One would have to investigate official statistics to determine whether actual home invasions have become more frequent in recent days, but they’ve certainly spiked on-screen, from big-budget star vehicles like “Panic Room” and “Firewall” to foreign efforts like “Them.” We might have hoped that the satirical attack that Michael Haneke made on the whole genre in “Funny Games” might have slowed the tide, but if this frightfest from first-time writer-director Bryan Bertino is any indication, we’re still doomed to watch as characters of all sorts have their domiciles broken into and their peace of mind (as well as their physical safety) threatened. The problem with “The Strangers,” unfortunately, is that there’s nothing strange about it at all—it’s as familiar as an old shoe.
The script might have been written on the back of a napkin. A young couple, Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) and James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) repair to his family’s rustic summerhouse following a wedding reception, where he’s prepared a romantic dinner to follow his proposal of marriage. But things haven’t gone well; they’re both morose because she’s turned him down. Soon, however, they’re less sad than terrified when a blank-faced girl begins banging on the door. That’s only the beginning, though; soon she’s joined by two cohorts, and the trio—all now wearing doll masks—first frighten the couple with loud noises and then begin using axes and knives. Hoyt and McKay try to escape, of course, and to call for help, but to no avail, as is made clear from a prologue in which two Mormon boys find the aftermath of the night, a scene that’s returned to in graphic form at the close.
The movie is nothing more than a grisly, morally disreputable cat-and-mouse exercise that has no point beyond viscerally implicating viewers in the same sadistic game played by the villains. And though, as in so many trashy thrillers made nowadays that appeal to the audience’s basest instincts, Bertino employs all the tricks of the trade to generate shocks, it’s really not very successful in doing so. Part of the problem is the awful cinematography (by Peter Sova), which is grainy, dim and marked by hand-held camerawork so extreme that it would induce nausea on its own, whatever was happening on the screen. (This sort of thing, which suggests that the camera operator must have been suffering from palsy, has become entirely too common. Can’t anybody afford a tripod anymore? We don’t ask for Steadicams, just a steady one.) It’s bad enough to make you adopt the refrain that Kristen keeps posing to her tormentors: “Why are you doing this to us?”
Tyler and Speedman are the only performers of any consequence here, and after a really drab first act in which they moan and make doe-eyes at one another, they shiver, scream and run around as the plot requires before returning to morose mode at the close. She plays the sad-faced princess to his singularly inept Prince Charming, and both should be as distressed about being cast in the picture as Hoyt and McKay are supposed to be about their unhappy situation. Glenn Howerton makes little impression as the friend who happens upon the scene at the wrong time with unfortunate results—it’s essentially the same part that Scatman Crothers played in “The Shining”—nor do Gemma Ward, Kip Weeks and Laura Margolis strike any sparks as the malevolent intruders. But at least they have the good fortune to be masked pretty much throughout. The tykes playing the Mormon kids are so stiff and amateurish that you suspect that they’re relatives of the filmmakers.
“The Strangers” claims to be “inspired by actual events,” and then adds that nobody really knows what happened. In reality it’s just another crass and depressing attempt to play on the atmosphere of fear and paranoia prevalent in the U.S. today. It’s truly a Bush era movie, and that’s no compliment.