''What you are about to see is based on true events,'' warns a stern, ominous voice at the start of The Strangers -- a voice that sounds eerily like the one heard during the opening credits of TV's Law and Order. The movie that follows is entirely a work of fiction -- to be clear, none of this ever happened -- but first-time writer-director Bryan Bertino, who is gunning for a raw, unforgiving horror picture in the style of 1970s shockers, knows that claiming his story is true is automatically going to make people curious.
The trick works: Ever since the trailer for The Strangers was released earlier this year, the Internet has been abuzz with people trying to dig up the details of the real-life incident that inspired the film. I can save you some Google trouble and tell you The Strangers is based on Straw Dogs, Funny Games and a dash of last year's Vacancy. It's a particularly bleak take on the people-under-assault-in-their-own-home genre, focusing on a young couple, James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler) who are besieged by a trio of mask-wielding intruders (Gemma Ward, Kip Weeks and Laura Margolis) while spending a night at the remote, sprawling home of James' father.
Alas, the home has everything but a panic room, which means James and Kristen -- who happen to be going through a difficult patch in their relationship -- can't hole up and wait for their tormentors to leave. Cellphones suffer from the dead-battery problem that curiously afflicts so many of the devices in scary movies, so calling for help is out. And even if someone should happen to drop by the house during the long and dolorous night, you know they're only going to hang around long enough to make like Scatman Crothers in The Shining and serve as firewood to throw onto the film's body count.
Bertino is more than a little skilled at rattling your nerves and making you jump out of your seat: I twitched and spasmed more times during The Strangers than I did since I snuck in to see Friday the 13th while in the eighth grade. He's good, too, at building an atmosphere of rotting evil without resorting to gore and violence. One of the creepiest moments in the movie happens early on, when James and Kristen answer an insistent knock on the door at 4 a.m. and are greeted by a young woman, her face draped in shadows, who asks for Tamara and then mutters a ''See you later'' as she walks away. Rarely has a casual good-bye sounded like such a threat.
Tyler and Speedman, strangers themselves to this sort of blood-drenched entertainment, are as sympathetic a pair of victims as the equally fish-out-of-water Kate Beckinsale and Luke Wilson were in Vacancy. You don't want to see any harm befall them, and Tyler sells her screams with the utmost conviction. But you can only string an audience along for so long with scary masks and sudden appearances at the window, and after a while, the suspense starts seeping out of The Strangers, because you realize that's all there's going to be to the movie.
I liked how Bertino manages to never show you the psychos' faces, even after they remove their masks, and the answer to Kristen's constant ''Why are they doing this to us?'' is chilling, provided you haven't seen the trailer, which spoils it. But there's a reason why the audience at a recent preview screening of The Strangers shrieked and screamed throughout the film, then booed when the credits rolled. Even Michael Haneke, when making Funny Games, knew there's only so much nihilism an audience can take without some kind of relief.