The Strangers

(Bryan Bertino, USA, 2008)

BY LAURA WYNNE | May 22, 2024

Because you were home.” That’s it. The best home-invasion movie ever made is built on a foundation of senselessness. There are people in your house trying to kill you and you don’t know why. You don’t know who they are, you can’t see their faces. The simplicity of masked villains has never been more effective.

This is arbitrary, random violence without reason and without motivation. The Strangers is a miracle. It’s not a sly metacommentary (Funny Games, You’re Next, Baghead), ultraviolent (Inside, Them); it’s not a puzzle box (Panic Room) or a filmed stage play (Wait Until Dark). It is one of the only legitimately upsetting movies I have ever seen, because of the directness and sophistication of the craft at hand.

There is an eerie sense of identifiability, especially if you’re in an isolated area when you watch the film (this is the rare movie that gets more powerful stripped of a theatrical setting). I first saw it when living alone in a family house on a dirt road in rural Pennsylvania. Having weird interactions with someone who’s suddenly at your house that could at any point turn violent? That’s just America. Writer/director Bryan Bertino says he was partly inspired by the Manson Family’s Tate–LaBianca murders, but it could be any random murder at any random house in rural Middle America.

For me, the highest compliment to a movie is to forget what kind you’re watching. The opening act of The Strangers is a magic trick, making you care about the inherent drama beyond simple scene-setting. We meet the film’s lead couple immediately after they have a fight and are too emotionally raw to be around each other. The real beginning, when I really think about it, is two close-ups of Liv Tyler crying. First, we see her in tears at a red light, then from the POV of her boyfriend (Scott Speedman) as the light turns green, and he stares at her face. Actually, she’s done crying. Tyler and Speedman—these are some of the best actors to appear in this type of movie.

There are decisions in The Strangers that feel like it doesn’t trust its own material. The flash-forward to the aftermath of a home invasion gives nothing less than “studio note.” As does the moment near the end when Tyler’s Kristen is convinced she knows who one of the killers is. The fact that there is a sequel, and now an upcoming prequel trilogy (directed by genre workhorse Renny Harlin), to a movie where the premise is there is no premise says something about not only the current media landscape but the strangeness of the film’s provenance. Bryan Bertino only took over the director’s chair when Mark Romanek dropped out deep into pre-production; the ending was changed at the last minute, excising an unmasking of the killers, which would have undermined the entire exercise. Bertino, for a screenwriter thrust into the position as first-time director, has an excellent eye. He has since worked consistently as a director, as well as stewarding the franchise. In this debut film, he truly had the juice.

The brilliance of The Strangers is perspective and distance—we are never in the heads of either the killers or the victims. Carol J. Clover’s shifting POV (as laid out in her core horror-criticism text Men, Women, and Chain Saws) is a knife intentionally left on the table. The defining image of Tyler standing terrified in the living room of their vacation home, as a masked man she can’t see walks in, small and shifting in the background. It’s a scene designed to make audiences scream, to make them tense with wide shots that are held for ages. We immediately identify with Tyler and Speedman’s characters because we also don’t know what’s happening or why, yet we always see the killers moving deep in the frame.

The sense that this unexpected knock at the door could happen to you hangs in the air, vertiginous, and never quite goes away.🩸


is a writer and filmmaker living in Brooklyn.

X: @cronenbabe

How to see The Strangers

The film is also available on various DVD and Blu-ray editions.
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