May 30, 2008 / 12:58 PM / 10 years ago

"The Strangers" a frightening first film

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Every now and then a horror film comes along that bucks the going copycat trends and manages to scare up some unique shivers.

Actress Liv Tyler arrives for Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" at Lincoln Center Plaza in New York September 25, 2006. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Say hello to “The Strangers,” a spare, creepily atmospheric psychological thriller with a death grip on the psychological aspect.

The film opens across North America on Friday. Although horror generally has taken a bit of a beating at the box office lately, fans should be able to discern “Strangers” as the real deal, providing Rogue Pictures with a little lucrative “death in the country” counterprogramming to “Sex and the City.”

First-time director Bryan Bertino has taken a cue from the fright films of the ‘70s, but unlike others evoking the era, the influences are more character-rooted than derivatively stylized.

Ostensibly inspired by actual events concerning senseless acts of violence (not that it really matters), the film is set in the secluded South Carolina family vacation home where James (Scott Speedman) was intending to celebrate his engagement to Kristen (Liv Tyler). But it’s apparent from the tension between the couple as they pull up to the house in pitch darkness that things didn’t go as planned on the proposal front.

Once inside, things quickly start going bump in the night as it becomes clear they aren’t alone.

Like the best of psychological horror in its purest form, there’s always the lingering possibility that the terrifying intruders could be manifestations of the lead characters’ own suppressed rage.

Not that it’s necessary to go there, since Bertino hand delivers the ghoulish goods with a claustrophobic tension and a minimum of gore that has been handily supplanted by a chillingly effective sound schematic.

He also has a surprisingly expressive scream queen in Tyler, who, left alone to her own devices for major stretches in the film, conveys much with little or no dialogue.

That less-is-more approach also works for Speedman’s character as well as for those unsettling masked intruders, identified in the credits by the monikers Dollface (Gemma Ward), Pin-Up Girl (Laura Margolis) and the wheezing Man in the Mask (Kip Weeks).

Let the nightmares begin.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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