Fans of the "pitiless/merciless killers” school of horror should get a jolt out of "The Strangers,” a harrowing real-time tale of an assault on a remote country home.
This is "Funny Games” without the smug, rich villains and smug, taunt-the-audience director. It's "When a Stranger Calls” with the menace coming from a knock on the door in the middle of the night, not a phone call, or "Vacancy” set in a ranch house, not a hotel.
Yeah, it's derivative as all get out. You've seen one Hitchcock knock-off, you've seen them all.
But "The Strangers” is subtle by the standards of such thrillers. It builds suspense in its own sweet time. Writer-director Bryan Bertino manipulates, lets us see things that the would-be victims don't — scary things. He shamelessly yanks our chains, allowing the viewer to anticipate the terror to come.
And he cast this well. Liv Tyler's reactions to the hooded, masked strangers who torment her and beau James (Scott Speedman) are human, sane and perfectly rational. A hooded hulk stands outside her window just as she opens a curtain, and she does what we'd do: She screams bloody murder. Her character's reality keeps the film's little lapses in logic from utterly tripping up its brisk 80 minutes.
Kristen and James have just returned from a party. They're gloomy and drained, returning to a house with rose petals littering the floor, the bath and the bed, champagne on ice.