Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers is that rare modern horror film dedicated to terrorizing the audience without torturing it. This may turn off the new breed of genre junkies who can’t be bothered unless Achilles tendons are getting snapped with a rusty pair of tongs, but it’s manna for those of us who remember a time when atmosphere was king. Michael Myers lurking behind a screen door, vampires floating outside your bedroom window, calls coming from inside the house… these are the moments that still keep you up at night. I don’t know about you, but when I think Rube Goldberg contraptions, I don’t get scared; I start humming “Powerhouse”.

Though Bertino pays heavy homage to Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with his opening “This really happened” narration, he’s drawing less on actual events than he is childhood memories. Chances are, most people have spent at least one night in a creepy old house out in the middle of nowhere, the kind of structure that creaks so much it sounds like its trying to “settle” in the next county over. Though our parents were always quick to reassure us that that’s what old houses do, two hours later and left to your own devices, those thuds and bumps tended to take the shape of ghosts and prowlers in your overactive imagination – at which point it became a desperate matter of riding out the night.

What’s especially unsettling about The Strangers is that, when James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler) arrive at their ranch house getaway, dawn isn’t that far away. The first unexpected knock falls on the front door at four in the morning; surely, if there’s mischief afoot, it’ll disappear at the first sign of light. But daybreak is the last thing on the couple’s mind once the masked marauders start tapping at windows and sneaking in through backdoors; survival quickly becomes the order of the night.

Complicating the ordeal is an unspoken fissure in James’s and Kristen’s relationship. The film opens with the pair driving in silence out to the house, and, once they get there, the conversation doesn’t really pick up much. It’s an elegant way to start a drama, much less a horror movie: the spaces between the words and the omission of details gets the viewer’s antennae active; whatever they’re not discussing, it’s serious enough to drive Kristen to tears and James to prepare for a hasty exit courtesy of a friend. The first fifteen to twenty minutes of The Strangers dwells on the sadness of these characters, and the actors capably convey the frustration and regret in silences and gestures; these scenes are so effective that one wishes Bertino had saved the (not a spoiler) engagement ring reveal for the closing moments rather than address it in flashback before “The Strangers” appear.

The primary flaw of The Strangers, and the reason why it fails to stick like it should, is that Bertino struggles to establish a thematic through-line to complement his spare storytelling. The character development is great and all, but there’s got to be more to the tragedy besides sheer randomness – or, if the randomness is the point, then there’s got to be a better payoff than “Because you were home” (though that’s a fantastically creepy line). Bertino attempts a minor commentary with his denouement, but it’s half-hearted and unmoored from the proceedings. <spoilertext>And Bertino’s a smart enough filmmaker to know that a Carrie ending is an act of desperation.</spoilertext>

Horror films have always been sturdy vessels for social commentary, but there’s something to be said for a genre entry that places a premium on working the audience’s nerves over its intellect. And The Strangers goes for the jugular honestly; Bertino’s skill-set may be heavily cribbed from John Carpenter, but the guy knows where to place a camera and how to compose a long-playing, utterly terrifying shot. Compared against wallowers like Darren Lynn Bousman, Xavier Gens and Alexandre Aja, Bertino comes off like a modern-day Jacques Tourneur: he respects quiet, worships economy, and relishes in the opportunity to use the entire widescreen frame in order to maximize suspense (and I’m well aware Tourneur didn’t compose for 2.35 until later in his career). Bertino may top out early with the first two attacks, but no one could sustain that level of tension; at least he executes one more bravura set piece (involving a hallway and a shotgun) before winding down.

If The Strangers ultimately feels like a calling card effort, it’s still one of the most impressive genre debuts in recent memory. Like many great horror films, this is the kind of movie that begs to be seen with a receptive audience. Don’t deprive yourself. (It could be great revenge for getting subjected to Sex and the City over the weekend.)

7.0 out of 10