“The Strangers” is a tease of a horror movie. It’s a solid 75 minutes of frightful foreplay, with shifting shadows and menacing noises working in concert to craft pure, unadulterated suspense. There are moments when “The Strangers” is absolutely, unbearably terrifying, and first-time director Brian Bertino ratchets up the scares so effectively that, for a moment, it seems as though things can’t get any more terrifying. And then…they don’t. The movie ends, the credits roll, and all the viewer is left with is a case of cinematic blue balls.
Of course, it’s a hell of a build-up, and Bertino should get a lot of credit for establishing and maintaining an awesomely high level of suspense throughout the movie’s first two acts. Bertino keeps things sparse, which helps. Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman) are spending the night at James’ family’s secluded vacation home. They’re having major relationship issues—he proposed, she declined—and things are already tense when a mysterious girl starts pounding on the door at 4 a.m. She wants to know if Tamara is home; she’s not, but James and Kristen are, and it’s not long before the girl and two friends slip on some scary masks and start raising hell.
It’s a thin premise, but Bertino wrings it for all its worth. Relying heavily on shadows and mirrors, Bertino makes the sprawling home feel claustrophobic and confining. The mask-clad strangers float through the movie, melting in and out of the darkness, appearing and disappearing suddenly each time the camera finds them. The strangers toy with their victims, and in doing so, Bertino toys with the audience. As Kristen and James scramble around the house, first in search of an escape route and then in search of weapons, the killers watch dispassionately, as though they’re looking at ants scurrying underneath a magnifying glass.
Likewise, the audience squirms. Bertino’s killers hesitate and play with their victims, reaching out to grab them and then withdrawing, as though they’re purely in it for the hunt. The equally sparse soundtrack (by composers Tom Hajdu and Andy Milburn, who also worked on “The Hills Have Eyes” remake, “The Mothman Propheices” and others) keeps the tension high. The random noises—scratches, shrieks, pounding on glass and drumming on walls—are pleasantly spooky, though by the film’s midway point, it sometimes sounds like the killers might break into a drum solo in order to flush out their victims. Meanwhile, the cinematography by Peter Sova gives the film a look that confidently struts the line between slick Hollywood film and low-budget exploitation flick.
Throw in some decent performances by Speedman and Tyler and everything should add up to a killer movie. And it almost does—right up until the last 10 minutes. “The Strangers” works more in the vein of movies like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Halloween,” in which the gore and guts are secondary to the scares and characters. (And yeah, “The Strangers” probably owes a big debt to 2006’s “Ils,” and it definitely lifts much of the circumstances surrounding the Manson Family murders, but that’s besides the point) There’s a slow accumulation of terror and finally a cathartic release (which doesn’t necessarily entail a happy ending). “The Strangers” smartly eschews the temptation to devolve into torture porn—which is all release and no build up—but it totally drops the ball at the end. The masked killers say almost nothing (when asked why they’re mounting this campaign of terror, one replies, “Because you were home.”) and once they’ve cornered their prey, go about their ghastly business quietly, quickly and matter-of-factly. It’s a joke without a punchline, an ending so abrupt and inconclusive that it can barely be called a conclusion.
Maybe that’s what Bertino was going for, a sort of Tantric approach to horror, denying the viewer that expected final, bloody release. Maybe Bertino was trying to show how horror films can still be terrifying without the usual motivations (ghosts, revenge, and so on and so forth). But anyone who watches the news knows that random senseless violence is terrifying, so that’s no great revelation. And while mayhem without context is a great storytelling device, it’s not a story in itself, and that leaves “The Strangers” feeling pretty empty.
All hope is not lost, though. This is Bertino’s first movie, and it’s clear he’s got the fundamentals down, at least in terms of technical prowess. He knows how to place the camera for maximum effect and carve out some genuine frights using nothing more than some creative lighting and the power of suggestion. If he can get his storytelling inadequacies out of the way, Bertino may, in a few years, be less of a stranger and more like an old friend to horror fans.