Across the board, The Strangers is a film that stays with people. Fourteen years after its 2008 cinematic release, it remains one of those films that people tend to remember as one of the most frightening they have ever seen. Notably, the intense, bone-chilling terror The Strangers instills in its audience is achieved without the inclusion of anything remotely outlandish or supernatural. This is one of the defining features of the film–in a cinematic year for horror dominated by major releases like The Ruins, Saw V, Cloverfield, Hellboy II, and Let the Right One In, The Strangers stands apart in its utter realism. What writer and director Bryan Bertino accomplishes is a film that epitomizes our greatest fear that horror could really happen, and it could happen to us. This air of possibility is haunting, forcing audiences to face the unspoken yet glaring subtext that the horror befalling Liv Tyler’s Kristen and Scott Speedman’s James could come for any one of us next.
At its most basic level, the chief premise of The Strangers is home invasion. This has been done before, and it has been done since. Given the commonality of violent intruders in the horror genre, what sets The Strangers apart? Why are we captivated and disturbed by this film in particular? Part of the magic of the film lies in the realism of the premise, but more importantly in the realism of the execution and development of the plot. The audience sees the antagonists far earlier than the protagonists do–we are left to squirm while James and Kristen go about a typical day, all the while masked invaders lurk in the background. We want them to turn around, to notice that they are in danger, to do something about it. We struggle through the film expecting at any moment that James or Kristen will pull out some unrealistically smooth hand-to-hand combat skills with the explanation of a military background or a self defense class. We expect, as we have been conditioned to by Hollywood, for the good guys to win–or at the very least to put up a good fight. As the film drags on and the strangers torture the protagonists on what is otherwise a very unsuspecting suburban day, we begin to realize that the heroic battle is just not coming. The film holds a mirror to what happens in a standard home invasion–how it would go down if this scenario were ours to face. The protagonists are not in any way equipped for the terror that arrived with no warning. All Kristen can do, tied to a chair and clinging to a faint hope that she and James will survive, is ask why.
The contributing factor that is the most important in cementing the staying power of the psychological terror is the answer to Kristen’s why; the motivation of the antagonists. As a question, it is the 10,000 pound elephant hunched in the corner of the unsettlingly mundane living room. Why James and Kristen? Why torture? What did James and Kristen do to deserve this? We ask, on some level, because we want to know which chess moves to make and which to avoid so that we don’t end up in the situation we are watching unfold. The answer shatters what little comfort we might have felt. Why are they doing this? “Because you were home.” It is a four word sentence that sends chills up the spine at the mere recollection of it, not to mention the impact of the line as a cinematic reveal. The intruders do not have a grudge to settle, a revenge mission to complete, a righteously violent quest to fulfill. Terror was always the sole intention, and bloodshed for its own sake was always the only desired endgame. The strangers are just playing with them because they want to, and because they can. James and Kristen have done nothing wrong (or, at least, nothing that affected this outcome). This was a random game of chance, and they were just unlucky. They were home, and a group of sociopathic killers were in their geographical orbit.
The final blow to the audience’s dwindling sense of comfort comes once the intruders have already left James and Kristen for dead. Dollface, as the youngest antagonist is credited, approaches a much less murderous stranger than herself. It quickly becomes evident she has mixed feelings about the lifestyle she is being indoctrinated into. When the boy, distributing religious pamphlets, asks if she is a sinner she simply responds “sometimes.” The older woman in her group, witnessing the interaction, assures her that it will be “easier next time.” In one fell swoop we see that James and Kristen will not be their only victims, and perhaps worse, our pair of psychopaths are grooming a reluctant third. They will surely succeed, if the woman’s assertion that murder grows on you is accurate. What we have witnessed is not the culmination of this horrific reality–it is barely a beginning, and a harbinger of things to come. It is the reason the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when I hear an unexpected noise in my apartment. Audiences simultaneously realize that as much as we do not want to be James and Kristen, oblivious to the threat until it is too late to save ourselves, there is really nothing stopping that from happening. This kind of random terror is not a one-off, and it is not preventable. Terror was the goal of the antagonists and of the film itself, and in that, it succeeds–fourteen years later and counting.
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