Dir: Bryan Bertino. US. 2008. 85 mins.
Bryan Bertino's debut feature 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 mixes pulse-pounding scenes of explicit menace with stalking scenarios more rooted in sustained dread.
Opening wide this week as modestly-budgeted counter-programming to Sex and the City, The Strangers won't manage quite the same level of teen audience which took 2006's remake of When a Stranger Calls to $48m domestically. Positive word-of-mouth, though, should give it some repeat-business staying power in the US, especially given a lack of direct genre competition; international receipts might be aided by residual affection for star Liv Tyler and overall, the film's skilful execution should yield significant pay-cable and DVD earnings.
After a narrated introduction which 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 (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, however, they're visited by a woman creepily asking 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, 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 by having the young lovers at his story's centre begin at a distance from one another; Kristen has turned down James' marriage proposal, at least for the time being. This choice, along with strong performances from both Tyler and Speedman, help quickly create a shared sympathy for the characters.
By being unafraid to trade so heartily in silences and tension rather than solely crashing thrills, Bertino crafts a work that outstrips the typically baser impulses of 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 a member of the audience
For the most part eschewing jump-scares, Bertino favours wide-angle compositions and floating, hand-held camera work that help give the movie an 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.
Director of photography