While I’m no fan of people-on-people horror, I must admit that The Strangers is one surprisingly effective piece of craftsmanship, a nuts-'n'-bolts psychological thriller stripped of genre bells-'n'-whistles.
Gen X couple James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler) are having a bad night. They are at a literal crossroads in their relationship, vulnerable and isolated while in the same car, thinking that they are at the worst moment of their lives, but in reality still a short drive away. Arriving at a remote sanctuary where it seems that they’re the last people left on Earth, they set about figuring out where they’re going to go from there.
And then there is a knock on the door …
Despite the premise, The Strangers is not a splatter film. It’s just a lean, mean horror machine that economically sets up the home-invasion premise and then almost immediately sets about laying down with the dread—sparse dialogue, sparse characterization and more than a little ambiguity. Sometimes ambiguity is nice. I don’t need things spelled out for me like I just wandered away from listening to Rush Limbaugh.
And while I generally don’t like the use of loud noises to get the jump out of the audience, it works here, maybe because of the assured use of ambient noise and the minimalist soundtrack. And granted, a lot of old-school horror tropes do get trotted out, but in context they work. It evokes the essence of ‘70s horror without being a hamfisted caricature. Also appreciated is that when he could have gone with the torture porn, writer/director Bryan Bertino instead maintains restraint. If all the F-bombs had been removed, this might have redeemed the concept of a PG-13 horror flick.
As in, a PG-13 horror film that was actually scary. Oddly enough, by removing gratuitous gore from the equation, The Strangers is also an effective horror film for adults.