This premise is so simple, only a tyro writer-director like Bryan Bertino would dare pitch it. Even the similar French-Romanian movie Ils (Them) was constructed around a revelation that complicates its couple-terrorised-by-barely-seen-intruders business. This is a single idea, with only enough characterisation to force an audience to invest emotionally in the victims.
Romantic James (Scott Speedman) has strewn rose petals, Champagne and candles around his isolated family retreat assuming his girlfriend (Liv Tyler) will accept a marriage proposal, but things haven’t turned out well (cannily, we don’t find out why she’s nixed him), and both are glumly gutted when the first apparent prankster hammers on the front door.
Like much recent horror, from the homages of the Grindhouse gang through flat multiplex remakes of drive-in classics, The Strangers looks to the ’70s. It opens with a Texas Chain Saw Massacre-like ominous “What you are about to see is inspired by true events” narration, and an impressively distressed Tyler plays a gruelling Jamie Lee Curtis-in-Halloween game of deadly hide-and-seek with a masked murderer. Bertino has grasped the secret of the slasher movie - you can’t have suspense if you spend too much time making your monsters cool and not enough on the innocents undergoing the ordeal. The trio of strangers, in plastic masks or an inside-out pillowcase, owe a little to the Mansons but don’t even get an urban legend psycho backstory like Michael Myers - one of the scariest moments is when the masks come off, but we don’t really see their faces even then.
This is undeniably effective suspense-horror, and Bertino stages quiet chills and short, sharp shocks with a technical expertise which suggests he has a future if he ever grows a heart. Like many recent films (Hostel, Vacancy, Eden Lake, even The Dark Knight), an ingredient is missing - the most vicious ’70s horror films still had humour and perspective. This shows only a relentless commitment to being no fun at all, which is vaguely admirable but ultimately self-defeating. The message of ’70s horror was that straight society was crazy; the 2008 version is that other people are shit - it’s a fine distinction, but makes a depressing difference.