Bryan Bertino, 2008, USA
A loving couple with relationship difficulties become under siege by masked tormenters in their holiday home in the woods. That’s it for plot and that’s fine. Isolated homes are a pretty regular stop for horror’s message that NOWHERE IS SAFE so this fits nicely into that particular paranoia.
As a slick fright machine, “The Strangers” does so much right. It falls on the same plate as “Vacancy”, “Ils (Them)” and, inevitably, “Funny Games” - the post-Manson home invaders - but somehow falters at the last stretch. It is a shame because in mood, pitch and pace, it is mostly an excellent lesson for how to scare with little more than knocks on the door, creaky floorboards and masked figures seemingly able to infiltrate the house at will (wait, how do they do that…?) Cinematographer Peter Sova films it all warmly and sharply: the holiday home is a cosy set, prettily decorated with scattered petals, an open fire and, inevitably, pretty and ironic vinyl music on the stereo (continuity issues with the albums here… the songs are a mixture of old and new and the player seems to turn itself off halfway through a song at one point…). Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman are convincing as a couple going through some troubles (she said “no”) and suitably scared when they need be, making the most of slender characterisation and again showing that horror benefits tremendously from adult giving it nuance rather than always twenty-something cookie cut performances.
“The Strangers” has nothing to say other than shit happens, but that’s okay as that’s the genre’s domain. The film has no real commentary on the horror genre other than keeping its slasher tropes alert and functioning. It even has the nerve to open with a narration that both claims simultaneously this is based on reality and that no one knows what happened – but of course the Manson Murders are namechecked, which only adds to its ‘70s vibe*, although the unresolved nature of the Keddie Murders are perhaps a little more apt. As Kim Newman says,
"This shows only a relentless commitment to being no fun at all, which is vaguely admirable but ultimately self-defeating. The message of ’70s horror was that straight society was crazy; the 2008 version is that other people are shit - it’s a fine distinction, but makes a depressing difference."
As is dominant with home-invasion narratives the message is that the comfortable middle-class are always under threat from the dispossessed, although here that threat is not so clearly the underclass but more the natural endgame of youthful nihilistic pranksters. It is this nihilism and deliberate random cruelty (“Because you were home.”) that Roger Ebert found irredeemable but the lack of context is meant to add to the paranoia. It certainly leaves a hole. It’s just a sleek scare machine and it can’t find a way to open out its text into something socially aware like “Ils”, or as neatly tucked in at the corners as “Vacancy” even. It is, ultimately, one of those horrors perpetuating its own urban legends. (But it took a long time for a sequel to emerge.)