The suspense of having your home invaded by a nameless, faceless killer is still one of horror's most reliable fear-generators, but lately the idea's suffered a bit of benign neglect by mainstream horror directors attempting to outgross each other in the post-"torture porn" stakes to put bloodthirsty teens in multiplex stadium seats. So should horror fans hungering for more old-school Halloween and less Rob Zombie Halloween get psyched for director Bryan Bertino's The Strangers, where Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman are mercilessly (and pointlessly) terrorized by three masked maniacs for a focused 90 minutes of dread, rather than gore?
That depends on how much they'll enjoy a movie with no real plot (let alone twists), little dialogue (let alone anything clever), and nothing but the Pavlovian conditioning of several decades worth of horror films to tell you when to be spooked. Blank slates James (Speedman) and Kristen (Tyler) are introduced in what's actually a rather deft, low-key sequence where the young couple returns to a vacation home from a friend's wedding in terse, tear-stained silence. We learn that James had proposed to Kristen outside the reception, she refused, and now they get to spend an awkward night together, alone in the woods. As soon as a strange, menacing girl shows up on their doorstep at 4 a.m., you'll probably be able to map out the next hour.
James and Kristen are besieged by three mixed-gender lunatics who say almost nothing, appear to be able to enter and exit the locked house at will, and set about torturing the couple's ever-more-fragile psyches, rather than their bodies. If anything distinguishes The Strangers from its peers, it is that it's surprisingly bloodless for a 2008 horror flick. The minimalist dialogue is so cheesy--"Why are they doing this?" the perpetually doe-eyed Tyler asks earnestly at one point--that you wonder if Bertino doesn't mean it to be parodic. We learn nothing about the killers, and precious little about James and Kristen, other than that she's got commitment issues and he once lied about knowing how to fire a gun--though he takes to it quickly enough. The Strangers plays like some platonic slasher procedural, with Bertino deciding that character development and backstory are peripheral to the pure delight of creeping out an audience.
But without any emotional investment in these lambs-to-the-slaughter, the movie's tension dissipates almost as soon as the director's finished springing the latest surprise. His shocks are shtick, and The Strangers turns out to be a better indictment of bargain-basement American exploitation movies than someone like Funny Games director Michael Haneke could manage with all the metacommentary in the world. It lacks even novelty or catharsis to compensate for its flaws, and you leave the theater mostly wondering why you just spent an hour and a half subjecting yourself to two pretty thirtysomething ciphers being psychologically--and physically--abused.