“♫ Just gonna watch this all alone in my apartment ♫
♫ Even though I often irrationally fear a break-in ♫
♫ Just me, the dark, this movie, and my cat making mysterious sounds ♫
– Your Intrepid Host watching ‘The Strangers’ for the first time, August 2018
I have a fear of break-ins. I blame bingeing ‘Forensic Files’.
I also blame an incident where someone tried to get into my apartment. I was doing laundry with my earbuds in. A (awesome) neighbor stopped me and asked if anyone else lived with me. No, it had just been me in that apartment for 3 years. My awesome neighbor warned me that someone had been trying to enter my apartment looking for a guy named ‘Bill’. This had happened while I was either in my apartment sorting laundry or out in the laundry room. If my door hadn’t been locked, this weirdo would’ve wound up inside my apartment with me. And fuck knows what could’ve happened (‘Forensic Files’ tells me something later reenacted in blue light and by an actress who looks nothing like me).
Home invasions are common fears. Night terrors of break-ins are common reactions to stress. It’s a trigger centered in our animal instincts. Whether a cave, a nest, or an apartment, we need a secure home base. Any violation of that can be traumatizing.
It’s obviously not a coincidence that this fear features in dozens upon dozens of horror movies. 2008’s ‘The Strangers’ is one of them.
Unlike accidentally summoning Hell Raiser or dream battling Freddy Krueger, home invasion murders have been played out horrifically in real life throughout history.
‘The Strangers’ plot, written and directed by Bryan Bertino, was inspired by the real life Tate-La Bianca murders committed by the Manson Family and some break-ins that occurred during in Bertino’s childhood neighborhood. Aside from that, there is plenty of material even within the niche category of ‘unsolved random mass murders involving a cabin’.
The movie plays out those fears through 85 minutes rather well, with lots of homages to 70s slasher, ‘back to basics’ films. But I appreciate that those basics are attentively tended to.
The movie starts with very horror-nerd touches. It’s pure pandering/homage; ripped straight from classics like ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’. We get a black screen, a deep throated voice, and the following text:
“What you are about to see is inspired by true events. According to the FBI, there are an estimated 1.4 million violent crimes in America each year. On the night of February 11, 2005, Kristen McKay and James Hoyt left a friend’s wedding reception and returned to the Hoyt family’s summer home. The brutal events that took place there are still not entirely known.”
I sure do love starting off on the right foot, aka with sexy statistics. But then my science brain also says “well wait a minute—a violent crime could include shoving your jerk neighbor when he lets his pug poop on your front lawn for the 12th time”. If most of that 1.4 million are dog shit-related shoving matches, I have concerns, but they aren’t nightmare fuel concerns.
On the one hand, I appreciate the homage atmosphere of this opening. On the other hand, it has a strong tone of trying too hard.
The opening scene is footage of passing houses that slowly become a little more isolated, clearly shot from the POV of driving down the street. At first, this may be perceived as from the POV from the Mormon kids who stumble onto the cabin crime scene left by the Strangers.
But I think of this as the POV of the Strangers, effectively beginning and ending the film from their side of things. They’re scouting out where to start the mayhem.
Our heroes are the aforementioned and doomed Kristen and James, headed back to a family cabin after a wedding reception. What the opening narration didn’t include was that earlier, James made the trashy choice to make a marriage proposal at a wedding. Kristen makes the adult choice to not give into spontaneously making a giant life-altering decision. Thus, we begin with a rift between our heroes, which I welcome as it humanizes the characters immediately.
Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman bring what they can to the roles, even if dialogue is only important for the first 15 minutes or so.
The Kristen character makes bad choices, like tending to a fire while wearing a bridesmaid dress. But later she demonstrates her drive to survive by hobbling through an escape attempt after spraining her ankle and running through the woods barefoot. If it were me, I would’ve screamed like a dying possum the first time my foot hit an acorn.
Having otherwise only known Scott Speedman from the ‘Underworld’ movies, it was neat to see him do things I hadn’t seen him do before. Like act. The James character makes great decisions like choosing to dig into a gallon of ice cream before the wine when his entire relationship falls apart*.
*Sadly, over 80 minutes the abandoned carton of ice cream dies a slow death on the dining room table.
Our villains are the unnamed Strangers, given nicknames in the script to match their masks. ‘Dollface’, ‘PinUp’, and… ‘The Man in the Mask’? Nay! He may have the lazier mask of the trio, but he is clearly the father of this murderous household. I dub thee ‘LotsaPapa’*.
*Actual nickname of one of the Manson family’s victims, who didn’t die but was shot by Manson about a month before the Helter Skelter massacres. In poor taste? Perhaps, but Lotsa Papa is pretty much the BEST nickname ever.
The masks are a great touch, adding a recognizable villain to the film. Perhaps in some ways, they interfere with a sense of reality. Who picks up an a weird mask like that before committing a murder?
Well as it turns out…
LotsaPapa’s mask is frightening on its own but also similar to those worn by notorious serial killers. It has been noted that killers with a ‘uniform’ are particularly dangerous, as it intensifies their connection between their fantasies and the deeds they’re carrying out.
The masked serial killers The Zodiac and The Texarkana Phantom were also classic ‘Lovers Lane’ killers—another connection, as the attack begins when Kristen and James are about to have awkward ‘are we broken up?’ sex.
But what about those masks worn by Dollface and PinUp? Creepy but cartoony. Creeptoony, even.
Well I have some bad news if you didn’t want to have nightmares this week….
True, BTK never killed in this mask. He just…wore it while reenacting what he did to his victims and taking photographs of it. That is…yeah that is not better. That is definitely worse.
BTK and the Golden State Killer come to mind when thinking of notorious home invasion killers. However, there is a key difference between their methods and the Strangers’. Unlike the Strangers, who supposedly picked their house and victims randomly and spontaneously, these real life killers selected their victims and stalked them for an extended period of time.
Even though the victims at Cielo Drive were strangers to the Manson family, the attack was not entirely random. It was part-revenge scheme for Manson (he was more whiny prick than mastermind), part-mistaken identity (the intended targets no longer lived there), part-crazy cult scheme. In fact, none of the Manson murders were totally random—all of the other victims were known to the Manson family.
This may connect back with ‘The Strangers’—Dollface asks for unknown ‘Tamara’ twice. Could they have been actually looking for a Tamara, got the wrong address, and just decided to kill whoever happened to be in the house?
But the point is: it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter why this is happening, it is happening. As with most great horror, the point of the movie is confronting a total loss of control, coming face to face with mortality.
A great practical touch that adds to the helplessness of the plot is that even if you have access to lifelines (a rifle, a radio), it doesn’t mean you’ll magically know how to use them.
The film uses atmosphere to its credit. I like the combination of the woods and dirt with empty sidewalks and orange streetlights. It’s every element of every creepy solo walk home you’ve ever had. There is just enough of a taste of civilization to make you feel safe.
The use of sound and music is well done while paying homage to the 70s. Skipping records? Yes, please, give it to me*. The music on the record is a great touch, like the exact soundtrack the devil’s rejects would choose for a night of slow burning murder and mayhem. That includes THIS, which the Amazon Prime Video subtitles dare to describe as ‘mellow country music’.
*If I could come clean: I am too young to have ever experienced a skipping record in real life.
All told, ‘The Strangers’ suffers from 2 major flaws: re-watchability and the theatrical ending.
Ultimately, the re-watchability is low. Once you know how it ends, a lot of the air gets taken out of the movie. Every time the Strangers fuck with our heroes, it’s difficult to feel invested in the moment. Very little actually escalates in this movie, escape options are just systematically eliminated. The thumping and clattering, figures looming with knives or axes—they come out to nothing at least half the time.
A key to good home invasion movies is a back and forth. Kevin McAllister takes on The Wet Bandits, and we see cat and mouse unfold between stepping on Christmas ornaments and threatening to bite off fingers. Tension and rapport develop between hero and villain.
And then there’s the ending…
These final 2 minutes are an utter waste. We don’t. It isn’t needed. At all.
This stupid jump scare was part of a really stupid trend that ruined the potential of many a passable movie, like ‘Paranormal Activity’. It undercuts what could’ve been a strong ending with the Strangers driving off in their truck.
In addition, the ending makes no sense. Kristen clearly didn’t survive the incident, because the opening narration tells us that the ‘brutal events’ of the night remain mysterious—she did not live long enough to explain what happened.
There are things I enjoy or can appreciate about ‘The Strangers’. I do enjoy feeling horror nerd comradery between myself as a viewer and the writer/director. First time viewers will get scared, and memorably so. But the film as a product arguably relies too much on atmosphere and horror tropes rather than on actual plot.
If the true crime aspects of ‘The Strangers’ appeal to you, or if you are looking for a week of home invasion nightmares, definitely check out ‘I’ll Be Gone in the Dark’, by Michelle McNamara. Her work helped to finally catch a real life monster, The Golden State Killer, whose break-ins terrorized small towns in California.
If you are looking for more of a not-nightmare fueled week, go eat some ice cream in honor of the first victim of this film: the carton of Blue Bell left on the table.