Like Funny Games without the pretension or Halloween (1978) without the suspense, The Strangers chugs dutifully along for its contractually obligated 90 minutes, compelling viewers to jump with a series of carefully timed loud noises and false scares before giving them precisely what they came for with as little fanfare as cinematically possible. The Strangers is the kind of horror thriller that feels like it was written on a calculator rather than a word processor; every startling noise, false scare, and genuine payoff is carefully formulated for maximum effect, yet so precise and scientific that the whole exercise becomes strangely dry -- and all too predictable, if you have even the most rudimentary knowledge of the original formula.
It's unfortunate, too, because the plot shines with sinister simplicity: a couple staying in a secluded house falls prey to a trio of relentless masked killers whose sole purpose is to torment and kill them by morning light. Unfortunately any version of this scenario that the viewer can dream up is far more terrifying than the inane reality of The Strangers, because the scariest concept that first-time writer/director Bryan Bertino can come up with is having a killer stand quietly behind the intended victim as said knife-bait puffs cluelessly on a cigarette (and even that uninspired gag is spoiled due to the fact that it's featured prominently on the film's official one sheet).
French frighteners such as Them and Inside have made home-invasion horror all the rage, and as a result it's no surprise to see Roy Lee's name standing out amongst the deluge of producer credits. After exploiting the Asian horror trend for all it was worth, Lee apparently took note of the shockers coming out of France and Spain and decided that they were ripe for the picking as well (in addition to The Strangers, Lee and his company Vertigo Entertainment also produced Quarantine, the 2008 remake of Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza's Spanish-language hit [REC]). And while The Strangers isn't a remake, it feels like one through and through, thanks to Bertino's constant reliance on well-worn genre clichés and a stubborn unwillingness to try anything new or innovative. Inconsequential romantic conflict? Check. Ominous coitus interruptus? Check. Injured characters miraculously healed when the script calls for it? Check. Creepy masks? Check. It's all here, and you will jump when that shower curtain gets flung open even if there's nothing scarier than a hairy bar of soap waiting on the other side.
Even worse, Bertino and company attempt to cast a cautionary shadow over what is defined in the film (and even the trailers) as a random crime by falling back on that tired cliché of claiming their film is "based on actual events" without bothering to cite which "events" those "actually" were. Say what you will about Funny Games, but at least Michael Haneke was trying to get viewers thinking with his film -- the only point here seems to be reinforcement of that lame old bumper-sticker philosophy "Sh*t Happens." (Not to imply that your typical horror film needs to have a point other than to simply scare and entertain the viewer, just that having such a flimsy, ill-defined point isn't only cliché, but lazy as well.) While The Strangers may indeed have one or two effective scare scenes buried somewhere in the mix, the fact that those few memorable scenes are lifted from far better films and lost in a sea of uninspired ideas leaves the viewer as cold as the killers who butcher a couple simply because they were home when the urge struck.