“Inspired by true events” is usually code for, “inspired by other terrible horror movies.” Although “The Strangers” does feature this clichéd, questionable disclaimer, it is still not your typical scary movie, as first time writer/director Bryan Bertino actually succeeds at keeping his audience on edge for the entire 85-minute running time.
The story begins with a 9-1-1 call, in which a boy cries about finding “blood everywhere” and “people.” His vague but alarming call sets off a confusing and quietly anxious mood that remains consistent throughout the entire film. We then meet the “people” that the boy was presumably referring to driving on an empty road in the middle of the night. This scenario isn’t exactly original, but James (Scott Speedman) and his girlfriend Kristen (Liv Tyler) aren’t like other horror-movie couples. Instead of being ridiculously happy and blissfully unaware of the dangers that lie ahead, James and Kristen are suffering through an awkward relationship crisis.
The tension between the couple is as palpable as the tension that the audience feels, anxiously awaiting the characters’ impending doom. They set up shop in James’ family lake house for the night and try to talk through their problems, giving viewers a glimpse into their three-dimensional personalities.
James and Kristen both seem like they could actually be real and intelligent people, not just slabs of meat to be butchered before the viewers’ eyes, which makes it all the more upsetting when their attempt to kiss and makeup is interrupted by a violent knock at the door. But the girl who did the knocking is just a little too small to have made such a loud noise. She asks for Tamara, and when James explains that she must have the wrong house, she lingers just a little too long before walking away. Hence, there is no singular instant when the horrors begin and end. Everything is just a little off, and all of the slightly weird happenings slowly add up to a plot that is unbearably suspenseful and creepy.
But “The Strangers” is no slow-paced M. Night Shyamalan thriller, where the scares get weighted down by a convoluted mystery that will inevitably be explained at film’s end. And though there is a decent amount of bloodshed and plenty of predictable jump-out-of-your-seat moments, it avoids sleazy slasher and special effects territory. The story is minimal and the onscreen action is sparse, yet every scene pulsates with an immediate feeling of anticipation and dread. Bertino’s simple script and stripped-down filmmaking strategies are precisely what make the film so incredibly disturbing.
“The Strangers” remains in the moment, focusing only on the terrifying events as they happen and not on what it could possibly all mean. But the mysterious plot holes become more apparent once the credits finally roll. These unanswered questions will haunt you long after leaving the theater.