“Why are you doing this to us?”
“Because you were home.”
This exchange from The Strangers has stuck with me for 10 years. They’re not quite the final lines of the film, but they’re the last word on why it’s endured while so many horror titles of the same early-21st-century vintage have not. A sequel, The Strangers: Prey at Night, opens this weekend.
Released in 2008 amid a deluge of stylishly deranged French, Japanese, and Korean imports, as well as a healthy flow of post-Eli Roth torture porn, Bryan Bertino’s debut looked pretty generic upon arrival, even by the standards of genre fare: another faux-authentic urban legend (“What you are about to see is inspired by true events” lies the opening title card) about a good-looking couple being stalked by a gang of killers. And that’s really all that happens. Except that it’s also expertly staged, impressively ruthless, and—at least for me—really about something, even if that something ends up being the chilling nothing-in-particular alluded to by the masked murderess to her victim.
The home-invasion thriller is an American standard that doesn’t lack for classic variations, from Sam Peckinpah’s moralistic masterpiece Straw Dogs (1971) to Wes Craven’s stealth Ingmar Bergman remake Last House on the Left (1972) to David Fincher’s Panic Room (2002), which put a high-tech gloss on an archetypal scenario. The Strangers surely owes a debt to The Last House ... and the raft of cheapjack thrillers that followed in its wake in the 1970s and ‘80s, before Scream post-modernized the form, but its elegant sense of dread stands apart from typical 21st-century exploitation aesthetics. For its first near-perfect half-hour, it’s less visceral and more intriguingly minimalist.
Bertino’s directorial smarts are on display from the first slow-cut montage of rural homes glimpsed from the window of a moving car. It’s a passage suggesting free-floating, arbitrary menace.
He also gives his protagonists a memorable introduction. We first see James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler) sitting side by side in their car, their faces in the deep red glow of a traffic light. The signal changes to green and the car drives on, but their mournful expressions don’t change. They’re still on pause. A flashback explains that, earlier that evening, James had proposed to Kristen at their friends’ wedding and she had said no. “It’s really nice, everything you did, it’s beautiful,” she says, observing the romantic preparations around them at his family’s summer home. A shot of rose petals in the bathtub becomes an emblem of dashed hopes.
This might seem like a deep dive into detail, but it’s the slow accrual of small, deceptively off-hand images—a tub of ice cream on the kitchen table; a red record on an old phonograph—that gives The Strangers its eerie but authentic sense of atmosphere. Instead of loudly evoking the grindhouse style of the ’70s, a la Roth or Rob Zombie, Bertino conjures up the decade (and its horror movie legacy) in the cozily retrograde textures of the house itself, which essentially takes us back in time without actually making the film a period piece. He does great work with his actors, who give wonderfully natural, felt performances. Tyler’s anxious guilt and Speedman’s depressed chivalry combine for a genuinely melancholy tension, which gets broken by an unexpected knock at the door.
The visitor’s face is shrouded in darkness. She’s told that she’s got the wrong house. She does and she doesn’t, because it’s that tingle of random, arbitrary violence—the kind that arrives out of nowhere—that gives The Strangers its narrative and thematic shape. In what may be the script’s only truly implausible contrivance, James picks the moment that the 4 a.m. guest disappears to drive into town for some cigarettes. His reasoning is unconvincing but the filmmaking that follows is impossible to argue with. In a superbly lit and edited (and totally wordless) 10-minute sequence, Kristen comes to realize that she isn’t alone in the house, although the situation gets confirmed for the audience before the character. The first intruder materializes out of total darkness in the background of an unbroken medium shot, without the cut to close-up or a music cue you might expect; it’s a great example of a rookie director with the confidence to subtly hide his film’s biggest scare in plain sight.
I’m not going to pretend that what comes next is particularly original: mouse, meet cat(s). But again, it’s less about the what than the how, and the methodical pace of Bertino’s direction aligns perfectly with the predatory attitudes of his villains. In some ways, the movie that The Strangers is closest to is Michael Haneke’s controversial 1997 “anti-thriller” Funny Games, in which a pair of clean-cut youths imprisons a well-to-do family in their lake house and subjects them to all manner of humiliation and torture, all while promising the whole clan will be dead by sunrise.
Haneke’s conceptual masterstroke is having the bad guys talk directly to the camera about what they’re doing while their victims are helplessly trapped within the surrounding fiction. The point—and whatever else you think of it, Funny Games is a movie with a point—is that all the violence and suffering is being staged for our benefit (Haneke famously said that anyone who stayed in the theater “need[ed] the film” and those who walked out didn’t).
Funny Games omits any kind of happy ending—and literally reverses the one crowd-pleasing moment of triumphant, retributive violence—because its director wanted us to understand the difference between real life and cinema. Haneke was grandstanding. Bertino makes much the same point without tearing down the fourth wall.
What bothered some critics about The Strangers was its refusal to bow to the convention that the hunted eventually become the hunters. While James and Kristen are allowed to be intelligent, resourceful, and defiant, they never once gain the upper hand, and even when the cavalry comes in, in the form of James’s friend Mike (Glenn Howerton), the hope he represents is quickly dashed. Whether or not the movie is ultimately “realistic,” the lack of any viable escape hatch, for the characters or the audience, touches on and deconstructs deeper truths about the genre: that its pleasures are fundamentally sadistic and, when taken to a logical end point, deeply unsatisfying.
There’s no good reason that Kristen ends up cowering at knife-point in a cabin at the edge of the woods. She didn’t break the “rules” of behavior in a slasher movie (Jamie Kennedy never said anything about chain-smoking, so she gets a pass). She hasn’t recently unearthed an ancient book of the dead. She doesn’t know what you did last summer. Wrong place, wrong time, and there’s nothing more to it than that—and also nothing less. The existential dread is coming from inside the house.