now-unlikely romantic finale to the evening — it gradually becomes clear he proposed, and her answer was not the one expected. Nonetheless, they’re about to embark on some make-up sex when there’s a knock at the door, which is odd, since it’s 4 a.m.
Porch light out, they dimly spy a blond girl outside, asking “Is Tamara here?” She’s assured she has the wrong house. Later, needing a drive to settle his nerves, James goes to get Kristen some cigarettes, leaving her alone in the isolated house surrounded by woods.
She isn’t alone for long, though.
Separation of leads, personal injuries, a friend’s untimely arrival and other invariably dire turns of fate keep the action, which more or less plays out in real time, taut. Bertino, lenser Peter Sova and editor Kevin Greutert make things queasily simple: There’s a distinct absence of the usual shock cuts, false scares, or even gore f/x, though things get bloody enough.
The disturbingly unemotional antagonists played by Gemma Ward, Kip Weeks and Laura Margolis are just fleetingly glimpsed until quite late.
Quiet is used to unsettling effect, with tomandandy’s near-musique concrete score as well as what’s supposed to be old vinyl folk/country records (but are in fact mostly new alt-country tracks by the likes of Gillian Welch and Wilco) sparsely deployed.
It’s all efficiently nerve-jangling, with Tyler and Speedman credibly registering every hue of panic. Still, after such a long, creepy, cannily restrained buildup (in order to look more action-packed, the pic’s promos cannibalize bits from right up toward the end), it must be said the resolution is rather flat, a full-circle postscript rote. Instead of the chill atmosphere following one out of the theater, these last moments instill a more “Yeah, whatever” aftertaste.
Shot in South Carolina, the production’s tech and design elements are all on the money.