Although it absolutely does suffer from having as its protagonists a pair of idiots idiotic even by the standard of an Idiot Plot, The Strangers absolutely deserves this much praise: it is a ridiculously well-crafted scary movie. Maybe not good enough to rise to the pantheon (the last film to reach that height, I'd wager, was Neil Marshall's The Descent in 2005), but it met the only standard that's ultimately worth using to judge a horror film: it scared the holy crap out of me while I was watching it.

Filmed in 2006 by then-29 year old first-timer Bryan Bertino, the story is essentially just a more respectable, gore-free torture porno: we watch in something very close to real time as James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) and Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) are trapped in a cabin in the woods and terrified by three people in masks who lack any apparent motivation. We know that the heroes will die; the film makes that clear in a prologue that shows us context-free bloodsplats as a title card notes that the nature of the brutality done in that place has never been completely discovered (the film claims, dubiously, to be based on real events). And yet, torture porn it is not; for while that genre expects us to root for the torture as an act, regardless of who is performing it on whom, The Strangers puts us squarely in line with the victims and asks - demands! - that we suffer through the same breathless uncertainty of what the hell is going on that they do.

(Incidentally, the striking number of Respectable Critics who have self-righteously dismissed The Strangers as immoral is more than a little disappointing to me. Though I'm not even certain that I like to use that word to describe the Hostels and Saws of the world, I'm absolutely positive that Bertino's film is operating from a different perspective entirely, and those RCs are doing nothing but revealing a dismaying close-mindedness. "If it involves protracted suffering, it must be torture porn & therefore beneath contempt." Wrong and wrong).

There are plenty of little tricks that the film uses to win our point-of-view over to James and Kristen, and none of them are game-changers, but for the most part they work. The biggest is that unlike the legions of stereotypical cannon fodder teens or other pretty young people, the two leads in The Strangers are both adults (Speedman was 31, Tyler was 29), with full characterisations, or at least as full as you can make a characterisation in the first act of an 85 minute film, including credits. It helps that both Tyler and Speedman, though not particularly good actors, are good enough for what the film requires of them, which other the panting and screaming part is a tremulous little domestic drama in which James proposes to Kristen after a friend's wedding, and she doesn't accept; when we first meet them, they've obviously had a rough ride through the backcountry, and aren't looking forward to their intimate weekend at all, all done through implication and things characters aren't saying. Again, not groundbreaking, but good enough. That simple conflict is given an odd amount of weight, and the reason, I think, is so that even before the poundin' and the hollerin' starts, we have a sense that this is a tremendously awful night for these two characters. We're already kind of feeling sorry for both of them (as effective as it is to show that the characters in a horror film are miserable - The Descent works for much the same reason, as does last year's tremendously underrated Vacancy - I have to wonder why so many horror films stick with the tried and true "unbelievably happy" protagonists). There's also a rigorous use of camera POV to keep us in the victims' shoes when the shit starts going down; in fact, I don't believe that I noticed a single instance of the camera being allied to the killers - sometimes to a third-person objective view, but never to the killers. That has to be a sort of horror film record.

What this all means is that when those masked strangers come a-knocking, we are right there with Kristen and James, freaking out at every tiny noise and inexplicable movement. Bertino is a masterful director of suspense, pulling out two techniques that work just about perfectly: first, as indicated by the trailer, he uses a lot of long takes. Not Tarkovsky-long, of course, but there were many times that I counted more than ten seconds between cuts, an eternity in a modern horror film, and the way that he relies on empty voids of space in those long takes to generate almost intolerable amounts of dread should be required study for anyone who ever wants to make a scary movie. I'm delighted to report that The Moment which always works in the trailer, works in the film proper; listening to the viewers in my theater who clearly didn't know what was coming shift and gasp when a man in a burlap mask wanders into the back of a deep-focus shot has to rank as one of the best experiences I've had at the movies so far this year. Even the shock moments work like that, by the way: nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing OH MY CHRIST.

The other really wonderful thing that Bertino does is create terror out of nothing but sound. It's my contention that the original The Haunting, one of the absolutely scariest movies in history, works about 95% because of the things going bump in the film; The Strangers, whose first half consists mostly of noises, rather than stalking, works in a similar way, and it's much closer to flawless than I would ever have predicted. It's not even a particularly loud movie, which makes the loud moments that much more powerful.

Still, though it is far scarier than any film released in the last several months, The Strangers commits a really dispiriting number of truly stupid mistakes. The biggest one is that Kristen and James are complete idiots - this is very much the kind of film that could have ended in ten minutes if they'd called the cops the first time that the super-creepy nameless girl (Gemma Ward) came to their door at 4:10 AM, rather than assuming she was just a poor lost lamb, or in twenty if Kristen had jumped into James's car when he got back from a cigarette run, instead of spending what seems like an eternity convincing him that no, she didn't actually cut the phone lines herself. And that's not to mention several moments when the couple splits up for no obvious reason other than to increase the number of opportunities they have have to be stalked.

In more esoteric concerns, the music by the lousy movie veteran team of tomandandy is terribly invasive, letting us know that it's time to be scared a good fifteen or thirty seconds before the film actually wants us to be, or punctuating every single "boo!" moment with the exact same string chord. The movie is much too light in the outside scenes. And several good jump scares are ruined, or at least damaged, when the cut from a close-up to a wide shot reveals that the killer could not possibly be where we just saw that the killer was, with our own damn eyes. Finally, I'm not sure the gotcha ending does anything but make sure that we leave the theater with an adrenaline boost.

These are real concerns, but not overriding ones - the film is scary as all hell, and much like a comedy (which is "good" if it is funny), a horror film is good first and above all if it is effectively scary. The film is nihilistic, as some have complained - but murder is nihilistic, and things like this happen. Indeed, the best argument that this isn't truly "based on a true story" is that there are so many unsolved cases of people found butchered in their own homes that nobody can agree which particular case this film was "based" on. It wrings ever drop of terror it can out of making us identify with doomed people, and suffering as they suffer. That might be nihilistic, but it's also empathetic, and the last time I checked, empathy was one of the highest goals of narrative art.