A bit like Funny Games without the scolding, the minimalist home-invasion thriller The Strangers doesn't take many words to describe: isolated vacation home. Masked tormenters. Helpless couple. And yet it's precisely the film's spare, disciplined, back-to-basics horror effects that lend it a sustaining chill; if the audience knew any more about who "the strangers" are and why they've chosen this house, this couple, and this night to do their worst, then a lot of the tension would dissipate. Making a frighteningly assured debut, writer-director Bryan Bertino understands the fundamentals thoroughly, and he has the patience to hold back and keep the tension hanging where a lesser director might have gone for the cheap shock. Many of the film's shots and scenes go on several beats longer than expected, just to stoke a near-unbearable feeling of anticipation and dread. As a filmmaker, at least, Bertino seems to have more in common with the perpetrators than the victims.
It doesn't get much better than the first couple of reels, which set an ominous mood without having to get too explicit. Returning late from a wedding, Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman pull into his family lake house for what was supposed to be a romantic night, but she's just turned down his marriage proposal. Their tenuous relationship heightens their vulnerability later when a strange girl pounds on the door at 4 a.m., asking for someone who doesn't live there. Slowly and steadily, the situation escalates: a few more knocks on the door, some disturbances from inside, and finally, the appearance of masked figures emerging from the shadows.
At no point is there a sense that the victims have any control over their fate, nor can they even comprehend what's happening to them, much less negotiate with their attackers. The Strangers could be labeled "torture porn," because there's really nothing to it beyond watching ants squirm under the magnifying glass. The difference is that it's mostly psychological torture porn, and the biggest dive-under-your-chair moments come from how skillfully Bertino handles his sadistic cat-and-mouse game. Bertino makes particularly brilliant use of the widescreen frame, slipping the tormenters in and out of view, preying mercilessly on his heroes' vulnerability—and ours. It isn't particularly original—for one, it owes an unacknowledged debt to the French film Them—but as an exercise in controlled mayhem, horror movies don't get much scarier.