The brave souls who subjected themselves to the sadistic horror show that was Michael Haneke's "Funny Games" earlier this year may consider "The Strangers" to be something of a rip-off. Truth be told, "Strangers" was supposed to hit theaters a year ago. So calling it a "Games" copycat may be a bit presumptuous. (However, it could be a rip-off of Haneke's original, Austrian version of "Games," which dropped 11 years ago.)
"Strangers" could be seen as "Games" without Haneke's finger-wagging to the audience. (Isn't this what you want from your movies, America?!) It has close to the same setup: A couple (Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman) are terrorized by a crew of killers in his family's vacation home. But unlike the killers in "Games," who served not only to torment their victims but to deconstruct their tormenting for the viewers, these masked maniacs (who include Australian fashion model Gemma Ward) want to do nothing but scare this pair senseless and send them to an early grave.
However, before the maniacs show up, the couple are already having trouble of their own. Earlier in the evening, the guy proposed to the girl, who apparently refused. (So, even before they meet the "strangers," they begin to realize they are strangers.) Now, I may be reading too much into this, but this bit of opening conflict makes "Strangers" look like the most whacked-out argument for commitment, fidelity and marital bliss I've seen since "Eyes Wide Shut." When Tyler's character passes up the idea of settling down with Speedman's sprung boyfriend, writer-director Bryan Bertino takes away the domestic peace they could've had as husband and wife by bringing in these veiled nutjobs. It's as if he's metaphorically implying that these terrorists are nothing more than the unforeseeable danger that lies in your future if you turn down the chance to be with that special someone.
Then again, this could be just another nihilistic horror flick that doesn't so much scare as just leave you numb. Debut filmmaker Bertino shows he's a better showman than a storyteller, as he, cinematographer Peter Sova and production designer John D. Kretschmer turn the home where nearly all the action takes place into a domicile of claustrophobic, teeth-chattering fear and dread. If you've seen the poster for "Strangers," you've already been privy to the movie's most unsettling moment, a long take where Tyler finds herself in her kitchen, completely unaware that one of her tormentors is a few feet away, lurking in the hall.
And yet, for a movie that seems so psyched to freak you out, the plot is pretty much a black hole. There's nothing really surprising about the story, where the grim, looming bleakness goes from unnerving to unnecessary right up until the last, pointless scream. In fact, the most surprising thing may be learning that the consistently coquettish Tyler could have a nice career playing convincing girls-in-peril in the future. (She certainly shows she's better at trying to stay alive than Speedman, whose performance can be best described as limp.)
You can be a brave soul and take a chance on "The Strangers." But you really wouldn't be risking much -- except, of course, an hour-and-a-half of your time.