In recent years, the thriller genre has caved in, with subtlety giving way to either graphic ultra-violence or ridiculously high body counts. Bryan Bertino’s writing and directorial début, The Strangers attempts to steer clear of the recent torture-porn conventions that have become so popular since the spawning of the Saw and Hostel franchises, and the film manages to succeed in this endeavour – mostly. It’s a rare thing these days for a movie to rely a bit more on psychological unease rather than an over-abundance of gore.

The film follows Kristen and James, (played by Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, respectively) a couple on the verge of relationship disaster, who return to their isolated home late one night only to find themselves tormented by a trio of masked psychopaths.

Sure, the plot is simplistic, with few supporting characters or sub-plots, but it is due to the simple (what some might even call clichéd) nature of the plot that gives it a hint of believability. The film even begins with a deep-voiced narrator stating that the film was inspired by true events, but it’s pretty obvious that the key word in that claim is ‘inspired’, as the film’s second half seems to spiral into ridiculousness.

Debate surrounding the factual nature of the plot aside, the film begins promisingly enough, with some genuinely creepy moments in what is a surprisingly tense first half. Some of the scenes are quite brilliantly shot, and Bertino manages to succeed in creating a disturbing atmosphere despite such a well lit setting. The antagonists are the typical silent, persistent attackers, but thanks to some skilled directing, they manage to get a few scares out of the audience before they start to wear out their cinematic welcome.

Liv Tyler takes on the role of frightened Hausfrau pretty well, until you realise that she’s a one trick pony, or should I say a ‘one expression actress’. It’s actually quite incredible that she can maintain that deer-in-the-headlights look for over an hour. Speedman gives it his best, but Tyler hogs most of the screen time each time the couple separates, as Bertino clearly believes that we’ll sympathise more with the plight of dishevelled housewife, Kristen, regardless of how uninteresting she may be.

The main problem with the film is that two fairly rational, seemingly normal protagonists, who behave quite intelligently when first confronted with their tormentors, suddenly begin to exhibit such stereotypically stupid horror movie behaviour at around the film’s 45 minute mark.

It’s difficult to empathise with characters who think that going it alone is the smartest idea (“LET’S SPLIT UP, HONEY!”) or forget to take their one means of defence while investigating the abandoned tool shed.

Bertino’s directing also takes a dive at around this point, with the originally well set-up tension being stretched to breaking point, and its difficult not to find oneself begging for an ending. The conclusion manages to stick with recent horror norms by not providing a motive for the chaos, and insinuating that this sort of mayhem could happen to just about anyone. Cue spooky music.

Random torment is all well and good for the typical horror movie patron, but without sympathetic characters, it’s difficult to avoid becoming jaded as they (and the director) continue to make the same, stupid horror flick mistakes.

The average horror movie aficionado will be able to see a good deal of the shocks coming from a mile away, but some memorable scenes help to separate this thriller from the torrent of awful gore-fests that have been released as of late. The first half hour proves that Bryan Bertino has at least some talent, so let’s hope that his next effort will contain some material that doesn’t overstay its welcome.

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