Loosely inspired by the Manson killings, The Strangers concerns a young estranged couple, Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) and James Hoyt (Scott Speedman), visiting a suburban home for the evening after going to a party. She has just refused his offer of marriage, so they awkwardly look on his attempts to set the stage of their romance (rose petals in the bathtub, a bottle of champaign) shortly before three masked maniacs creepy-crawl them.
Basically, Liv Tyler’s acting shifts between two gears: either she’s moping around looking guilty in a frumpy high-waist dress or she’s screaming, crying, and trying to hide under a bed too low for her to fit under. Scott Speedman is blandly handsome, generally lacking the relative star-power of Ms. Tyler. First-time director/writer Bryan Bertino goes for the unsteady handheld camera effect, a device that works well for A Mighty Heart and The Bourne Ultimatum, but I merely found it distracting here, since the director used it indiscriminately.
I did like the leisurely way the masked figures took their time messing with the couple. At one point, early on, James leaves in his Volvo to go get her cigarettes. A mysterious woman has come by and asked for “Tamra” twice even though it is 4 in the morning. The second time, they say “You’ve already come by here.” She replies “Have I?” As various loud bumps unsettle Kristen to the point where she grabs the requisite large kitchen knife, a man wearing a coat, tie, and a closed-mouth smiley face mask with eye holes simply arrives in the left hand of the screen and stands there. The audience can see him for a long, almost comical moment as Kristen doesn’t. Thus, when Kristen thinks that she has the house to herself, she clearly does not, but aside from making “The Shining” references by writing things like “killer” or “hello” multiple times in blood on the windows, the man and his two masked women largely just linger around for the fun of it. In the tradition of “Halloween,” they also like to appear outside a window in a dead-on masked stare, and then disappear when the couple looks again.
Otherwise, beyond the cat-and-mouse pleasures of watching a charismatic couple gradually attacked, there’s not much to say. Once I figured out the basic power dynamic, the storyline surprised me less and less, in part because Kristen does not prove the kind of “strong woman” of the horror genre, like Lila of Psycho or Neve Campbell's Sidney in Scream, who learns how to outwit the evil force in the scary house. The film mostly impressed me with its skillful use of a low budget, a carefully-timed release date, and an award-winning trailer.
Otherwise, I liked the use of a record player to create incongruous sound effects. When Kristen freaks out, the record skips a random musical phrase over and over, and when things really start to get intense, some masked figure cheerfully plays Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” at top volume, a logical choice for a shotgun blast to the head.