There are few things that scare us as humans more than the thought of someone invading our homes. This invasion of our personal space is such an intimate violation, there is nothing else that fills us with more dread than the idea that this inner sanctum, our protection against the outside world, has been breached. What was once your safe haven has been turned into a death trap and the confines that were once your shield have now wrapped around you like an inescapable kill box. I think there are few more frightening manifestations of this fear than the Amerian slasher/home invasion horror The Strangers.
The 2008 movie from director Bryan Bertino is a startling portrait of the randomness of violence. It brings to life one of our biggest fears, that one can be attacked without any motive or provocation. It is terrifying to consider that our very existence is a slight to others that we don’t even know exist, that every breath we take is an affront to these predators that are always watching, waiting to sniff out any sense of weakness. As people, we don’t know what lies in the heart of someone, that rage that simmers beneath, just below the surface, waiting for a reason to boil over.
Oftentimes, the reason for such violence is self-constructed within predators’ sick minds. They first manifest the delusion and then they set about turning that delusion into reality. This process often ends with deadly results, such as the Tate–LaBianca Murders, which Bertino cited as an influence on the story behind this piece. Bertino clearly takes his lead from the act of barbarism that was perpetrated at the hands of the Manson Family, the infamous cult that was led by Charles Manson. The vicious murders of the residents of the two neighboring homes are some of the best-documented cases of this type in modern history.
The similarities between the factual and fictional become strikingly clear as the story unfolds. Just like on so many similar occasions, the violators are the antithesis of the violated. When they perceive happiness in others, it causes them pain. They want to tear down the structure of their victims’ lives and leave nothing but anarchy in its place. The strangers at the center of this film are living breathing chaos. They attack without any outward cause, and they need no provocation except for you to be home. They come in the darkest parts of the night just like the worst kind of nightmare, giving life to the deepest fears that lay dormant within us all.
The strangers hunt the weary occupants of this home with no remorse. We view these attacks through the eyes of James (Scott Speedman) and Kristin (Liv Tyler), the couple who find themselves trapped in James’ parental summer home. Their minds flooded with the same questions that we have. Why them? What could they have done to deserve this? The answer to both of these questions, as I mentioned earlier, is simple. It is because they were home. They just happened to be the ones who answered that rat-a-tat-tat on their front door.
They answer the call not knowing what they are opening their door to and letting into their lives. The couple could never have imagined that they had welcomed death into their home and before they know it, they have become the hunted. James and Kristin realize quickly that they can not bargain with these strangers. The only thing they want from them is to snuff them out. The strangers are the Grim Reaper come to life—there is no rhyme or reason to their actions. They reach out with their deathly hands just waiting for someone to touch.
The gruesome events that take place are backed by an excellent and very unsettling score. Bertino cleverly uses the diegetic record player to induce unease. The song on a skipping loop perfectly symbolizes how the attack from the strangers is as much a never-ending sensory assault as it is a physical assault. Bertino uses the score perfectly to keep the audience off-kilter as much as the characters. He does such a good job of inducing the very same feelings in the viewer that he instills in James and Kristin throughout their ordeal.
We too feel their terror. Bertino makes the story and their fear feel so real. The invasion is raw and personal. It is like the attackers have a window into the souls of those they hunt. They pull on their strings for the duration, lulling James, Kristin, and the viewer in before tightening their grip. The Strangers really gives us the same sense of back to the wall disorientation that the couple feels as the events play out. Their desperation is palpable. They are drowning in it and every time they try to come up for air they are pushed back beneath the surface and into the darkest depths.
This desperation is no more on display than when James makes the fatal error of mistaking his friend Mike (Glenn Howerton) for one of the attackers, shooting him as he comes down the hallway. Bertino shows us how events like this one can have unintended consequences, that violence always creates collateral damage. It is not only Mike that suffers but also the two young Morman boys at the climax of the movie. This is another example of the unexpected fallout of the home invasion from the night before. We often forget the ones who make the discovery of such grisly scenes. They are lost in the shuffle, snowed in, covered in the avalanche of anarchy that comes in the aftermath.
The lead into that aftermath is chilling. When the strangers take off their masks, we know, just like James and Kristin do, that this will only end one way. They now gaze upon not only the faces of their attackers but also the face of their impending demise. It is such a powerful moment that we feel the same feeling of resignation they do. The climax is a shocking snapshot of confrontation with our own mortality and what we do in those last moments. In these final minutes, we see James and Kristin’s love for one another. They huddle as close together as they possibly can, even though they had their issues, and they love each other until the very end.
When it comes down to it what really made The Strangers stick out in my mind from the very first time I viewed it, it is the style Bertino deployed. The personal, bare-bones, back to basics aesthetics and feel is so reminiscent of horror classics from the ’70s when suspense was favored over gore. It harkens back to the time when the sensory overload was applied subtly. Bertino artfully evolves and adapts the methodology throughout the onslaught on screen.
He constructs the mayhem-filled mirror that reflects each and every one of our innermost frailties. Bertino accomplishes this like so many before him did, sitting us right on the teetering edge just waiting for the opportunity to give us that final nudge. The harrowing story feels so random yet so personal and intimate, it is a manifestation of all that keeps us awake at night. The Strangers shows us that evil does not need a grand scheme or to be premeditated, that it takes many forms. It also teaches us that life is precious and that we should appreciate the ones we love because it can all just end in an instant.
What Bertino really does is shine a light on the human condition. He examines everything that makes us who we are and everything that tears us apart. He brings to life the very real fears we all have laying deep within us. The Strangers is an unsettling, expertly pieced together modern-day horror classic. It stays with you long after the experience of watching it, and it is the perfect example of less is more. Bertino gives us a glimpse behind the mask of evil, and it is an intimate, intense test of will. The film asks us so many questions and now it is up to us to see if we have the answers.