In The Strangers, a tightly wound home-invasion thriller, Liv Tyler acts with her neck. When boyfriend Scott Speedman leaves her alone in a house out in the boonies to go buy her some cigarettes, Tyler moves through the rooms in a distracted trance. She’s already a bit rattled because some unseen young woman came calling earlier, asking for “Tamara,” and left the couple with an ominous “I’ll see you later.” So Tyler is counting the minutes till Speedman returns, and suddenly there’s a series of booming knocks on the door. Every time the door gets pounded, the tendons in Tyler’s neck throb like cello strings.
Liv Tyler’s neck gives the best performance in The Strangers, a movie not designed to show off the virtuosity of actors so much as that of first-time writer-director Bryan Bertino. The movie is profoundly meat-and-potatoes bordering on minimalist. Once Tyler and Speedman — hurting because he popped the question and she said no — arrive at his unoccupied childhood house for a romantic vacation that no longer seems plausible, it’s only a matter of time before the stalkers of the title descend on the house. There’s no subtext that I can determine; for a while I thought the events would push Speedman into defensive heroics and Tyler into grateful acceptance of him as her groom. But no. Like Funny Games (both versions), this film isn’t structured to bring its leads together.
Bertino employs every trick in the book, including a few I recently saw in the much more disturbing French horror film Inside: a threatening figure slowly emerging from a room’s shadows in the quiet dead of night, unannounced by any sting on the soundtrack; a well-meaning person finding out the hard way that, when entering the house of someone who’s been getting terrorized and has a weapon, you really should loudly herald yourself by name, and it probably wouldn’t hurt to carry a boom-box blaring John Philip Sousa, either. As it is, the only aural diversions in the movie are spookily crackle-and-pop old folk and country records, which kick in on the turntable whenever needed to boost tension, along with the musical stylings of tomandandy, the composing duo who seem to have embraced their fates as the new Tangerine Dream.
The three strangers — credited as Dollface, Pin-Up Girl, and The Man in the Mask — hide their features behind façades appropriate to their script names; the Man goes in for the disfigured-burlap look as seen in The Orphanage. The movie is derivative as hell, but Bertino shows a good deal of craft — if not as a writer, then as a director, a skillful carpenter (though not Carpenter) of nerve-punching moments. The Strangers is a decent calling card, a means for a young man (Bertino is 28) to prove he can deliver on a budget of peanuts ($9 million, chicken scratch these days) and a roster of speaking roles topping out at eight. It’s not quite the big-splash horror debut we’ve seen from so many others, but it could indicate that Bertino is capable of great bowel-emptying cinema if he hands off the Final Draft software to someone else next time.
The Strangers opens with one of those basso-profundo narrations (think John Larroquette in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) assuring us that The Brutal Events You Are About to Witness Are True, though savvy viewers will mentally replace the last two words with “Were Invented By Someone Who’s Seen the Same Horror Movies You Have.” For all that, I didn’t mind the movie, impersonal and familiar as it is; technically it’s both quirky and assured, it knows when to be quiet, and the final sequence, shot in the harsh glare of dawn, gives us a few haunting peeks out the windows at the oblivious weeds and dirt roads: Morning has broken, the nightmare is supposed to be over, but it isn’t. Bryan Bertino puts enough odd touches into The Strangers — bits and pieces that haunt us obliquely, such as our almost but not quite seeing the faces behind the masks — that I’m curious to see what he does for an encore.