I almost walked out of this film -- high praise indeed for select viewers.
Those of you who enjoy feeling freaked out, holding your breath and biting your nails for 90 vicariously fraught minutes should find this horror thriller a satisfactorily outing.
I'm hard-pressed to recall the last time I sat through a similar film, a ratchet-up-the-tension scare-piece that relies heavily on suggestion and the anticipation of horrible things that may or may not happen. (The first claustrophobic, this-can't-end-well hour of the chicks-only cave drama The Descent certainly had me squirming, but a silly second half diffused most of my anxiety.)
The Strangers, the debut feature from writer-director Bryan Bertino, begins with an on-screen disclaimer saying: "The horrifying events that took place in the Hoyt family's vacation home at 1801 Clark Road on February 11, 2005, are still not entirely known."
That bit of dramatic license tips us to impending trouble, as does the opening scene. On a quiet morning, the camera captures a home in disarray, including a bloody butcher knife, a shotgun idling on a countertop, a popped champagne bottle and an empty ring box. A frantic 911 call -- "there's blood everywhere" -- underscores the eerily still aftermath of something dreadful.
The storyline is simple, and begins the night before: After leaving a wedding, James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler) opt to spend the night at James' parents' country house, only to find themselves menaced by mysterious strangers. The rest of the night's events I'll leave you to discover.
In most respects, The Strangers is a rote thriller about a Night at a Spooky House in the Sticks, with few mild tweaks. But given its B-movie status and premise, the execution is pretty darn good. Watching this film made me very jumpy, so my hat's off to Bertino. He's clearly studied the Old Masters of suspense and ignored the New Turks of torture-porn.
There's actually very little violence, and certainly none of the anatomically correct grisly stuff that is the hallmark of recent horror thrillers. Depicting worrisome people engaged in watching, or lurking, can be much more unnerving than lovingly showing a vigorous disemboweling.
The Strangers is sparsely cast, but if there's a third major character, it's the house -- an ordinary late-model ranch home that's so familiar, yet so ripe for menace with its one long dead-end hallway and too many ground-floor windows.
Bertino also mines a lot of unease out of silence, and from benign but disturbing sounds such as the unsettling scritch-scritch of a turntable needle trapped in the record's last groove. The duo tomandandy contribute a moody score, but Bertino also reaches for some unexpected songs with chilling results. One knuckle-biting scene is backed with the Merle Haggard chestnut "Mama Tried," which just seems to play on in semi-surreal, disconnected, toe-tapping bliss.
For the record, I did stick the film out while silently pleading "hurry up, hurry up." I was rewarded for my professionalism by at least one night's disturbed sleep.
Starts Fri., May 30.
- Liv Tyler: Home alone?