The premise is simple. Jimmy and his girlfriend, Kristen, spend the night in a summerhouse late after a friend's wedding, when three unknown persons- a man and two women- immediately seek to kill them.
It's reminiscent of the Bates motel-to-the-extreme, thriller, Vacancy (2007), but has elements similar to one of my favorite horror films, Funny Games (1997), remade and released this Spring. One could also make comparisons to Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects (2005).
In each of those films, malevolent sadism is put on display. It's done so mainly for no rhyme or reason. The audience here is instead left to guess as to motivation. In the outset of terror, Kristen asks, "Why are they doing this?" Jimmy responds with an embattled, "It doesn't matter."
Where at once, some may naysay because the killers aren't explained, their faces not even shown, I refer them to this film's title. If you knew them, who they were and why they were, then they wouldn't be strangers.
And, what strange strangers they are. One man in a mask is a dead ringer for the killer in the first Friday the 13th (1980). The other two are women with doll faces on as masks. Anytime the three aren't in costume, 30-year-old, first-time director Bryan Bertino shoots in wide angle or has them in shadow.
The initial appearance is one of the women knocking innocently at the wooden front door which has no windows or peephole. This will come as a very terrifying device later. An innocent knock eventually becomes a grandiose bang. Slowly, the South Carolina sanctuary is invaded with screaming, bloodshed, destruction, and even death.
In tone and feel, the whole experience had quivers of John Carpenter's Halloween (1978). Liv Tyler (Lord of the Rings and Jersey Girl) even looks like Jamie Lee Curtis. Tyler plays Kristen, the brunette beauty who's uncertainty about spending the rest of her life with her soon-to-be fiancé, Jimmy, is tested to severity.
Tyler's fear and absolute horror sells this string of events with total conviction. When an actress is able to completely transfer what's happening on screen to the audience, she has succeeded, if not excelled, at her job, and Tyler definitely excels. I believed whole-heartedly that she was scared for her life. So much, I became on edge myself.
Scott Speedman (Felicity and Underworld) plays Jimmy, the heartbroken boyfriend who tries to stay strong but realizes the trap they're in may have no escape. Speedman, in almost everything he's done, plays his character with a quiet sensitivity. He's a minimalist actor, perfect for directors who like closeups being that his eyes tell you everything.
The tone and feel echoing Halloween is to say that the film seems generally like it was made in the 70s minus the bad hair and fashion. The decoration of the house, the pacing, and the overall atmosphere harkens back to the heyday of horror films in the 1970s.
Bertino seems to be a student of Carpenter and horror masters like William Friedkin, and has not followed the lead of the Splat Pack, those who have directed movies like Saw (2004), which rely more on gore. No. The majority of the film builds its tension and unease through perfect uses of sound and music, not red, gushing liquid, though there is some present here. Yet, it's not a lot and we instead get the shakes by way of an eerie phonograph playing theme and lyric-appropriate vinyl records, though strangely those intended for children.
For a restrictive location, Bertino makes the house where his characters are held hostage and locked inside seem like a wide-open space. Bertino offers some great, if unnervingly, creepy visuals. He hearts having his victims in the foreground and his villains looming just out of focus in the background. Bertino also plays with having a scary thing just within periphery and then pulling it away, to further pull the rug out from under his audience.
Bertino even creates a haunting snapshot of a petrified Liv Tyler in a closet that may be as direct a reference to Halloween, but the colors and mise-en-scene, as well as Tyler's performance clearly makes it their own. Despite being one of the scariest moments in the movie, it's cinematically the most beautiful.
As he opens the film, we see pieces scattered about the floor, and this film is really about discovering those pieces. It's not necessarily to fit them together in order to see a whole picture, but just enough to get a sense of its shape.
There are times when the shaky camerawork is annoying, and, yes, there is no clear-cut explanation, but it's a scary movie that actually works. It works because it's simply scary.
Five Stars out of Five
Rated R for terror and language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 30 mins.