Nameless, faceless killers invading America’s homesteads is still one of horror’s most reliable fear-generators, but lately the idea’s suffered benign neglect at the hands of mainstream horror directors attempting to out-gross each other in the post-“torture porn” stakes to put bloodthirsty teens in multiplex stadium seats. So should horror fans hungering for more old-school Halloween and less Rob Zombie Halloween get psyched for director Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers?
That depends on how much they’ll enjoy a movie with no real plot (let alone twists), little dialogue (let alone anything clever), and nothing but the Pavlovian conditioning of several decades-worth of horror films to tell you when to be spooked. Blank slates James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler) are introduced in what’s actually a rather deft, low-key sequence wherein the young couple returns to a vacation home from a friend’s wedding in terse, tearstained silence. We learn that James had proposed to Kristen outside the reception, she refused, and now they get to spend an awkward night together, alone in the woods. As soon as a strange, menacing girl shows up on their doorstep at 4 a.m., you’ll probably be able to map out the next hour.
James and Kristen are tormented by three mixed-gender lunatics who say almost nothing, appear to be able to enter and exit the locked house at will, and set about torturing the couple’s ever-more-fragile psyches, rather than their bodies. If anything distinguishes The Strangers from its peers, it’s that it’s surprisingly bloodless for a 2008 horror flick. The minimalist dialogue is so cheesy — “Why are they doing this?” the perpetually doe-eyed Tyler asks earnestly at one point — that you wonder if Bertino doesn’t mean it to be parodic. We learn nothing about the killers, and precious little about James and Kristen, other than that she’s got commitment issues and that he once lied about knowing how to fire a gun.
Without any emotional investment in these lambs-to-the-slaughter, the movie’s tension dissipates almost as soon as the director’s finished springing the latest surprise. In a way, The Strangers is a better indictment of bargain-basement American exploitation movies than Funny Games. Because it lacks the novelty or catharsis to compensate for its flaws, you leave the theater mostly wondering why you just spent an hour-and-a-half subjecting yourself to two pretty 30-something ciphers being abused.
— Jess Harvell