Horror Film Review: The Strangers (dir by Bryan Bertino)

Ever since I made the mistake of watching Wolves at the Door a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about the 2008 home invasion film, The Strangers.

I’ve always struggled with my feelings towards The Strangers.  On the one hand, this is a horror film that actually scared me.  Considering the amount of horror films that I’ve watched (not to mention the number of home invasion films), that’s really saying something.  Since a horror film is meant to frighten, The Strangers has to be considered a success.  At the same time, The Strangers always leaves me so upset that, after watching, I inevitably swear to myself that I’ll never watch it again.  And yet, whenever I see it playing on cable, I can’t help but watch at least a little of it.  Even knowing what’s going to happen and how the film is going to end, The Strangers retains a hypnotic power.

The Strangers is a simple film.  There’s a house out in the middle of nowhere.  Having just left a wedding reception, James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) and his girlfriend, Kristen (Liv Tyler), arrive at the house.  James and Kristen are not having a good night.  James asked Kristen to marry him.  Kristen turned him down.  That’ll make any night awkward, regardless of how nice the house is.

James and Kristen settle into the house for the night, both of them eager to get away from each other in the morning.  Suddenly, there’s a knock on the door.  A young woman (Gemma Ward) is looking for someone named Tamara.  When told that there is no Tamara in the house, she replies, “See you later.”

The girl’s not lying.  Later, while James is out sulking, Kristen realizes that she’s not alone.  There are three strangers, all wearing masks.  They’re watching.  They’re waiting…

The rest of the film details, in excruciating detail, the rest of the night.  What makes the film particularly disturbing is that neither James nor Kristen are dumb but they’re still powerless against those three strangers.  Just as the strangers hide their faces, they also hide their motive.  The closest that Kristen and James get to an explanation for why they’re being targeted is that “You were home.”  To the strangers, it’s a game.  They’re like three cats, playing with a cricket.  They’re not going to back off until they’ve removed at least one leg.

(James and Kristen, I should add, are not the only potential victims in The Strangers.  There’s also Mike, who is James’s best friend and who is supposed to pick him up in the morning.  Of everyone in the movie, I always feel the worst for Mike.  For one thing, he was just trying to do his friend a favor.  For another, he’s played by Glenn Howerton.  Has It’s Sunny In Philadelphia done a The Gang Plans A Home Invasion episode?)

The Strangers is an absolutely terrifying film, specifically because it’s so easy to relate to Kristen and James.  They remind the viewers of their friends.  They remind the viewers of themselves.  Watching them, we’re reminded of every time that we’ve heard a strange sound in the night and tried to tell ourselves that it was nothing.  We live in an increasingly unstable world and The Strangers perfectly captures the feeling of living under the shadow of death.  It’s a bit like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, without any “it’s just a movie” moments to provide us with any sense of security.  The film starts with a message telling us that we’re about to see a true story.  Even though we know that might just be hyperbole, we also know that what we’re seeing could very well have happened.  In fact, it could happen to us as soon as the movie ends.

That’s the hypnotic dread of The Strangers.