TWstrangers5-28-08.jpgFor a thriller unceremoniously dumped between the summer’s big-budget salvos, “The Strangers” will surprise the squeamish and the bloodthirsty alike. In his feature film debut, writer-director Bryan Bertino delivers a sharp, unforgiving, relentlessly terrifying experience with exceptional dramatic heft. Were it not for the odd stumble into genre cliche, this would have been a minor classic. As it stands, it’s a noteworthy arrival for its helmer and its established leads that deserves to be the sleeper hit of the year.

The modern horror resurgence can largely be attributed to production value more than innovation. As in the first wave of the late 70’s and 80’s, the stars were the murderers or the murders themselves (Check out: “Friday the 13th in 7 minutes“). Laurie Strode aside, the casts of these were closer to cattle: doe-eyed, well-fed, and ready for slaughter. The remarkable intimacy of “The Strangers” make it a stand out.

Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) and James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) are a young couple returning from a friend’s wedding, staying overnight at the Hoyt summer house in a remote suburban community. Discovering the exact nature of Kristen and James’ relationship is one of the few twists the marketing hasn’t spoiled, and the first act is full of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it detail, which Bertino implies with precision and restraint. The house itself is credibly unsettling. The brownish well water issuing from the faucets, the folksy, hideous furniture, the family touchstones are stale and smothering. It’s clear there is a history in this place that Kristen has never been a part of, a legacy of wasted summers that makes James unguarded and complacent. Often the protagonists of scare flicks are completely stupid, but in this movie they’re tired and lazy. It’s hard not to identify.

Fans of renegade Carpenter and the threadbare realism of early horror will get the biggest kick out of the style and pacing. There is no score and after the first twenty minutes the slightest hint of music registers as a warning. There are long stretches of silence, punctuated with stereo-panning trickery that keep the tension so high you will be quietly begging for something, anything to happen. A viewer next to me took to compulsively fiddling with a cellophane candy wrapper, and I didn’t stop him. Any noise with a confirmed origin is a blessing.

Speedman has been looking to breakout for years, and Tyler has been solid onscreen if not particularly memorable. Their work here is redefining, a delicate and damaged chemistry that evolves as their courage erodes and they realize how dangerous, and perhaps hopeless, their situation is becoming. It launches a well-executed massacre into bizarrely moving territory.

Bertino’s only real stumble is in the blatant mythologizing of his trio of killers. Thankfully they aren’t mute or invincible, but their ninja-grade, here-and-then-gone vanishing antics clash with the film’s overall bent of plausibility. When there’s already been so much upending of convention, the appearance of scrawled messages and costumed, axe-wielding freaks feel more rote than ever. At least that’s what you’ll be thinking before the movie resumes twisting your guts into sailor’s knots.

News of its long gestation period has been getting around (it was allegedly completed in 2005). Whatever the reasons for the shelving may have been, quality could not have been among them. “The Strangers” is a disturbing and heartbreaking achievement, and an exhilarating approach to a genre that’s on life-support. It will do more than creep you out, it will have you double-checking the locks on your doors and windows at home. It will have you racing across empty parking lots at night to get to your car, and calling your loved ones just to hear their voices.