Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Bryan Bertino
Writer: Bryan Bertino
Producer: Doug Davison, Roy Lee, Nathan Kahane
Stars: Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman, Gemma Ward, Kip Weeks, Laura Margolis, Glenn Howerton
Three masked intruders terrorize a troubled young couple trapped inside their secluded vacation home.
Horror film concepts don’t come much simpler, or scarier, than writer/director Bryan Bertino’s “The Strangers.” Alone in the dead of night inside a secluded house, Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman) find themselves trapped and terrified by three masked intruders. Why? Because they were home. Although that setup seems lean, what the movie lacks in story it more than makes up for in strong cinematic suspense.
Bertino does a great deal in under two minutes to set the stage before even getting into the plot. An imposing voice’s opening narration of quickly forgotten statistics and “based on true events” claims* initially appears superfluous. Yet it echoes the John Larroquette voiceover that begins “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” seating mood in a similar feeling of fact and fantasy blending together in an uncomfortably frightful way.
*If you’re still in the dark regarding what those “true events” are, know that they refer mainly to a childhood experience of Bertino’s where thieves knocked on neighborhood doors under the guise of looking for a friend. In reality, they wanted to find unoccupied houses to rob. Bertino also cites inspiration from wondering what the experience must have been like for victims of the Tate-LaBianca murders, who had no idea who the Manson Family was or what they were doing in their homes. Claims that “The Strangers” based its premise on the 1981 Keddie Murders in Cabin 28, or any other actual occurrence, are unfounded. Hence the thin line delineation between “true story” and “true events.”
The movie next moves to a montage of suburban homes accompanied by audio of a car engine. Never mind outward appearances. There is nothing unnecessary about this sequence either. The ominous implications underneath such sights and sounds are clear. You have no idea who passes by outside your windows on a regular basis, or what they might be plotting. This could happen anywhere, to anyone. This could happen to you.
Successful thrillers, the ones that garner the most universal acclaim, often share the ability to tap into a commonly experienced fear. With “The Strangers,” it’s the fear of being home alone, vulnerable inside a familiar location normally associated with comfort. Who hasn’t heard a creak on an upstairs floorboard or seen a fleeting shadow pass a window and wondered what worse thing could come next? “The Strangers” bottles those “what ifs” that have wandered through the darkest corners of everyone’s minds and gives them tangible shape in horror film form. Seeing this scenario play out while feeling as helpless as the victims onscreen is every bit as harrowing as the imagination always assumed it would be.
Material in the movie unrelated to the intruders is also satisfyingly dramatic, albeit in a different manner. We are introduced to Kristen and James sitting at a stoplight. James looks down dejected. A tear streaks Kristen’s cheek. Well before a flashback fills in the blanks, details collectively compose their complete backstory, which continues when they first arrive at the house.
It takes truly talented actors to breathe life into these people, and that is exactly what Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman do. Kristen and James aren’t pincushions placed in the plot only to react to the strangers’ actions, even though they easily could be. With a script slim on dialogue, Tyler and Speedman speak with silence and body language, tethering the audience to them through a precise amount of unspoken emotion, chemistry, and characterization.
The masked intruders similarly use silence to deliberately frustrate as antagonists. Their stoic stature establishes sinister strength through callous confidence. Empty-expression masks with only the slightest hint of personality are unnervingly haunting. Rarely have faceless villains been this distinctively disturbing by intentionally not having identities.
“The Strangers” efficiently breezes through its nerve-rattling chills with economy, yet without shortchanging substance. Scenes somewhat struggle to find new scenarios for challenging Kristen and James though. A closed chimney flue setting off a smoke detector to set up a subtle spook, and several stop and stare sequences too, work more to stretch the runtime than really ratchet tension. Yet nothing runs out of the realm of realism. There aren’t any manufactured moments of precarious ledge dangling or “why would they do that?” implausibilities. Keeping the ordeal grounded heightens how scarily relatable everything unfortunately is.
I could get into other hangnails like a handheld camera whose determination to deliver a “Friday Night Lights” feel becomes distracting. But overall, “The Strangers” stands out as an unforgettable example of effective dread created from minimalist components. It is simply the standard by which all home invasion films must be measured in terms of resonant sensation and imagination infection. If you can’t do it better than this, don’t even try.
Review Score: 85