The Strangers

True story: I sat near the front of the theater for “The Strangers,” close enough that the screen filled my entire field of vision. During several key moments, I noticed that I was pressing myself into my chair, trying to back away from what was happening in the movie, trying to get out of that house before the bad guys got me, too. This is not typical behavior for a cool customer like myself.

Speaking of true stories, “The Strangers” claims to be “inspired” by one –which probably just means that there was once a real-life incident where some strangers broke into someone’s house. The rest is probably fiction. But oh, what fiction! For what it is — a movie about suspense, dread, and helplessness — “The Strangers” is very well done, mixing old-fashioned tension with new-fashioned violence, careful not to overdo the latter … but not so careful that it won’t show us the blood when it’s warranted. It is, dare I say it, a mature horror film, for grown-ups.

The premise is so similar, even in some of its details, to last year’s French thriller “Them” (“Ils”) that I can’t believe it’s coincidental. James (Scott Speedman) and his girlfriend Kristen (Liv Tyler) are spending the night at James’ family’s summer home in the country when the place is besieged by three masked figures. They do not speak, and we do not see their faces. They are consistently one step ahead of James and Kristen’s escape plans, and while at first they do not inflict any violence, we know that is their eventual aim.

This is the first film by 30-year-old writer-director Bryan Bertino, and I’m glad that he has resisted most of the unartistic impulses that have overtaken so many other filmmakers his age (e.g., easy gore and unnecessarily choppy editing). Instead, he starts subtly, giving us a creepy introduction to the masked villains, then gradually works his way up to a nerve-racking nightmare scenario that has Kristen cowering in a corner, certain there’s someone in the house but unable to see him, while a record player skips repeatedly in the background. That’s an old horror-movie tactic, sure, but it’s a good one for making audiences feel just a little more on edge.

Bertino demonstrates a knack for creating feelings of unease, and he knows how to tap into our fears of defenselessness and of being left alone in times of peril. His characters don’t behave stupidly, the way most horror characters do (though there is an opportunity for escape that doesn’t occur to them), and the instances where Bertino effectively manufactures tension far outweigh the times — including the final few minutes — where he bobbles it.

Bertino’s emphasis on suspense rather than shocking horror is laudable — but on the other hand, it’s unfortunate that he’s not as agile when it comes to the payoff. After all, while it’s true that a madman leaping out with a knife is not nearly as scary as thinking he’s going to leap out with a knife, it’s also true that he does eventually have to leap out. It’s in those moments of actual engagement between heroes and villains that Bertino doesn’t seem quite sure what to do.

Admirably, there is very little to the film beyond the basics. James and Kristen’s relationship is addressed briefly (it’s rocky), and then it’s on to the evening’s cat-and-mouse games and general mayhem. The film has no message to impart — but it doesn’t pretend to, either. That’s where a lot of movies about torturers get themselves into trouble, trying to pass off their violence as some kind of social commentary when it’s obvious the filmmakers really just like being gross. “The Strangers” avoids that can of worms and does what it does without apology or justification or explanation. And what it does is deliver more than an hour of sustained, almost unrelenting terror.

B (1 hr., 25 min.; R, some harsh profanity, some fairly strong violence and blood, sustained intense themes.)