|Liv Tyler, trapped in a house in the middle of nowhere, tries to escape a trio of killers in "The Strangers." (GLENN WATSON)|
"The Strangers" is a horror film with a moral. No matter how nasty a gang of murderers is, the moviemaker calling the shots is ultimately worse. Bryan Bertino, in his directing debut, set out to make one of those home-invasion chillers whose terrors never let up. But he just seems interested in outdoing the grisliness of his peers. "The Strangers" is not more violent than the average horror movie. But it has a realist style meant to call attention to its maker. Bertino has the pretensions of an artist and the indelicacy of a hack. He tries to get under our skin with a pile driver.
Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman play James and Kristen, a couple tormented by three masked killers - a young man and two young women - in the dead of night, in the middle of nowhere. Before introducing the tormentors, the movie tries to make us care about the couple. Bertino demonstrates that he knows how to use flashbacks: James asked Kristen to marry him. She said no. The mood for love obliterated, they arrive at the house he borrowed and decorated with rose petals in celebration of their engagement. Oops. Now we're trapped in an extra-mopey episode of "Grey's Anatomy." Neither Tyler nor Speedman seems to mind being turned into a gorgeous knife block.
The house looks like a set from 1972. It even has a child's record player that magically includes an LP by the woodland fairy Joanna Newsom. Eventually, there's a knock at the big wood door. The voice on the other side asks, "Is Tamra home?" And the fun is supposed to begin. The killers do things like fire shotguns, heave axes, write on windows, and destroy cellphone chargers. But the frights in the movie are more for us than the characters. Our assailants loom blurry in the background and do such things as watch Kristen make her way from one shot to another. Then they disappear without a sound or a trace. They're bogeymen, whose faces Bertino never shows us. It's "In Cold Blood" for dummies.
Earlier this year, the Austrian director Michael Haneke released a remake of his own home-invasion nightmare, "Funny Games." The movie was charged with intellectual fraudulence: It rubbed our noses in the very violence it purported to critique. But Haneke meant to distance us from the horrors so that we could see them clearly. The movie respected its (puny) audience.
"The Strangers" is too pornographically self-impressed to care what you think. And it's too ignorant of the mechanics of suspense to really freak you out. The histrionic sound design, with its bangs and crackles and slams, works harder than everybody else. The scariest thing in the movie itself, aside from how contemptuously made it happens to be, is the narration. It comes on in the opening minutes and alleges that what we're about to see is based on a true story. But what actually happened - whatever it was - couldn't have been this banal.