THE STRANGERS (Bryan Bertino). 87 minutes. Opens Friday (May 30). For venues and times, see listings. Rating: NNNNN
Once it gets going, about 20 minutes in, The Strangers is one long stalk-?and-?slash sequence involving a trio of masked baddies terrorizing a couple in an ordinary house on a deserted country road. That’s all there is. No backstory, no bizarre villain, no atmospheric setting, just people creeping around and making pathetic attempts to fight back.
Despite this, the movie achieves an okay level of tension, especially in the first half, because first-?time director Bryan Bertino has absorbed his Texas Chainsaw Massacre lessons well. He opens with the ominous voice-?over promising horrors to come, “inspired” by a true story, then has his camera eye blink in approved TCM style as it cruises houses. He keeps that camera moving uneasily throughout the movie, and fills his soundtrack with grating noise – so much that at one point it sounds like outtakes from Stomp!
But the mechanics of keeping an audience on edge and the mild shock moments don’t compensate for the serious lack of involving characters. Apart from the fact that he proposed and she refused, we know nothing about our terrorized couple, played by Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler (who deliver adequate screaming and sweating), and even less about the masked baddies, one man and two women, who say little, do little and are seldom seen.
Bertino may have been going for realism with his ultra-ordinary people and action, but the well-designed visuals and the shock techniques keep reminding us we’re watching a movie.