With the belated sequel to The Strangers (2007), The Strangers: Prey at Night (2018), finally getting released tomorrow, it’s a good time to look back on some of the better examples of one of horror’s more popular subgenres – the ‘home invasion’ film. Horror films have long exploited suburban home dwellers’ fears of outside evils invading the domestic sphere. Perhaps no other film captured this better than John Carpenter’s Halloween (1976). For this list, however, we are looking at films where an invading social evil attempts to “break into” the domestic sphere forcing the protagonists to defend their homes. We’re excluding films that fall outside the horror genre, which means classic films like Straw Dogs and Panic Room are not up for consideration.
5. Funny Games (2007)
Funny Games (2007) is a challenging film because while it plays out within the ‘home invasion’ narrative it openly defies horror conventions in every other way. The basic set-up and plot is familiar – two seemingly polite young men show up on the Farber’s lake house doorstep and very quickly the two men hold the parents and their child hostage, forcing them to participate in a series of increasingly sadistic games to stay alive. A frame-for-frame remake of his own 1997 Austrian film, Michael Haneke’s Funny Games is more a psychological thriller than horror film and, according to the director, is largely intended as a critique on film violence with the director making several pointed observations. The main antagonist, Paul (played by Michael Pitt), breaks the fourth wall, frequently addressing the audience as he refers to genre “rules” and admonishes you for wanting to see horrific acts. Violence is filmed offscreen with Haneke instead choosing to focus the camera on the consequences of violence with long, uncomfortable shots. Foreshadowing techniques, familiar to horror fans, are quickly debunked in favour of more perfunctory, realistic outcomes. Watching Funny Games is not a fun experience – you may never want to watch it again – but it’s a masterful illustration of how a familiar horror narrative can be turned on its head to offer a unique social commentary.
4. Don’t Breathe (2016)
Director Fede Alvarez’s follow-up to the much better-than-expected Evil Dead remake was this outstanding entry to the home invasion subgenre – Don’t Breathe (2016). Like most of the films on this list, Alvarez subverts audience expectations by flipping the ‘victim’ as the film progresses and turning the tables on the home intruders. The twist that the intruders are desperate to escape rather than break in to the home is a simple albeit effective twist. All the performances in the film are first-rate with Jane Levy continuing to position herself as the next ‘Scream Queen’ and Stephen Lang’s ‘Blind Man’ giving the genre it’s most interesting antagonist in a while. Alvarez effectively balances out the jump scares and violence with sustained moments of tension. One turn in the film’s final act pushes the boundaries of good taste and seemed a little unnecessary, but it doesn’t distract from the overall quality of Don’t Breathe.
3. The Strangers (2008)
As compared to the other films on this list, The Strangers (2008) does not aspire to do much new with the home invasion narrative but what Bryan Bertino (pulling double duty as both director and writer) does with the concept, he does quite well. There’s little denying that The Strangers is a compellingly frightening film that exercises restraint in the early going before building toward a relentless third act. Liv Tyler is excellent and Scott Speedman is, well, he manages to not drag the proceedings down. The film’s three protagonists – Dollface, Pin-up Girl, and Man-in–the-Mask – have memorably creepy appearances that instantly distinguish them from most low-rent horror villains. Their performances are appropriately understated, kept in the shadows, leaving much to the imagination. While The Strangers does occasionally lapse into some familiar horror tropes, some of its best moments are quiet scenes that rely on the audience paying attention and inevitably noticing a threat as it slowly emerges. The Strangers is proof that a horror film can be effectively entertaining without necessarily re-inventing the wheel.
2. You’re Next (2011)
From the directing and writing tandem of Adam Wingrad and Simon Barrett, You’re Next (2011) almost plays as more of a dark comedy as it does a horror film. Like the better films on this list, You’re Next cleverly subverts audience expectations by flipping the source of threat. Shortly after being introduced to the seemingly happy Davison family gathering for their parents’ wedding anniversary, a dinner reveals divisions and bad feelings just before masked strangers launch an assault. Barrett’s script offers a couple of clever twists and several deliciously dark pieces of dialogue that offer some humour to offset the violence. Wingard constructs a tightly paced film that offers a few good jolts and a lot of blood that will have older viewers feeling some nostalgia for the 1980s. Sharni Vinson’s performance as Erin is a highlight – capable, resourceful, and strong – she challenges typical horror film narratives for women and offers a fun twist to a film where the invaders most likely wish they had settled on another address.
1. Hush (2017)
With his work on Oculus and what many considered to be unfilmable source material in Gerald’s Game, director Mike Flanagan has positioned himself a filmmaker to watch in the horror genre. His 2016 film, Hush, could have easily been a one-note gimmicky twist on the home invasion narrative. Deaf writer Maddie lives alone in an isolated home in the woods and soon finds herself struggling to survive when a masked intruder shows up outside her door. Fortunately, Flanagan is a talented filmmaker who finds several innovative ways to use Maddie’s hearing impairment to build continuous suspense and tension, adding new scares to a tired narrative. Yet what really elevates Hush is the screenplay, written by Flanagan and lead actress, Kate Siegel that subverts audiences expectations. Maddie is neither the ‘damsel in distress’, seen in many thrillers, or the ‘final girl, ‘ who is allowed to survive by virtue of conforming to traditional gender norms. Like Erin from You’re Next, Maddie is an independent, resourceful woman, who while vulnerable is never characterized as weak. Her struggle to survive, driven equally by Siegel’s excellent performances, adds an additional layer to Hush and makes much of the film’s final act unpredictable.