Director: Bryan Bertino
Stars: Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman, Glenn Howerton, Kip Weeks, Gemma Ward, Laura Margolis
Release date: May 30, 2008
You’re supposed to feel safe at home. More than any other place, home, behind a locked door, should be where everything is fine, where nothing can get to you or hurt you. This is why home invasions make for such terrifying movies. They zero in on this presumed fact—that you should be safe in your bed at night—and turn it inside out, leave it raw and exposed as a lie.
In Bryan Bertino’s first and only film, The Strangers, the trouble begins with a knock at the door. It’s after 4 in the morning, when a ringing phone or a buzzing doorbell only mean problems. James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler) are already in a bad way. At a friend’s wedding earlier in the day, James proposed to Kristen. She didn’t answer in the affirmative, making the drive to James’s family’s country home a quiet one. The preemptive rose petals and bottle of champagne are now embarrassing.
You feel bad for the couple. Rather than ask you to side with one or the other, the movie pays equal attention to how lost they look on the other side of this moment, something that, for a happier, tighter couple, would have been an occasion for celebration and joy. James misread the situation; Kristen didn’t feel ready. Again, you feel bad for them. That’s what makes what comes next especially difficult.
“Is Tamara here?” asks the woman standing before the front door, her face obscured in shadow, at 4:15 a.m. The question is haunting for its innocuousness. She isn’t here, this isn’t the right house, James assures her. But it is the right house. “See you later,” the unexpected visitor says, another seemingly innocuous phrase made ominous by the circumstances: the secluded country home, the late hour, the dark.
What makes The Strangers great is how little happens at first. There’s a pounding at the door, the phone goes out. All of the moves are designed to turn the home into something dangerous and unpredictable, the very last things you want in a house.
The film’s greatest sequence: Kristen stands in the kitchen, smoking a cigarette to calm her nerves. She’s in the foreground of the frame, looking in the direction of the back of the house. In the frame’s background, from a shadow a figure in a suit and a mask emerges. He's standing at the edge of the living room, where she isn't looking. Nothing happens. He watches her. We watch them. It’s terrifying and simple, a long take that makes you want to claw your face off out of tension and mounting dread.
After a cut that brings the camera around 180 degrees, so that you’re looking into the kitchen instead of the living room, Kristen peers out the window above the sink. A cut back to the previous angle reveals that the figure has disappeared. Kristen’s alone in the frame again. But not in the house.
In middle school, a few friends and I got into ding dong ditch. It’s made out to be this harmless prank, something punk kids do that sends elderly neighbors into fist-waving bouts of exasperation: These no-good brats! We got bored with that. We took to going out later and later. We got tired of the doorbell, switched things up by knocking on windows well after midnight. I'm not proud of this. We once pounded on the windows of a house where the people inside where sitting up late, watching television in the quiet. I saw their faces in the blue TV glow as they shot up from the sofa before I ran off into the woods beyond the yard, out of sight. They looked afraid, truly afraid.
The sleeplessness I experienced after watching The Strangers for the first time felt like retribution for those nights. It was punishment. —Ross Scarano