There's a game—perenially popular among teenagers—called Killer. Players are assigned to knock each other off, and the killings come as ambushes. It's all about the element of surprise and, conversely, the paranoia that a player with a "weapon" may be just around any corner. The new chiller The Strangers, sustains this familiar, gut-churning feeling of paranoia in something very close to real time: a taut 85 minutes. The killers are out there—can they be beaten at their own game?
The plot is simple: James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) and Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler), a newly (and inexplicably) estranged couple, return to their remote, wooded property late after a wedding reception. The home's warm invitation to love suddenly seems a mockery as the couple gets used to the notion of separating at dawn. The possibility of reconciliation—or, at the very least, goodbye sex—tugs at the two, but a series of creepy interruptions encroaches. Soon, it's apparent that a team of criminally insane would-be killers has a home invasion in mind. The oft-repeated million-dollar question: "Why are they doing this to us?"
First-time feature writer-director Bryan Bertino acquits himself well by demonstrating qualities in short supply in today's gore-geek directors: patience, control, visual naturalism, and aural expressionism. Indeed, Bertino proves his chops by creating much of the tension through sound and the simplification of sight in place of hyper-visual shocks (though when the scares get going, the photography is of the motion-sickness school). Thumps, rattles, scrapes, and tinkles—not to mention Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried" on the home's unlikely turntable—drive the characters and the audience up the wall as they wonder what the invaders are doing. The goal is emotional torture, and the goal is accomplished through lean means.
Like many genre films, The Strangers asks viewers to excuse sometimes gaping lapses of reason on the part of its freaked-out prey, but Bertino also wisely and unexpectedly undermines the male hero as one who has perpetuated an unrealistic image of macho competence. Scratch the concept and there's nothing underneath it but variations on primal fear and the behavior its inspires. At its emotional core, it's a carpe diem movie, with its on-the-rocks couple learning, perhaps too late, that it's best to love the one you're with. The film ends on a humorless punchline (spoiled by the movie's promotional campaign) that nevertheless grabs at the gut: whether it's an emotional twist of the knife or a pang of hungry emptiness depends on the viewer's sensibility. The film's bullshit designation "inspired by true events" is irrelevant. More to the point, does it feel real in the moment?
The question begs another: why do we put ourselves through these exercises in fear? Unlike Michael Haneke (whose Funny Games indicts films just like The Strangers), I tend to think it's more than mere, sick schadenfreude. Like the best roller coasters, the best horror movies conjure a visceral simulation of near-death—and so the brushes with death send an audience of grateful survivors out of the shadows and back into the light. By this standard, any horror movie that skillfully scares the shit out of an increasingly jaded audience serves its purpose. By aligning us with an ambushed man and woman trapped in an ever-tightening net, The Strangers pretty well succeeds in its goal. If you put yourself through the wringer only once this year, you could do worse than The Strangers.