Basically taut "The Strangers" full of dread

The Strangers (2008) 
85 min., rated R.

If you were alone at night and heard a knock at the door, "The Strangers" plays on that fear for 85 minutes with an unbearably creepy dread. James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler) arrive at his family's summer ranch in the country for an awkward rest of the evening, after she turns down his marriage proposal. Suddenly there's a knock at the door at 4 a.m., and not long after that encounter, three masked attackers invade the house and start harassing the rocky couple. 

This scary, taut-as-a-rope little suspense number is ultimately pointless, but if you're not a resolution man, "The Strangers" is proof that you can still earn scares without all the gratuitous blood and gore (good riddance!) and slick, jittery editing by cutting it down to back-to-basics suspense of the '70s era. First-time writer-director Bryan Bertino sustains a fever pitch with a minimalist, chamber-piece approach. The cinematography is moody and shadowy, there's a quietly terrifying long shot of the burlap-bag masked stranger watching Tyler from the background, and the use of a skipping record player in one scene is effectively eerie. 

The leads acquit themselves adequately, not behaving as stupidly as most slasher-movie characters always do. Sure, one of them twists an ankle and, at one point, a door is left wide open, but you might do the same in a life-threatening situation. The strangers' doll-face, pin-up girl, and burlap-sack masks are hard to forget and never come off until the end, and, even then, we wisely never catch a peek. Almost always ahead of James and Kristen and having the upper hand, they even appear to be a bit supernatural. In one mordantly clever touch, Tyler asks the overused question, "Why are you doing this?" and one of the strangers simply replies with "Because you were home." 

It's refreshingly spare and well-made, from a horror movie aspect, but finally let down by a cheap, anticlimactic "boo!" scare for an ending. A typical gimmick, "The Strangers" claims to be "inspired by" true events with an opening title card letting us know already of the couple's fate, much like "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre." On the face value of the premise, it's not unlike "Straw Dogs," "Funny Games," "Vacancy," or "Them," and perhaps the "true events" echo a bit of the Manson Family murders. True or derivative, the film still knows how to keep you on edge.