Horror that could really happen creates a special kind of fear in the audience. The Strangers, written and directed by Bryan Bertino, sets a tone of utter plausibility and then proceeds to generate tension and scares. It’s a simple premise, but it’s pulled off with great skill.
We can tell from a flash-forward prologue sequence that something fairly horrible has happened at a nice-looking house on a country lane. The night before, James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) and Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) are driving together in teary silence. They are a couple, but they’re having problems, and James isn’t even sure he wants to spend the night in his family’s summer home with Kristen. While they’re trying to sort out their relationship, a young woman (Gemma Ward) bangs on the door at four in the morning, asking if someone named Tamara is within. When informed she’s got the wrong house, the young woman goes away, but only temporarily. Furthermore, she is not alone.
Filmmaker Bertino does us the courtesy of having his characters mostly behave with intelligence. It doesn’t take Kristen much time to suss out she’s in danger, and James doesn’t waste her or our time by disbelieving her for long. They do sensible things like search for weapons and try to escape. The bad guys seem to have oddly good luck in situations where things could go a number of ways, but no superhuman powers are required. Bertino makes excellent use of silence and small sounds, setting a mood of dread without doing much out of the ordinary.
Bertino is fine at handling scares, but even as the threat level increases, it becomes clear that we’re watching variations on the same riff playing again and again, not building to a payoff and not bringing us close to solving a mystery. The Strangers avoids graphic torture (a plus for many, a minus for some), the now-wait-a-minute twists of Vacancy and the intense irritation factor of Funny Games. However, because the film is so self-contained, at times verging on a minimalism that is reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project (though here we do get to see the bad guys), there’s also a sense that an element that might have given it more impact is missing.
Tyler has beautiful vulnerability and Speedman has an air of common sense that allow them to be very credible in the story situations. Ward is extremely creepy each time we encounter her.
The Strangers is a good example of its mini-genre, non-supernatural horror that seeks simply to scare without either major suspension of disbelief or any narrative effort beyond what is required to create fear. Its ambitions are modest, but it fulfills them well.