In Bernardo Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty, the director trained his camera extensively on Liv Tyler’s then-teenaged countenance, to the point where the film seemed a meditation on the elusive nature of beauty, the bridge between innocence and experience, and the contours of this particular woman’s face. Twelve years later, in writer/director Bryan Bertino’s alternately artful horror flick The Strangers, Tyler’s face is again the main event, filling the screen with unnerving regularity. This time, though, Tyler mainly earns her paycheck for her range of pallid, be-spooked facial expressions. During the course of the film’s thankfully brief runtime, she’s having a prolonged angst attack. Us, ditto, in its most effective moments.
At the end of the day, The Strangers is a fairly smart exercise in postB-movie aesthetics, replete with the lame emo plot setup, protracted creepiness, and enough shock tactics to keep us on edge. Tyler and her boyfriend (Scott Speedman) are having a bad night in his father’s remote house, after she refuses his marriage proposal. At 4 a.m., enter the masked mad folks and a cruel game of slow-brew terror. Where Bertino deviates from the cliched rules of the horror game is through careful manipulation of narrative divulgence. Ambiguous foes with ambiguous objectives can be all the more unsettling for the mystery.
Bertino also makes use of minimalist resources. In that the story unfolds (and simmers and erupts) solely in the isolated house in the wee hours, Bertino generates a claustrophobic aura, aided by tomandandy’s insinuating, drone-y music. The house itself becomes a central, ominous character, irradiated with dread. Its various rooms and furniture-not to mention the well-knocked-on wooden front door-become all too familiar, and haunted.
In one of the film’s ripest scenes, Merle Haggard is singing “Mama Tried” on the turntable, as assorted tensions percolate inside the house, including a cocked and aimed gun and nerves frayed to breaking point. If it wasn’t so nervous-making and so denied the usual horror flick in-jokes, The Strangers would be a lot of fun, but it creates its own kind of dark psychological party. And Tyler’s mug is the party logo.