The Strangers director Bryan Bertino takes a simple storyline based in reality ("inspired," in fact, by true events) and tells it with such careful realism that our own basic human terror, usually lying dormant within us, rises inescapably to the surface. He has figured out a perfectly lethal recipe for horror movie success: take a large dose of realism, add a few scary things and then patiently wait for the fear to rise.
This movie is a great example of a horror/suspense film done well. We human beings already have so many fears just lying inside us, waiting to be tapped into. We don't need two hours of cheap jump scares (looking at you, Prom Night) or gratuitous, nauseating gore. We just have to witness very simple, normal things that could happen to plant a tiny seed of fear in the backs of our minds. Then, all it takes is a patient, detail-oriented filmmaker to nurture that seed until it grows into all-consuming terror.
To see the basic plotline and how it somehow so thoroughly scared the living daylights out of me, read more.
As far as the movie's plot points go, I really mean it when I use terms like "basic" and "simple." A couple, James (Scott Speedman, who makes me miss Felicity so much!) and Kristen (Liv Tyler) drive to a remote cabin to spend the evening where some strangers come by and terrorize them. That's it. Really. However, the simplicity of the story doesn't mean it's boring. A good chunk of the beginning of the film is devoted to the romantic troubles the couple is experiencing (one of them wants to get married, the other does not, they find themselves at a heartbreaking crossroads). Even though I knew that they were setting us up to be spooked and I was trying to brace myself for it, I found myself relaxing into the drama of their story: the heartache, the sweetness, the helplessness. . . and then bam! Girl with scary wispy voice shows up on doorstep and from there a slow unspooling of eerie happenings begins.
And these eerie happenings are so. Very. Simple. Aggressive pounding on the front door. A flash of someone's creepy masked face. A discordant bit of old timey country music skipping on the record player. Shaky close-ups of a broken champagne flute. A shadow looming longer and longer along the wall. In this day and age, these things almost seem like relics of an old-fashioned brand of storytelling, but the thing is, maybe we need to go back to those old times. The tried and true is often the most effective, and The Strangers is a perfect example of this. The ending of the film is sickeningly sad and gross, but as far as suspense goes, everything leading up to the climactic ending is almost flawlessly frightening.
To see video clips from The Strangers, check out movies.ivillage.com.