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The Strangers

Life With the Thrill Kill Cult

The Strangers is allegedly based on actual events, but even if that were true -- and rest assured, it isn’t -- one might reasonably wonder whether this vile cat-and-mouse exercise has anything to offer beyond the dubious thrill of watching helpless prey suffer.

Owing as much to Funny Games, Michael Haneke’s contemplation of murder as nihilistic sport, as to last year’s Vacancy, in which Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale stumble onto the set of a snuff film, Brian Bertino’s directorial debut is a nasty piece of work, luridly staging a home invasion in one of those sleepy suburbs where the screams of the dying go unheard. It is there that James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler) find themselves when a stranger arrives at their door, asking for Tamara.

Tamara is what Hitchcock famously termed a MacGuffin, a plot device intended only to advance the story, in this case by bringing the beleaguered couple face to face with the first of their masked tormentors. As the evening plods along, two more arrive, each with a gift for disappearing on cue. They stalk their victims in and around the house when it suits them, conveniently fading into the background whenever they’re in danger themselves.

Credit Bertino for hesitating to rush into the action, preferring instead to bide his time as James and Kristen’s uninvited guests make their presence felt without revealing their endgame. Lesser directors might have been quick to give their audience a cheap money shot, but Bertino seems more interested in buildups than payoffs, just as his killers seem happier to toy with their victims than to finish them.

It’s a strategy that works well at first, but Bertino, directing his own script, keeps the game going too long. If Hitchcock played the audience like a piano, Bertino plays until the strings snap – whatever tension he generates in the early going is undermined by too many empty setups. He cries wolf often, but by the time his beasts bare their fangs, nobody’s listening.

The theme, by now, is achingly familiar. The Strangers, like Haneke’s Funny Games and David Fincher’s Panic Room, is every homeowner’s nightmare taken to its grisliest extreme. The lesson, of course, is that you’re never safe, even (or especially) in the comfort of your own living from, from the threat of humiliation, mutilation or worse.

Bertino invites us to watch James and Kristen as they squirm, hunted by a trio of Manson-esque savages whose motives are distressingly arbitrary. (Asked to explain their choice of victims, their response is more chilling than any act of on-screen violence: “Because you were home.”) Ultimately, it’s an invitation best refused. The Strangers offers a few memorable scares, but it is less chilling in its simplicity than numbing in its banality.

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars