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By Rick Kisonak | June 3, 2008

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 and yet 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 practically paper thin barrier separates us from whatever outside wants to get in.

What’s trickier to fathom is the appeal of these pictures, the psychological function they perform. The catharsis offered by movies about unfriendly aliens or skyscraper-size monsters, for example, is simple to comprehend. 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, any time anywhere.

I suppose examples in which victims prevail over their assailants – movies like “Straw Dogs” and “Panic Room” – offer viewers some element of assurance that the world is a just place if not an always safe one. But what are we to take away from the depiction of savage acts committed by intruders in, say, “Funny Games,” “Home Invasion” (clever title, huh?) either of the two adaptations of “Helter Skelter” and now “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 home late one night from a friend’s wedding. Speedman has champaign chilling, candles lit and rose petals strewn about the place. His plans for a romantic evening have been derailed, however, by the fact that 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.

A moment arrives when make up sex appears imminent and 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 bigtime aura of dread. Which is only heightened when Speedman opens the door to reveal a young woman who eerily asks “Is Tamara home?” and then proceeds to stand in the front yard staring at the house.

Things get progressively creepier throughout 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. Tires on the couple’s car are found to have been slashed. Cellphones vanish. A second and then a third figure is glimpsed through windows. One stands unseen inside suddenly just feet away from 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. Bertino for the most part keeps you on your seat edge without resorting to cheap shocks or contrived developments (though the movie does resort to both more than once). Ultimately, “The Strangers” does succeed 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 of anything more to get from a picture this artfully heartless.

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