Note: This film was the main topic of discussion on Episode 12 of my podcast, The Cinescope Podcast. Give it listen for a more in-depth discussion!
Growing up, there were restrictions on what types of movies I was allowed to watch. Horror movies were not ever thought of because my parents aren’t fans of the genre, and films that were rated R by the MPAA were completely off-limits. However, as a senior in high school, I knocked out both in one fell swoop with The Strangers, a highly underrated horror film that has since held a special place in my heart.
After a failed marriage proposal at a friend’s wedding reception, James and Kristen (Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler, respectfully) return to James’ family summer home, where his prepared romantic night goes to waste. As they seek peace and rest, their early morning is interrupted by a mysterious knock at the door: a girl asking for someone who isn’t there. From there, things escalate quickly as this girl and her two companions begin to terrorize the home, and the couple’s already-bad night grows worse as it becomes a fight for survival.
The setup of the couple’s relationship is masterfully done as we’re fed small clues at a time: lingering tears on Kristen’s face in the car on the way home, the fancy dress and suit, the rose petals scattered throughout the house, the shortness in their conversation, the bottle of champagne. We’re able to draw a pretty accurate picture regarding what has happened before we’re fed the answer through a flashback, and all of this setup helps us to quickly sympathize with and grow attached to our protagonists.
The protagonists themselves are well-portrayed by Tyler and Speedman, and they’re also well-written by Bertino. They never seem to fall into the horror film trope of making poor decisions in the face of danger; every decision they make seems like either a natural, reactin to the situation or an act of desperation in the face of danger. Not having to yell at the characters for acting stupidly is always welcome in horror films, and it helps to ground the film even further than it already is.
Our “Strangers” are uniquely terrifying as well because they speak so little dialogue that we have no knowledge of their motivations. They’re simply people terrorizing other people, so we keep guessing at the why. Because I like to keep my reviews as spoiler-free as possible, I won’t leave any quotes from them here, but know that they only speak about four times and every. single. time. I get chills up my spine. These quotes reveal their motivations, making their actions all the more sickening.
What makes this particular horror film so effective is that it’s real. There are no monsters or ghosts or demons or scary locations…these are real people terrorizing real people in a setting that we would normally consider to be safe – the home – and the result is a sense of discomfort that makes you want to walk around your house at night with a flashlight so that nothing surprises you in the dark corners. Adding to the terror, the use of a handheld camera allows your eyes to play tricks on you. For example, when scanning across the nearby treeline, the slight tremor in the camera movement might make you panic…what was that? Did something move in the trees? And maybe not in that particular moment, but that makes the moments when something really is there all the more scary.
The real highlight of this film is the sound editing because it is used to the greatest effect when setting up the scares. There’s one scene when Kristen is home alone after James has left for a few minutes where she is panicking because she hears scratches at the window, knocks at the door, wind chimes rattling, and, as she hides in the bedroom, the scratch of the record player as the needle is placed by the intruder who is now in the house with her. In contrast, Bertino uses the absence of sound to generate horror as well; the first time we see one of the masked strangers is when Kristen is alone in the home, standing in the dining room area, and suddenly in the background we see the Man in the Mask silently emerge from the shadows (pictured above). We see him, but she doesn’t, and the complete silence only makes you squirm even more in your seat as you anxiously wait to see what this individual will do to the unsuspecting Kristen.
So many horror movies attempt to scare through excess rather than subtlety, which is part of the reason why I love this movie so much. It’s not trying to make you jump out of your seat – though there are a couple of well-earned jump scare moments – but it’s instead trying to make you feel sufficated and anxious as you worry about the plight of Kristen and James, and the realness of the situation and the idea that this could happen to anyone at any time, including to you, help to make The Strangers truly, wonderfully scary.
MPAA: R – for intense terror and violence throughout, frightening images, and language