You go to horror movies for the scares, the catharsis, the suspense of wondering who, if anyone, will survive.
But the only reason to go to The Strangers - a contemptible home-invasion creepfest - is for the voyeuristic kick of watching hapless victims stalked and tormented. And even the weirdos who plunk money down for that will come away disappointed.
A meaningless waste of time (and money) with Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman as a moody twosome whose weekend getaway turns into a run-for-your-life freakout, The Strangers claims to be "inspired by true events." Meaning that at some point in time, some place in America, some people came into a house and did incomprehensibly awful things to its occupants.
Kristen McKay (Tyler) and James Hoyt (Speedman) are driving to his family's vacation place after attending a friend's wedding. What was supposed to be a romantic weekend - James had run ahead to furnish the cabin with rose petals, candles and champagne - has soured even before they get there: He had proposed to her at the wedding reception, and she declined.
Tears streak their faces as the Volvo wagon rolls into the dark countryside. He's brimming with confusion and rejection; she's fraught with doubt and worry. They eat, sullenly. They talk, a little. He puts music on. She takes a bath.
And then, at 4 a.m., there's a knock on the door. Some strange girl asking for Tamara. Kind of creepy, but they let it go, send her on her way.
And then James goes to buy cigarettes. And then someone's thumping on the doors, scratching at the windows. . . .
The rest of what ensues in The Strangers, written and directed by first-timer Bryan Bertino, with a passing nod to David Lynch (check out the Twin Peaks-y art direction in the poster), is your basic grisly cat- and-mouse stuff. The intruders are unidentifiable: The guy, in jacket and tie, has a sack over his head, and the two women wear arty doll masks.
Cell phones don't work, kitchen utensils get used for ill, and Tyler and Speedman go through the various stages required of the actors: fear, quaking fear, angry fear, confrontational fear, sobbing fear.
At least with Michael Haneke's Funny Games - the German-language original, and the director's own recent English remake - there was irony, and commentary. However unpleasant the experience of watching a family get toyed with, and tortured, Haneke was undeniably getting at something: the audience's role in watching these kinds of movies, its complicity even.
No one is getting at anything in The Strangers, except the cheapest, ugliest kind of sadistic titillation.
The Strangers * (out of four stars)
Directed by Bryan Bertino. With Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman and actors in masks. Distributed by Rogue Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 mins.
Parent's guide: R (violence, profanity, adult themes).
Playing at: area theaters.EndText