“Because you were home”—that’s the pragmatic explanation a masked psychotic butcher, one of a trio of aspiring coed murderers, softly and matter-of-factly provides when frantically asked by the captured Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler), and her boyfriend James Hoyt (Scott Speedman), why the trifecta is terrorizing the thirty-something couple inside their normally serene ranch-style vacation home.
Emulating the pioneer trailblazing of horror director George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)—in what could be reasonably described as a colorful inside-out version of the children’s story, The Three Little Pigs—The Strangers treads down the well-worn darkened path of residentially hunted human prey; of nonsensical brutality without back story, reasoning, or motive. Not as bloody or gory as our anticipation insinuates, Strangers aims it narrow sights and sharp edges more at visceral terror than grisly horror. When the time suits it, comparatively speaking, the crimson trickles rather than spurts.
Kristen and James are returning by car from a long night of dancing, drinking, and partying at a wedding reception when we join up with them. They are—maybe now, we should say, were—in love leading into the evening we’re introduced. This night, James has proposed marriage to Kristen, with elegant engagement ring in tow, and through a series of cleverly edited flashback snapshots retrieved from earlier in the evening, we’re left deducing that Kristen didn’t accept James’ proposal. He still has the ring in his pocket.
Plans to spend a romantic night together at James’ father’s rural get-away have been thrown slightly askew. The lovebirds usual wanting glances and seductive kisses have given way to vacant stares and awkward silences. The couple plan to spend the night under the same roof, if not the same bed. They can sleep off the night’s unexpected relationship twists with the advantage of beaming clarity from tomorrow morning’s rising sun, and then decide if a shared future holds. If they can last that long.
Between now and then, to their shocking dismay, Kristen and James have unexpected company. These guests, who prove to be strangers of the ilk your mother warned you to steer clear of, claim to be looking for someone named Tamara. Answering the knocked-upon door, James reveals there is no one there by that name—“You must have the wrong address.” Turning a quiet night at home on its ear, as the next 60 minutes or so plays out, it’s James and Kristen who prove to have the wrong address. Without so much as the benefit of formal introductions or an exchange of get-to-know-‘ya pleasantries, the triplicate of deranged killers—a thin man with a Leatherface-inspired cloth bag covering his head and face, and two females with porcelain-looking masks atop their faces, proceed to hunt down Kristen and James inside the home’s increasingly unfriendly confines.
The ensuing chaos is exactly what target audiences should expect from the primal kill-or-be-killed genre. Gun shots, knife-wielding, creaking doors, dim shadows, and the obligatory piercing screams are conveyed forward as if being propelled off a factory assembly-line floor that manufactures thrills and chills with a universal cookie-cutter template three shifts a day, seven days a week. Characters are fleshed out—primarily with culinary instruments—to the bounded physical extent that you’d expect in a low budget scare flick.
Performances—Tyler and Speedman do all the “heavy” lifting for the movie’s 85-minute run time—are a notch above average for the genre’s usually substandard range, with production values and South Carolina-based set-pieces rising above the expectations one would expect to see emerging from a $9 million budgeted horror movie.