The Strangers (2008)
“Is Tamara here?”
Writer/director Bryan Bertino creates an awful lot of terror beginning with that line. A couple heads to an isolated summer home after a wedding. It was meant to be the first stop on their life together, or so we gather, but not all worked out as James (Scott Speedman) had planned. As he and what he’d hoped would be his fiancé Kristen (Liv Tyler) sit awkwardly and dance around the issue, their very late night is interrupted by a knock and that immediately suspicious question.
Bertino beautifully crafts his first act to ratchet up suspense, with lovely wide shots that allow so much to happen quietly in a frame. This is a home invasion film with an almost unbearable slow burn. Bertino creates an impenetrably terrifying atmosphere of not just helplessness, but sadistic game playing. The film recalls Michael Haneke’s brilliant Funny Games, as well as the French import Them, but Bertino roots the terror for his excruciating cat and mouse thriller firmly in American soil, with scratchy country blues on the turntable, freshly pressed Mormon youths on bicycles, and rusty Ford pick ups hauling folks in kids’ Halloween masks.
His image is grisly and unforgiving – part and parcel with the horror output of the early 2000s – but The Strangers is a cut above other films of its decade. Yes, this couple makes a lot of bad decisions. Indeed, Kristen appears to be borderline mentally challenged. But in this particular situation, they probably just aren’t thinking clearly.