These days, my favorite movies to go see are the ones where I have absolutely no idea whether they're going to shine like the sky or suck like a suck-monster.
Textbook example: the trailer for The Strangers. Creepy as hell, yeah, but it also had that scene where the trio of masked assailants stand over their victims like a posse of J-horror rejects dressing down their victims about not appreciating their comfy suburban lives.
Utter scarefest? Or 90 minutes of foolish nonsense? Horror movies are often so bad hitting the eject button on your remote will spit the DVD directly into the trash, but sometimes they surprise you. It's that hunt for the proverbial unopened Ding Dong in that vast landfill of uninspired horror trash that makes it all worthwhile.
The Strangers' plot is about as straightforward as it gets: on a late night, Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman head to a rural house. It's supposed to be a romantic getaway, but their relationship has just gone on the rocks.
Right before Speedman leaves to pick Tyler up some cigarettes, a girl comes knocking, looking for a friend who isn't there. While Speedman's out, someone knocks again. Rougher. Aggressive. It isn't until several minutes after a hooded man's snuck into the house that Tyler realizes her cell phone's stolen and that, though Speedman's still gone, she's in no way alone.
Good Lord, I got creeped out again just thinking about it. The Strangers is primally, bowels-liquefyingly scary. I don't toss that out lightly — out of the hundreds of horror movies I've seen, there's maybe five or six that spook me out so bad I spend the next few nights scared to go outside and thinking, in the few moments I can spare between glances over my shoulder, about what I would do if attacked by terrifying monsters and madmen. In real life, of course, I'm scared by everything from needles to heavy traffic, but as far as movies go, they rarely drum up the kind of animal terror that would be embarrassing if it weren't also so damn real.
First-time writer/director Bryan Bertino accomplishes this through masterful pacing, a minimum of musical cues, and top-notch sound editing. That, and drawing out the suspense until you twist your limbs so far into the theater seat's armrests you become indistinguishable from human ivy.
Yet some people are deriding The Strangers for being an unoriginal home invasion story. Like that means anything at all — if someone made a movie about the Three Blind Mice, and that movie was so scary I could no longer see white canes or oversized sunglasses without dropping a brick out my pant leg, I don't think I'd care if I'd read something similar when I was six years old. Sometimes it's not about the story, it's about how you tell it. Bertino's directorial skills? They pay the bills.
Things do slow down in the chase-heavy third act, though. It's true I was long out of adrenaline (as well as several other bodily substances) at that point, but it just doesn't have the same propulsive terror behind it. And rather than capping everything that's led up to it, the ending just kind of happens; intentional or not, that lack of resolution simply isn't satisfying.
Not to say it's a bad ending, only that it doesn't live up to the sanity-pummeling terror of that first hour. In recent years, horror directors with a knockout debut have gone on to some pretty shoddy followups. With any luck, Bertino's going to go on scaring the bejesus out of us for years to come.