Inspired by an incident in writer-director Brian Bertino's childhood (where a stranger to the Bertino residence asked for someone who didn't live there, and the next morning the family discovered empty neighbouring houses had been burgled), The Strangers is a well-constructed, effective, tense and chilling series of escalating creeps... for the first hour. Despite clocking in shy of 90-minutes, The Strangers has drained its own horror by the final act and starts running on fumes.
Inspired by real events (said Bertino incident and the book Helter Skelter, about the Manson family murders in 1969), The Strangers finds couple Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman) leaving a friend's wedding reception (during which James' own proposal of marriage was refused), to spend the night in a remote, wooded vacation home owned by his parents. An already tense atmosphere between the lovers is augmented by the arrival of a disquieting teenager (Gemma Ward) on their doorstep, enquiring after someone they've never heard of, then turns genuinely frightening when Kristen starts seeing masked strangers lurking around outside: a man in a sackcloth hood (Kip Weeks), a woman in a "Pin-Up Girl" mask (Laura Margolis) and the aforementioned teen (well, we assume) in a "Dollface" disguise.
To its credit, The Strangers doesn't try to explain its boogiemen or deflate the tension with identity reveals and motivations (only offering "because you were home" as the trio's raison d'etre when questioned.) Instead, the movie plays out like a dreamy home invasion, as Kristen and James try to fend off the interlopers, who inevitably ensure they're isolated and unable to run away or raise the alarm -- then spend most of their time eerily stepping out of shadows and generally presenting themselves as ethereal beings.
As Bertino's first movie, The Strangers is best treated as a calling card for a young man handed $9 million to direct his own script, that proves he can direct and build credible tension. There are some nice sequences and scares to be found here, particularly a moment when the needle on a record begins to skip in the midst of unfolding terror, but The Strangers is hobbled by problems on the page. Simply put, it's just isn't very interesting in terms of plot or characters, and there are few surprises in the narrative to rival the handful of chilly shocks Bertino doles out (the best ruined by the excellent trailer, incidentally.) Bertino tries to enliven the narrative by opening with the ending and telling the movie as a flashback, but it's just a token effort to make A to B plotting feel more creative than it really is.
Actors Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman do their best with thin ciphers -- particularly Tyler, who unsurprisingly makes for a good, resourceful victim with a good set of lungs (in both senses of the word) -- but both are overshadowed by the sooty ambience. The final moments are suitable nihilistic and don't betray the journey to that point, but I could understand audiences finding it slightly too grim and forgettable.
Overall, The Strangers is too lacking in plot and characterization to leave an indelible mark, but there's no denying that newcomer Brian Bertino understands how to create tension, the virtue of a scene with no musical score, and how to craft a spine-tingling visual. I'd love to see him get an opportunity to direct someone else's script, as it’s clear he didn’t really know how to progress his idea beyond its peripheral menace. The Strangers is a nice, moody short film by a talented beginner -- stretched to feature-length, where the lack of story and characterization slowly suffocates it.
Cast: Liv Tyler (Kristen McKay), Scott Speedman (James Hoyt), Gemma Ward (Dollface), Kip Weeks (The Man In The Mask), Laura Margolis (Pin-Up Girl), Glenn Howerton (Mike), Alex Fisher (Christian Boy #1) & Peter Clayton-Luce (Christian Boy #2)