The Strangers

Director    Bryan Bertino
Starring    Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman, Gemma Ward
Release    30 MAY (US) 29 AUG (UK)    Certificate 15
3 stars


30th August 2008

"Why are you doing this to us?" asks Liv Tyler's tearful victim. "Because you were home," says her tormentor. If that sounds like the beginning of my Funny Games review, that's because The Strangers shares many a sensibility with Michael Haneke's clinical exercise in torture - both films feature a house-bound couple being terrorised by unwanted guests, both feature sadistic violence and both are best watched through the cracks of your fingers. Lacking the substance of Haneke's morbid masterpiece but boasting style to spare, The Strangers is a fine example of a dumb horror film with brains: one that knows exactly how your mind works and takes great delight in molesting your adrenal gland.

The plot is predictable enough: couple Kristen (Tyler) and James (Speedman) return to their isolated family vacation home after a wedding and soon find themselves besieged by masked strangers - big whoop. The execution, though, is exemplary: as hokey as the set-up sounds, it's a recipe for sphincter-tightening terror, with first-time director Bertino using eerie bad guys and a claustrophobic location to its fullest.

Far from leaning on conventions like Wes Craven's Scream series, The Strangers embraces genre cliché and milks it for all its worth. Included are plenty of trademark gormless Horror Movie Moments - the spooky barn (with bonus CB radio), the creepy swing-set, the convenient household shotgun. There are faces in windows, bodies in cupboards and twitching curtains. But The Strangers works because it so persistently abides by the rules. The shocks are telegraphed and agonisingly drawn out. You are practically led by the hand into danger. It is, at times, maddeningly frustrating. But, point in fact, your arse will be clenched tighter than a vice throughout.

It helps that The Strangers looks beautiful - it's immaculately lit throughout, with soft, flickering candle-light proving extremely conducive to scares. Audio is equally impressive - few horror movies really appreciate the use of sound FX to build tension but The Strangers is just as distressing on the ear as it is the eye (the clack-clack-clack of a mischievous stick dragged across a railing is always a winner). It might look like a bog-standard slasher movie on paper, but on the big screen, it's undeniably effective.

You could argue that you've seen it all before. The home invasion? See superb French thriller Them. The cloth mask? The Orphanage's Sackboy all growned up. The spooky masks. Done to death, as recently as Vacancy last year. Yup, there's little of anything new to be found here. But it matters not: you've come to be scared and The Strangers doesn't disappoint. Just get comfortable, sit back and smile at the slaughter - unlike Funny Games, at least this is bloodshed you can enjoy. Ali

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