If you’re after a guilt-free (but intellectually malnourished) antidote to Funny Games, this is the psycho-chiller for you. It takes the same motiveless, homicidal-sadists-invade-holiday-house plot and serves it up with all the jump-fright panache that Michael Haneke wanted us to examine ourselves for relishing. It’s like being force-fed multiple tablespoons of cod-liver oil then gorging on strawberry milkshake; the good-for-you factor can’t touch the places a really tasty, gratifying experience can reach.
Of course, the analogy only holds if The Strangers has any merit, which it does, especially in its early frames. Neophyte writer/director Bryan Bertino skillfully contrives a creeping sense of dread as unhappy couple James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler), fresh from a wedding, arrive at his parents’ isolated country home in the middle of the night. The pair are soon spooked out of a teary heart-to-heart by a very weird girl knocking thunderously at the door. The midnight stranger quickly gains two accomplices – another female in a mannequin-doll mask, plus a bloke in a scarecrow-style sack – who proceed to toy remorselessly with their stranded prey.
Tyler makes the perfect jibbering emotional wreck. Maximising the scares with limpid doe-eyes and quivering lips, her lack of resourcefulness casts her as a plausible victim. Flashbacks to the wedding, which slowly reveal why James and Kristen are in couple misery, build empathy rather than detract from the tension, even fleshing out some of their more moronic decisions.
Director Bertino does an accomplished job of tightening the anxiety noose with manipulating silences and abrupt jolts, minute gestures (a moved cellphone) and incongruous country ballads. Masks, meanwhile, once again prove their worth as one of the most terrifying tools in the genre box. Things come a bit unstuck in the home stretch thanks to some suspense seepage and plodding mechanics. But for the most part, Bertino’s debut is built for the kill.