99 times out of 100, a delayed movie means it’s bad. So I wasn’t expecting much from The Strangers when it opened in May of 2008, after two delays (from late summer, and then November, of 2007). 90 minutes later, I was rushing to sing its praises – it’s a good thing I wasn’t on Twitter then or else I would have been rambling all night. Luckily, the movie didn’t need my help; its opening weekend take was double that of its production budget, and good word of mouth kept it going for another few weeks in those crowded summer multiplexes, ultimately earning over $50 million in the U.S. alone – more than fellow “torture” movie Hostel.
But I don’t think it deserves that moniker, because what makes the movie work so well is a decided MINIMUM of on-screen violence and gore. The climax has our two protagonists (Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman) tied to chairs, which is pretty much the default image of a torture film, but the killers don’t sit around prying off their fingernails or slashing their Achilles tendons. No, most of the violence inflicted on the pair is caused by their own carelessness, like Liv hurts her leg trying to get away. And the only real moment of violence before that ending is a shock gunshot kill – hardly the stuff of a “torture” movie.
And I’d hate for someone who is opposed to torture movies to lump The Strangers in with those, because it’s a terrific suspense/home invasion film that should scare most viewers; hell, I jumped a number of times and got a bit unnerved when I had to go to a similar remote home over a YEAR after seeing the damn thing! I think any horror fan can agree that there’s a shocking dearth of actual scares in our “scary movies,” and this is one of the best in that department that I can think of among modern horror films, especially considering that it was released by a major studio.
What makes it work – and why I felt comfortable comparing it to Halloween (the highest honor I can bestow upon a horror film, being that John Carpenter’s masterpiece is my favorite movie of all time) – is how simple it is. Two people are menaced by a trio of mask wearing psychos, and that’s it. No motive, no plot complications and no inane location switch in the final scenes. Some folks have accused The Strangers of being a Them (Ils) ripoff, but not only do I find that hard to believe (The Strangers began production just after Ils began hitting the festival run – and none of those were in the U.S. as far as I can tell), but it’s the superior film in my opinion. Ils is solid, but the ridiculous decision to leave the house and set the climax in the sewer was truly baffling.
And that’s even sillier when you consider how large the house was there, especially compared to Strangers’ one floor locale, with only a few rooms in which writer/director Byran Bertino could stage its sequences. Indeed, the weakest part of The Strangers is when Liv Tyler runs through the backyard to an oversized tool shed – it lessens some of the remarkably strong tension that had been built up in the house. Then again, their attempt to get to their car is one of the strongest setpieces, but that’s a scene that HAS to exist, whereas the tool shed just feels like a way to extend the runtime a bit now that the rooms in the house have been nearly exhausted.
But those house scenes, holy shit. It was spoiled in the trailer (and even one of the posters!) but that first bit where a killer wanders into the frame as an oblivious Liv smokes a cigarette is one of the all-time best subtle scares I’ve seen, rivaling many of the ones in Halloween (and surpassing just about any like-minded attempts in that film’s numerous sequels). The scene where she hides in the closet is another winner, with a great punchline that still made me jump a bit even after my third or fourth viewing. I also love the ax through the door scene; one of the first real intense “action” moments in the film, extended beyond the point where you’d think it’d calm down.
The real gut-punch is the midway sequence featuring one of Speedman’s friends, who has come to pick him up after Tyler rejected his marriage proposal. I’ll get back to that in a bit, but this is one of those scenes where, every time I watch the movie, I sit and hope that things turn out differently. Bertino handles the piano-wire tight tension perfectly, with the friend slowly making his way down the hall, unaware of the masked man behind him or that his very nervous pal is sitting in one of the rooms with a shotgun in hand. To use Hitchcock’s famous analogy, this is actually a rare moment where the audience “knows about the bomb” that actually works in a horror movie, when being as surprised as the characters is usually so crucial.
And it’s even more impressive that Bertino pulls that off twice. I usually hate when a movie starts at the end, but this is one that works well for me. As the film opens, a (rather corny) narrator tells us that something terrible happened to these people and that the case has never been solved. We’re then treated to a series of closeups on random objects, and part of the fun of the movie is seeing how they all fit in – a record player, a ring box, a bloody knife… The movie’s non-existent plot also works to its advantage; a modern audience might be expecting plot twists (i.e. one of the protagonists is working with the killers) or something along those lines, but ultimately the movie only has one real purpose: scaring you.
It helps that the characters are likable without being perfect. I will never understand why so many horror screenplays make most (in some cases all) of their characters hateful assholes, and it’s rare but some even try way too hard to get you to like them with cutesy exchanges and the like. Here, things start out tense due to an uncommon but perfectly plausible occurrence – the girl has turned down the guy’s marriage proposal. They don’t scream and fight about it; they’re both kind of numb and uncomfortable, stuck in that weird place where they care about each other but don’t know what to do next. Not only is it a unique backdrop for a horror film, but it also totally sells the obligatory bit where the girl is left alone for a while – you can fully understand why he’d want to go off by himself (to get her a pack of smokes, if memory serves). It’s also nice that we aren’t put in a position of choosing sides – you’re in both of their corners throughout. And the relationship drama is enough to give the audience a personal attachment without it getting in the way of the horror – the first scare (not counting the opening flash forward) occurs at the 15 minute mark.
It’s a shame that the DVD/Blu-ray was so lackluster though; a few useless deleted scenes and a brief making of are the only extras, in addition to an "unrated" cut that added another little "oh shit" moment to the climax (I can go either way on its validity). For a big hit, I expected better. Then again I guess it was foreshadowing the similarly half-assed way that Rogue has gone about making a sequel – they announced a followup that summer, but nothing has really happened since. Every now and then we hear about it moving forward (with the film taking place in a trailer park), but as of right now, four years and change after its theatrical bow, we’re no closer to seeing Dollface and the others in action again. Not that I think it needed one (to compare to Halloween again, look at what happened there – nonsensical explanations, diminishing returns and eventually a complete lack of what made the first film special), but now I fear it’s just too late – despite its huge box office take, I don’t see audiences getting too excited about a followup what would be at least five years after. The Saw and Paranormal Activity franchises have gotten today’s fans used to being serviced in a timelier manner; even the Resident Evil and Final Destination films, which used to be three years apart, released their newest installments two years after the previous ones. Maybe if the series was well established then a 5+ year gap could be overcome (Bride of Chucky, for example), but I can’t even remember the last time a part 2 came along more than two to three years after its original in a horror series. I'm not saying it can’t or won’t happen, necessarily, but stressing that the longer they do wait to pull the trigger, the harder it’ll be to live up to. At least Bertino himself has finally made a followup; a found footage movie called Mockingbird that shot earlier this year for Blumhouse and Universal.
Anyway, if you haven’t watched it yet, I think it’s about time you remedied that. I know it had some detractors at the time, but anyone who can appreciate skilled execution of scare scenes, and/or has any affinity for the home invasion sub-genre, should find a lot to like here. I even got the chance to gush about it for a special on the Chiller channel (as one of the “decade’s scariest horror movies”), and I love that 2008 managed to give us two films worthy of watching on a double bill with Halloween. If you want the holiday atmosphere, you go with Trick ‘r Treat. If you want another simple story designed to scare you shitless, you go with The Strangers.
P.S. The “based on true events” disclaimer isn’t entirely bullshit for once. Bertino based the “creepy person knocking at your door” thing on a childhood incident, and the bulk of the story was inspired by the Manson murders (they’d also weird people out in their own homes) as well as the still unsolved Keddie Cabin murders.