Senseless violence

REVIEW Returning from a wedding reception in a glum mood — apparently Kristen (Liv Tyler) did not respond to a marriage proposal from James (Scott Speedman) as hoped or expected — the pair retreat to his family’s isolated vacation home, where they find their evening getting worse, fast. A most unexpected 4 a.m. knock at the door and a strange interaction with a seemingly lost girl is followed by more knocks, then vandalism, then disturbing signs that the house has already been or is being entered — until it’s not a knock at the door but an ax crashing through it. The panicked couple discover they’re being terrorized for no apparent reason by three masked visitors who have disabled the phones and car. It’s downhill from there. Debuting writer-director Bryan Bertino’s effectively stripped-down home-invasion thriller is refreshingly short on the usual cheap shock cuts, sound surges, and false scares. Instead, The Strangers makes excellent use of eerie restraint and quiet in a long, tense buildup before most of the real mayhem happens. Too bad the last five minutes are as uninspired as the prior 80 are crafty.

THE STRANGERS opens Fri/30 in Bay Area theaters.