In the pantheon of fears exploited by horrormeisters, the home invasion elicits deep-seated dread; it's a violation of our most basic beliefs in safety, security and control. For his feature film debut, writer and director Bryan Bertino adds insult to injury by toying with the audience as much as his trio of masked invaders taunt the young couple they find in an isolated vacation home.
An amoral exploration of primal duress, The Strangers is all about the tease, and it's as much fun to watch as a cat playing with trapped prey, shaking the captured creature back to life in order to derive more pleasure from its desperate squirming.
Even before the strangers appeared on the doorstep of his family's country house, the romantic evening James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) arranged as a surprise for his girlfriend Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) was not going as planned. Just seeing the pained expressions of James and Kristen as they sit silently in his car at a stoplight speaks volumes about the fractious state of their union. Bertino's spare script doesn't provide the gory details, but a thwarted marriage proposal has left them both stunned and confused.
The emotional carnage of unexpected rejection is interesting subject matter on its own, and for a few hope-filled minutes, it seems as if The Strangers might explore the painful consequences of a relationship suddenly gone awry. No such luck: The camera may be focused on them but James and Kristen are simply bait, and the life is drained out of them as soon as the strangers inexplicably intrude on their getaway. They are the hapless and clueless victims of a cold, calculated rampage conducted with no rhyme or reason.
Even at a brief 80 minutes, The Strangers feels drawn-out, a short story printed in a large typeface so it fills enough pages to be deemed a novel. The constant tease puts the audience in the position of wishing death on the traumatized couple, if only for the sake of some resolution. It's not bloodlust, just boredom.
The film's biggest problem is also its selling point: the strangers themselves. They have no personalities, no motives, and almost no dialogue. In their killer costumes, these devil dolls and their scarecrow leader are a farcical Manson family, acting out their own private Halloween rituals. Ruthless and relentless in their ennui, these pointless sadists inflict terror simply because they can.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.