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The Terrifying Pointlessness of ‘The Strangers’

Ever since the invention of motion-picture cameras, filmmakers have been searching the darkest recesses of their brains in an effort to come up with the next great movie monster. From George Romero’s zombies to Wes Craven’s Freddy Krueger, the villains that have most iconically terrorized the silver screen have mostly been creatures quite unlike those found within our physical realities, providing a safe distance from the fear we feel while watching them stalk and slash. When we go to bed, we can pretty sure that we won’t be torn apart in our sleep by a werewolf or feasted on by a hungry vampire, but one thing we cannot promise ourselves is that we’ll be safe from the scariest monsters of them all: the human beings we’re forced to share this planet with.

It is for this reason that no sub-genre of horror is more genuinely terrifying than the home invasion film, which preys upon the very real fear of the safest place in your world being flip-turned into a living nightmare. Countless films released in the last several decades fall under the home invasion umbrella, from 1967’s Wait Until Dark to 2011’s You’re Next, but it wasn’t until Bryan Bertino made his own contribution to the sub-genre that the home invasion film truly reached its pinnacle of terror. Released in 2008, The Strangers upped the fear factor by throwing motive completely out the window.

There’s absolutely nothing deceptive about the simplicity of Bertino’s premise. In The Strangers, James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) and Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler), whose troubled relationship is given a wonderfully nuanced introduction within the first 15-minutes, are spending the night in a remote vacation home. Around four in the morning, they receive a knock on the front door from a young woman who claims to be looking for a friend of hers, and soon thereafter, a trio of masked maniacs break into the home and terrorize the couple. Why, you ask? That’s a question directly addressed in Bertino’s script, and the answer sends chills up the spine just thinking about it.

Because you were home,” answers one of the masked intruders.

More than merely a creepy tagline, that bone-chilling reveal hammers home the entire theme of The Strangers, which is that sadistic killers don’t need a reason to make you their next target. It’s comforting to believe that you need to wrong someone in order to become their enemy, but the reality, as is terrifyingly on display in The Strangers, is that your peaceful existence can be shattered simply because you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. And sometimes, as the world learned courtesy of the infamous Manson Family murders of 1969, which loosely inspired Bertino to pen this very film, that wrong place can be within the walls of your own home.

Like the real-life murders of Sharon Tate and friends, there’s really no point to the brutality on display in The Strangers, and though many over the years have criticized the film for that, it is my belief that it’s actually the single most chilling aspect of it. Right out of the gate, a narrated sequence (a nod to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) more or less lays out everything we’re about to see, letting us know that the two characters we’re about to meet will not survive the night. Less than 80-minutes later, as promised, James and Kristen are uneventfully stabbed to death, and just like that, the film ends. No twist. No surprises. When it’s over, we realize there was no point to what we just witnessed, and if the palpable terror of that pointlessness doesn’t linger with you long afterwards, well, it sure does for me.

Everything about The Strangers, very much unlike the majority of modern horror films, is quiet and understated, which is a huge reason why it’s so effective at imparting the fear that it does. In the most chilling moment, Kristen is pouring herself a glass of water in the kitchen while the so-called “Man in the Mask” watches from afar, something we see but Kristen does not. The brief glimpse of the masked madman in the background, which is purposely out of focus, is the visual equivalent of the iconic reveal from When a Stranger Calls that the killer is calling from inside the house, and it’s the complete antithesis of the jump scare that plagues so many horror movies today. By showing us that the killer is inside the house, and then making us wait for him to strike, Bertino imbues the bulk of the film with a tension so thick you can cut it with a butcher’s knife, proving with only his first film that he understands precisely what makes a horror film scary – and it’s sure as hell not creepy images lunging towards the camera.

The Strangers doesn’t make you afraid to venture out into the woods with your friends, nor does it make you fear that your dead loved ones are going to come back from the grave and feast on your flesh. Rather, it makes you afraid of something you simply cannot escape doing each and every night: being in your own home when the sun goes down. Because you never know who might come knocking, and just being home might be enough to get you killed.

Can anything really be scarier than that?


24 Comments
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  • AriesSiren

    Excellent film. Home invasions happen all the time. That’s what’s scary. Not some Fake ghosts, people are the scariest.

  • shawn lawson

    Movie was pretty scary but goddamn was it boring. It took me multiple viewings to make it whole way through. I would pass out everytime at 30-40 min mark then start over. Finally smartened up and just continued from that mark which i HATE doing.

  • pablitonizer

    Great movie, it got me very nervous the entire situation. I think the idea of “coz you were home” gives it an extra scary factor, no reason behind madness (that’s what makes Michael Myers so fucking scary)

  • turk

    Although I enjoyed the film, I find it difficult to give Bertino too much credit since it is almost unquestionably a rip off of the French film “Ils”, which came out two years earlier. Even the ending statement, “because you were home” mirrors the explanation for the children’s crimes in “Ils” as, “because they wouldn’t play with us”. I know Bertino denies having seen “Ils”, and claims he started writing his film much earlier, but it’s a bit too much on the nose in both plot and execution to believe he wasn’t at least heavily inspired by it. And if you haven’t seen “Ils”, I do highly recommend it.

    • ⠀huntington

      agreed! after watching Ils they do bear A LOT of similarities especially the fact that the assailants were anonymous and their motives were blank and pretty much the same

  • Will Seamon

    This is probably the movie I can’t understand the appeal of whatsoever. Over half the movie is just the strangers standing in the shot where the main characters can’t see them, or disappearing from view whenever the main characters look away for a few seconds. The only point of them doing this is to taunt the audience, and it’s not like they’re aware they’re in a movie or anything. “You’re Next” is such a great movie because the killers don’t dick around stretching out the runtime, they get right to fucking ACTUALLY KILLING PEOPLE.

  • 1EyeJack

    I think that Michael Haneke’s Funny Games should be mentioned here. Released prior to The Strangers, both his 1997 German version as well as his 2007 American remake are worth watching.

    • Barbara A. Wilson

      Absolutely! And virtually the same premise the article speaks of.

  • KSE1977

    Wow, that is pretty much precisely how I feel about Strangers and why I found it so creepy and effective> I always strive to find a motive behind a killer and the sheer randomness of why this couple was targeted……just wonderfully bleak.

  • Meisha’s Taint

    I heard they rented a copy of Weekend At Bernie’s 2 from Blockbuster but they didn’t “be kind and rewind” so the employees offed the couple after work.

  • Kirby4Ever

    This article scared me more than than the movie! You should be writing horror scripts!

  • ThunderDragoon

    Awesome article. Love this movie.

  • William

    By the way it ended, it is assumed that Kristen survived. There was even talk of Liv Tyler making a cameo, if they ever proceed with a sequel. To me, this was one of the scariest movies ever.

  • James Allard

    I have always been puzzled over how some people hate this movie. I read their negative comments and try to see their point. I have tried, and now I just shrug it off as different strokes for different folks. This film should be seen along with another film that also considers the notion of “Why do people do such terrible things?” meaning here 8MM, a wonder in that it stars Nic Cage (in one of his better performances) and directed by Joel Schumacher (who gave us the end of Batman movies because bat nipples) possibly his best film.

  • michaelmyers

    I loved this movie! This is a horror movie done right and I think will go down in horror history as one of the classics. Great review, by the way.

  • THGrimm

    I completely agree with everything said here. The Strangers is one of my all time favorites. I’ve only seen it once, but that’s all it took. I loved how the creepers would pop in and out of the house silently and without action; that’s what made it feel all the more intrusive. That aspect really made you feel how vulnerable the characters even though they didn’t even know it. Plus with the line of, “Because you were home.” is so bat shit. It’s like the old Richard Speck murders and saying of the nurses he slaughtered, “It just wasn’t their night.” Pure horrific chaos that is blindly channeled into the world upon any unsuspecting person.

  • Barbara A. Wilson

    Funny Games. No motive either, and it ends just as terrible as Strangers.

  • Jonny Horror

    The Strangers was a great horror film. The best since the first SCREAM. I like the old school stuff and this was refreshing for me. You don’t need backstory sometimes. Shit just HAPPENS, like real life. Crazy people. No explanation.

  • Gilles Ronconi

    I liked this one a lot. Another home invasion movie which I really liked is the Spanish Secuestrados (Kidnapped) which is also VERY good.

  • DarkBree

    The premise had so much promise, but it never delivered. It was so boring and the characters weren’t compelling. Also the lead actors were weak. The best part was the end, when things actually happened.

  • Jane

    I was bored to tears by this movie. Badly directed, badly acted, no character development, no pay off. Absolutely nothing to make it interesting other than a bunch badly done torture. The same concept has been done before and done so much better. The French(?) movie “ILS” (Them) is just one example. Never understood why people gush over this mediocre attempt at what should be a relatively easy genre to produce.

  • jr

    I thought it was pretty scary. I really liked it. Although you find yourself thinking – that would never happen to me because it would have beat the crap out of doll face with a frying pan or a chair or anything else I could find – it could actually happen if they got the jump on you

  • Oliver

    This is, absolutely, hands down, the scariest movie I ever saw. I’ve seen it three times and I’m still scared. It is as if someone was challenged to tailor-make a movie to scare the hell out of me. I don’t believe in ghosts, aliens, the devil, zombies, dinosaurs, giant bugs, sharks or dolls that come to life and kill. I am, however, terrified of bad humans, so this film squarely hits me in the heart of my worst fear. If you need a silly tale to get your heart thumping, this isn’t for you. If you recognize the evil that befalls some of us for no apparent reason, at the hands of others of us, for no apparent reason, this movie will scare the hell out of you.

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