A beautiful young woman clutches a raised knife and advances fearfully into the dark unknown. It's long been a visual cliché in slasher and bad horror flicks, but The Strangers is neither. It stars Liv Tyler as Kristen, the woman trying to fend off danger with an uncertain grip on a kitchen knife. She is the terrific, fast-beating heart of a story that slips with sure steps into the twilight zone between crime drama and occult thriller.
In bare outline, The Strangers is about a house invasion, a crime especially unsettling because it penetrates the most private sanctuary of domesticity. Another film on that theme came and went recently, director Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, about a pair of prep school sociopaths who terrorize and murder a family in their summer home. With Teutonic tedium and the unearned arrogance of someone who spent too many years in art school with the wrong instructors, the Austrian Haneke overlaid his often dull picture with a pretentious agenda of “implicating” the audience in the violent scenes he himself created.
With The Strangers, fledgling writer-director Bryan Bertino dispenses with pseudo-intellectual cant and summons the nightmares that lurk in our subconscious. Kristen begs the eerily masked trio tormenting her and boyfriend James (Scott Speedman) to answer, “Why are you doing this?” The girl invaders remain mute behind the frozen expression of their birthday party masks, as does their male companion under a gunnysack with gaping holes for his eyes and mouth.
Bertino’s skill as a filmmaker is already evident when Kristen and James are introduced. They are waiting at an intersection, their faces lurid from the stoplight’s red glare. Her cheek is smudged with a tear. They drive in silence for James’ family summer home, a rambling ranch house on a country lane enclosed by woods. Kristen and James are at a point in their relationship where emotions are crossed and confused. They are entering the dark womb of an isolated spot meant as a comfortable retreat. The family home with all its memories for James will soon be haunted by the malevolent masked specters whose actions are so unsettling because they have no cause or reason.
There are two problems with The Strangers; they come in the first three minutes and might have been imposed by the film’s producers according to their own inscrutable calculations. There is a flash forward to the end that gives away most of the conclusion but without, thanks to Bertino’s ability to keep audiences at the edge of their seats, dampening the tension too much. And then there is a recitation of FBI violent crime statistics accompanied by an assurance that the story we are about to see is “inspired by true events.”
The just-the-facts introduction sets up The Strangers as a crime movie when almost everything about the staging and cinematography suggests the supernatural. The many visually spooky scenes include the gaping masked male intruder who silently appears in the far corner of the house’s shadowy interior; Kristen is turned from him, unaware of the pale shape hovering in darkness. The trio of devils dart here and there through the night in a game of now you see us, now you don’t. Between branches snapping in the woods, creaking floorboards, rapping on the front door, the tolling of distant wind chimes and a turntable needle stuck in a vinyl groove, The Strangers’ use of sound to convey mounting terror is as acute as Edgar Alan Poe’s “The Bells.”
The empathy between Kristen and James, made real in the swift strokes that define the characters and their relationship, increases our sympathy for what befalls them. The Strangers is a tale of the uncanny dressed up as a blood splattered crime scene. Like the best horror, it leaves much of what happened to the imagination.