With a swiftness I find fascinating, the notion of nutjobs violating the sanctity of a family home to commit random acts of violence has evolved from a vague, almost unimaginable horror into a highly profitable Hollywood staple. Audiences were first freaked out by the film version of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood a mere four decades and change ago. Today, the home-invasion thriller is a full-blown movie genre.
It’s easy enough, I suppose, to understand how this could happen. These films tap into one of our most deep-seated fears: that locking doors and latching windows might not be sufficient to keep evil at bay. We don’t want to admit that our sense of security is largely an illusion. Doors get kicked in all the time, and windows are made of glass. A paper-thin barrier separates us from whatever outside wants to get in.
What’s trickier to fathom is the appeal of such pictures, the psychological function they perform. It’s simpler to comprehend the catharsis offered by movies about unfriendly aliens or skyscraper-sized monsters. Human beings enjoy the experience of witnessing terrifying events and then emerging into a world in which they couldn’t possibly occur. Home-invasion films don’t offer that same waking-from-a-nightmare release, though. This stuff really happens. That’s the thing about random violence: It can happen to anyone, at any time, anywhere.
I suppose specimens in which victims prevail over their assailants — movies such as Straw Dogs and Panic Room — offer viewers an element of reassurance that the world is a just place, if not always a safe one. But what are we to take away from the depiction of savage acts committed by the intruders in, say, Funny Games, Home Invasion (clever title, huh?), either of the two adaptations of Helter Skelter, or the current The Strangers?
The debut of writer-director Bryan Bertino, this taut, minimalist white-knuckler — purportedly based on true events — chronicles the sadistic game of cat-and-mouse between a young couple in an isolated lake house and a trio of masked psychos. Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman return late one night from a friend’s wedding. At home, Speedman has champagne chilling, candles lit and rose petals strewn about the place. His plans for a romantic evening have been derailed, however, because Tyler has just declined his marriage proposal. She’s “just not ready,” and the where-do-we-go-from-here tenuousness of their relationship lends the characters an affecting vulnerability.
When the moment of imminent make-up sex arrives, it is interrupted by one of movie history’s most unnerving knocks. The middle of nowhere. Four in the morning. A sudden, insistent pounding at the door. These are little things that combine to create a big-time aura of dread. Which is only heightened when Speedman opens the door to reveal a young woman who eerily asks, “Is Tamara home?” and proceeds to stand in the front yard staring at the house.
Things get progressively creepier through the night, but the first-time filmmaker displays excellent instincts. He doesn’t rush the horror but rather allows it to take shape suspensefully, one detail at a time. Strange noises tauntingly shatter the stillness. The couple’s car tires have been slashed. Cellphones vanish. A second and then a third figure are glimpsed through windows. One suddenly stands inside, just feet away from unseeing Tyler, only to turn around and walk silently away.
The couple’s terror and confusion escalate as the intruders tire of playing with their prey and prepare to get down to bloody business. Tyler and Speedman ably convey their helplessness and panic. For the most part, Bertino keeps you on your seat’s edge without resorting to cheap shocks or contrived developments. (Both do mar the movie more than once, though.) Ultimately, The Strangers succeeds in the sense that it offers a riveting, vastly credible enactment of everyone’s worst nightmare. You will get your money’s worth of meaningless mayhem. I’m just not sure there’s much more to get from a picture this artfully heartless.