There are a handful of reasons to walk into Bryan Bertino's The Strangers with a good dose of skepticism: First off, the flick was supposed to hit theaters about a year ago, but it got bumped (for undisclosed reasons) and then (allegedly) the studio monkeyed around with the ending. Added to that are the theories that most "studio" horror flicks suck raw eggs AND the fact that we're working with a first-time writer / director. Consider all that plus the well-worn plot "domestic invasion!" concept that we're offered here. Yep, there was a pretty good chance that The Strangers was going to suck.
Which makes the fact that The Strangers doesn't suck quite the pleasant little surprise. No, it's not nearly great (and I doubt it's a thriller I'll even revisit on DVD), but the flick is simply a lean, mean, and generally chilling affair that doles out the jolts with a good deal of style and intensity. Astute horror fans have had their fair share of "domestic invasion" thrillers over the past few years -- including Them, Inside, and the Funny Games remake -- and while The Strangers certainly doesn't forge any new ground, there's always something to be said for a horror flick that forges old ground colorfully. The plot is a one-sentence affair: A young couple return to an isolated cabin after a wedding, they deal with some unpleasant domestic issues, and then ... the strangers arrive.
At first it's just a strange girl looking for someone called Tamra -- but it's after 4am, which is why James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler) are more than a little freaked out. This early sense of off-kilter unease soon blossoms into a few hours of full-bore terror as three mask-wearing assailants do all they can to scare the young lovers to death. After a slightly draggy set-up, The Strangers quickly settles into a very cool groove: Bertino is clearly interested in scaring us through mood, atmosphere, and the power of well-placed shadows -- and boy does the director milk those creepy masks for all they're worth. (It's like they said in Baghead: A guy with a bag on his head is just scary.) Both leads are quite excellent at making us care about two relative "strangers," although to be fair, it's Ms. Tyler who has to do most of the heavy lifting here. (And has anyone noticed how she's turned from eye candy into quite the solid actress? I have.)
Bolstered by an effectively jarring score (by Tomandandy), some unexpectedly excellent cinematography (by Peter Sova), and a generally stripped-down vibe of late-'70s creepiness, The Strangers should work quite well for anyone who enjoys basic-yet-enjoyable "squirm and shriek" thrillers like Vacancy, Identity, and Red Eye. If the flick has a few plot-holes and it relies on the "dark shadow misdirection" trick about two times too many, those are gripes easily forgiven. If simple jolts delivered in a crisp and efficient fashion sound like fun to you, I've no problem recommending this creepy little 85-minute stalk-fest.
And hey, let's hear it for a horror movie that gets an R rating for actual intensity -- because it's really no more graphically violent than some PG-13 horror flicks.