The Strangers Bryan Bertino

The Strangers Bryan Bertino
Home invasion thriller The Strangers opens on James and Kristen as they leave a wedding (not their own) late at night, awkwardly heading for what had been planned as a romantic getaway at his parents’ remote vacation house. We know, thanks to a laughably portentous voiceover, that trouble is a brewing. (We’re also told that the movie is inspired by true events, but c’mon! It’s not giving too much away to note that the proceedings won’t leave behind much in the way of reliable witnesses.)

As played by Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler, two of the more likeable starters on Hollywood’s B-team, the couple seem mature, even chaste. It’s apparent that they’re on the road to marriage themselves, but travelling at slightly different rates, hence the teary upset that has spoiled the big night. Since it’s usually naughty sex that moves the needle on the psycho meter, this is already something of a paradigm shift — unlike the usual hormone-spraying twits, this pair don’t seem to have it coming.

But starting with a four a.m. visit from a queasily enervated teen, the weirdness slowly ratchets up, first outside and then, inevitably — missing cell phone, self-starting phonograph — inside. That James and Kristen are dealing with their own angst somehow makes the encroaching tension squeeze a little tighter.

The shocks, and there are plenty, are the lowest of low tech — the atavistic chills of mysterious footsteps, knocks on doors and burlap sacks with holes cut out for eyes. We’re served nothing arcane, alien or supernatural, except to the extent imputed by our fevered imaginations. The movie plays a single note — the deep rooted fear of danger in the one place where we assume safety — but keeps it in tune most of the way.

Those who’ve seen the slightly superior 2006 French thriller Ils will be acutely aware of l’éléphant dans la chambre: the fact that, with a few light, possibly copyright-defeating tweaks to detail and locale, The Strangers is for much of its length the same freaking movie!!! We can leave that one for the litigators to play with, except to note that while the French blew it out with an improbable, but wickedly tense, coda inside the nearby sewers, here we pretty much stay inside, with the result that we lose a little focus in the third act, as rookie writer/director Bryan Bertino runs out of permutations for his very basic materials.

Bertino also tacks on a next morning denouement wherein the ethereal and just-out-of-frame becomes disappointingly and gorily actual. In particular, a dopey final shot straight out of De Palma for Dummies drags us forcibly back to the nakedly exploitative sphere that has otherwise been largely avoided.

Still, The Strangers is brutal, realistic (no up-from-the-depths superhuman heroics) and, at 90 minutes, efficient. It knows what it is, and no one will accuse its reach of exceeding its grasp. (Fox)