As with last year’s lean, mean B-movie Vacancy, Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers is a white-knuckle thriller in which a couple going through relationship difficulties is terrorized by psychos. Eliciting tension from a home-invasion scenario, it’s a film Michael Haneke—whose hectoring Funny Games critiques this exact type of mayhem-entertainment—would hate. But to hell with Haneke. Bertino’s debut is a blistering old-school horror show, shrewd in its ability to develop empathy for its protagonists, canny in its manipulation of silence and the unseen to generate fear, and clever in its economy, the director modulating his tale’s quiet and chaotic moments with razor-sharp dexterity.
After introductory text that casts the forthcoming events as “inspired by a true story” and the subsequent, brief glimpse of two young Mormon missionaries happening upon a house in bloody disarray, Strangers flashes back hours earlier to the departure of James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) and Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) from a wedding. Their uncomfortable sadness is immediately palpable, but Bertino waits until after they arrive at James’s remote family vacation home—which has been decorated with rose petals for a romantic evening—to reveal that a failed marriage proposal is the cause of their unhappiness. Bertino’s precise snapshots of the couple’s discomfort create a strong sense of intimacy, culminating in a desperate, carnal attempt at reconciliation in which close-ups of hands tightly grasping bodies conveys the mixture of pain, sorrow and love that underscores their current, strained circumstances.
Before any amorous reunion can be consummated, however, a thunderous knock at the door shatters their solitude and signals the commencement of a siege on the isolated residence by three intruders—a male dressed in a suit and a Scarecrow-ish bag on his head, and two females wearing mannequin-doll masks—whose objectives seems to be intimidation first, murder second. What follows is a classic genre scenario, with the villains frightening James and Kristen with mysterious loud noises and small gestures (a moved smoke alarm, a cellphone placed on a mantle) that make clear their ability to enter the abode, and then slowly stalking them with intent to kill. Nonetheless, situational unoriginality is greatly alleviated by Bertino’s staging, which places a premium on methodical stillness that not only generates rising anxiety but, just as importantly, allows audience members to actively engage with James and Kristen’s decision-making process in the face of sudden, severe adversity.
That the duo’s choices aren’t always plausible is an issue intermittently. Yet Bertino makes up for some questionable plot turns (such as having James twice leave Kristen home alone) with creepy use of country ballads, alarming shots of the strangers materializing in the frame’s background, and a few minor details—James’s patronizing he-man confidence when confronted by Kristen’s panic, and his admission that his hunting prowess was a lie, “just something I said”—that bring unexpected depth to the characters. “Why are they doing this to us?” is the thrice-repeated question uttered by Kristen, and it’s the mysteriousness of the faceless fiends’ motivations that contributes an air of nerve-rattling randomness to their rampage. This sustained inscrutability is also why, though Strangers doesn’t lay on long-winded climactic exposition, its finale is the writer-director’s main (albeit minor) misstep, if only because after rooting suspense in shared glances, stark imagery and the menacing sound of silence, he should have recognized that the answer his film provides to Kristen’s desperate query would have been more chilling had it simply been left unsaid.