An exercise in purebred, string-pulling craft, debut director Bryan Bertino's The Strangers is an effectively grim, exceedingly well made horror thriller. Wringing atmospheric tension out of the familiar set-up of a besieged young couple, the movie compares favorably to recent genre cousins, mixing pulse-pounding scenes of more explicit menacing with passages of stalking more rooted in sustained dread.
Opening wide this week as goosing, modestly-budgeted counter-programming to the big screen version of Sex and the City, The Strangers won't be able to pull in the sort of younger teen audiences that made a $48 million domestic hit out of 2006's remake of When a Stranger Calls. Positive word-of-mouth, though, should give it some Stateside repeat-business staying power, especially given a lack of direct genre competition.
After a narrated textual introduction that frames the movie, somewhat dubiously, as “inspired by true events,” The Strangers unfolds over a period of several hours, almost exclusively at night. After leaving a friend's wedding reception, Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) and James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) head to a relatively secluded country home that once belonged to James' parents, for their own supposed night of celebration. Not long after their arrival in the dead of night, however, they're visited by a woman creepily asking only if “Tamara” is there. After politely responding in the negative, James and Kristen are later attacked by a trio of mysterious, masked strangers — two women and one man — who take an unarticulated psychosexual delight in toying with their intended victims.
The story itself here, also penned by Bertino, is perhaps slim, but between the exacting care paid to its execution and a certain amount of subtext, there's certainly enough here to make a convincing case for the film as a metaphor. It's not an explicit self-critique of cinema like Michael Haneke's recent remake of his own Funny Games, but rather a more general commentary that, in its own way, takes the temperature of these nervous times.
As with Nimrod Antal's Vacancy, Bertino shades the material somewhat interestingly by having the young lovers at his story's center begin quite apart from one another; Kristen has turned down James' marriage proposal, at least for the time being. This choice, along with strong, dialed-in performances from both Tyler and Speedman, help quickly create a shared sympathy for the characters in what is otherwise a fairly streamlined tale.
By being unafraid to trade so heartily in silences and tension rather than solely crashing thrills, Bertino crafts a work that easily outstrips the typically baser impulses of so much like-minded fare. It's not merely about keeping one guessing with story choices; as with the best, most unnerving thrillers, there's a parallel sense of unease that comes from not knowing exactly what a film wants from you as an audience member. The Strangers works in this vein because its antagonists are physically unknown and also driven by unexplained impulses that extend beyond “just” killing.
For the most part eschewing desultory jump-scares, Bertino favors wide-angle compositions and floating, hand-held camera work, from cinematographer Peter Sova (Donnie Brasco), that help give the movie a fantastically accumulated sense of unease. This care extends to the film's soundtrack, too, which makes fine use of crackling fire and record player pops in the background. For the full review, from Screen International, click here. (Universal/Rogue, R, 85 minutes)