by ED SYMKUS & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he Razzie Awards don't come around again until next February, but unless someone figures out how to bring Ed Wood Jr. back from the dead, it's unlikely that anything's going to get in the way of The Strangers grabbing top (bottom?) honors as worst film of the year.

Billed as a "horror-mystery-thriller," it exists more as a study in stupidity, a "horror" film in which the only reason a viewer might jump is because the sound effects are amped up so high. It's also a film that's simply got to be an embarrassment for its stars -- Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman (they're the only recognizable actors; the others, fortunately for them and their careers, are wearing either cheap masks or burlap sacks on their heads).

The awful thing opens with an unseen deep-voiced man reading words that are up on the screen: something about the number of violent crimes committed in America, along with a few FBI stats. Oh yeah, and the fact that this is a "true story," although no one has ever figured out exactly what happened.

We get to listen in on a 911 call from a hysterical young boy who sounds like a young girl (or maybe it's Tyler's character giving a false name, all the while screaming, "There's blood everywhere!").

Suddenly we're in Flashback City, riding along in a silent car, Speedman's James at the wheel, grim determination on his face, Tyler's Kristen letting a few last teardrops fall. An uninformative script hints that a marriage proposal went wrong, but they're still heading to James' boyhood home -- an isolated ranch house -- to spend what he thought would be a romantic night. Nope, they're going to have separate bedrooms.

Time to flash back a little further, to the happy celebration they were at earlier, and where the majority of the film's sparse dialogue is spoken. Even then, we never do get to hear the proposal. Back at the house it's revealed that men -- not women -- are the ones who drown their sorrows in ice cream. And that it's possible that just the sight of an open ice cream container can work as an aphrodisiac for both parties.

But we'll never know if it really works because just as their clothing begins to be shed, there's -- oh, no! -- a knock at the door. Which would be fine except it's 4 o'clock in the morning out in the middle of nowhere. Aww, it's a sweet young thing who appears to be lost, then just walks away.

OK, what would you do? I'd do exactly as our hero does. He leaves his girlfriend alone in this creepy place, jumps in his car, and heads off to buy some cigarettes (at 4 am and in the middle of nowhere): "I'll be right back, dear. Are you sure you'll be OK?"

Well, umm, no, she won't. Moments after he's gone, the knocking starts anew, but much louder this time, then her phone ends up in the fire, then that guy with the sack on his head shows up in the kitchen, then she's holding a chef's knife that Rachael Ray would swoon over.

Blah blah blah. Not much else happens here. You've got masked people running around banging on things and terrorizing people, but no matter how many times Kristen asks them why they're doing this, they won't answer. When one of them finally does ("Because you were home"), it comes across as utter nonsense and lazy writing.

Written and directed by first-timer Bryan Bertino -- who shows no flair for filmmaking -- the film just keeps repeating itself with knocks on walls and noises in the night. It finally shows some teeth when a big shiny axe comes chopping through a door (the only cool bit in the film is a shot of a toolshed out back, with the shape of the axe drawn on the wall, where the axe used to hang).

To the film's credit, there's hardly any gore, but there's far too much of nothing going on, broken up only by some unexplained wheezing from under the head sack or by Tyler's failed attempts at screaming like Fay Wray. The "big climactic ending" disregards anything that was mentioned in the voiceover at the beginning, and will leave viewers wondering why they didn't instead stay home -- behind locked doors -- doing a jigsaw puzzle that they knew full well had a piece missing.


Rated R

Written and directed by Bryan Bertino

Starring Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman

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