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Tense Strangers seems too familiar
James (Scott Speedman, seated right) and Kristen (Liv Tyler, seated left) are lovers who find an unwelcome guest at their door in "The Strangers."

"The Strangers" is the kind of movie that boosts sales of guns and home security systems. It could incite an explosion in self-defense class enrollments. At the very least, it will encourage you to chain the door and to use the peephole.

But even with all security precautions in place, you may not feel safe in your own home after seeing this film.

James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) and Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) arrive at James' family's remote vacation home after attending a wedding reception. Candles and crystal glasses adorn the table. Champagne chills in a silver ice bucket. Rose petals are strewn throughout the house. James, who proposed to Kristen at the reception, has created the perfect atmosphere to celebrate their engagement. Problem is, Kristen said no.

James' carefully planned ambience is now macabre and uncomfortable. In the midst of this romantic tension, James and Kristen are interrupted by a young woman at the door who seems both lost and slightly menacing.

This odd encounter is just the first stage in a nightmare of torment inflicted upon the couple by three masked strangers. Pounding on the door leads to more confrontational mind games and eventually progresses to open attacks. The fear and paranoia build agonizingly slowly, and the film manipulates our emotions so completely it's almost unbearable.

"The Strangers" is inspired by an actual incident, and while the film draws on a familiar arsenal of horror movie devices, it never strays into the kind of absurd twists or ridiculous concepts that ruin so many horror films. It all seems plausible.

I've read complaints about the movie's lack of plot, but all a good horror movie needs to do is scare us - and this one inspires more fear than any I've seen in years.

Filmed down the road in Florence, S.C., the woods outside the cabin are full of pine trees and red clay that will be far too familiar to any North Georgian. I found myself wishing the landscape looked more like Washington or Oregon. Or better yet, outer Mongolia.

But alas, in this way and others the film succeeds at taking a typical horror movie scenario and making it all too realistic.

"The Strangers" revels in suspense rather than killing, like a pre-slasher horror movie, and also avoids the cheap shocks of recent torture porn. Here, the body count is low, and while the film does treat its characters sadistically, the torture is psychological. No sawed limbs or swinging chain saws here.

Instead, we see James and Kristen's tormentors lurking in the shadows when they don't. Or we are placed in the position of the characters, wondering where the masked sickos are, when the next attack will come and why this is happening.

We are both witnesses to and vicarious victims of killers who are such extreme psychopaths they barely seem human. Perhaps the most frightening part of the whole experience is knowing such wickedness does exist.

"The Strangers" also marks a stunning debut. Writer/director Bryan Bertino is in his 20s and was a mere gaffer just a few years ago. Somehow, this first-timer has already acquired an awareness of what will scare an audience, and he displays a devastating killer instinct. Just like his onscreen sadists, Bertino gets far too much pleasure from his ability to make us squirm.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College