Sometimes simple is better. For all intensive purposes, The Strangers is really just another home invasion thriller. Though critics were lukewarm on it, audiences turned out in larger than expected numbers. Over its theatrical run, The Strangers hauled in just over $80 million worldwide a $9 million dollar budget. Given that box office success, it’s a mystery as to why its sequel, The Strangers: Prey at Night, took so long to happen. Despite its lack of originality, The Strangers has gained cult status and attracted a surprising amount of film analysis.
Following a friend’s wedding, James and Kristen spend the night at his family’s remote summer cabin. Late into the night, a random young woman shows up at the house looking for ‘Tamara’. Despite James’ polite insistence that no one by that name is present, the woman comes back several times. Soon three masked strangers appear outside the cabin taunting and threatening the couple. What follows is a desperate fight to survive.
The Strangers Overcomes a Thin Premise By Playing on Deep Fears
For his debut feature movie, writer and director Bryan Bertino (Stephanie, The Dark and the Wicked) keeps things very simple. At face value, The Strangers carries on familiar themes from both the horror genre and American crime movies. First and foremost, its ‘based on true’ events prologue immediately draws comparisons to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. From The Amityville Horror to The Conjuring series, horror movies have used the ‘ripped from the headlines’ conceit to introduce more layers of chill. According to Bertino, The Manson Family Murders partly inspired his screenplay. But there’s also shades of the Keddie Cabin Murders here. This aligns with a long cultural practice of confronting real horrors by fictionalizing them. Serial killer Ed Gein, for instance has served as at least part of the basic for Norman Bates, Leatherface, and Hannibal Lecter.
But Bertino’s screenplay also follows a similar path as 70s and 80s crime thrillers. As crime rates escalated from the 1960s to the 1980s, Hollywood embraced the conservative dream of the armed vigilante. Dirty Harry and Death Wish became box office sensations that spawned robust franchises. Countless imitators – defined by typically white middle-class protagonists fighting back – followed suit. Most contemporary film analysis has focused on two themes in The Strangers. One theme, random violence, is right there on the screen. When Pin-Up Girl tells Liv Tyler’s ‘Kristen McKey’ that they’re only doing this to them “because they were home” it plays on every suburban nightmare. It also challenges the belief that suburbia and rural areas offer some refuge from the violence of dense urban centres.
The Strangers Offers a Consistently Unnerving Atmosphere Coupled with Genuine Scares
Where The Strangers has really earned its cult movie status is in Bertino’s execution. Across its trim 85-minute runtime, The Strangers is a consistently scary and unnerving movie. Yes, The Strangers has its share of sudden jump scares. Loud sounds do in fact accompany most of them. And they uniformly work. But Bertino emphasizes consistent dread, which he achieves through often subtle approaches. Immediately, he establishes a morose atmosphere courtesy of smart editing and an aversion to lazy exposition. There a few wasted moments in The Strangers. For its first 20 minutes or so, Bertino carefully increases tension before he lets thing loose. What follows is nearly constant white knuckle suspense.
He shows a penchant for using the whole screen to craft his scares.
Bertino does several things quite well here. He shows a penchant for using the whole screen to craft his scares. Early in the movie the director uses a wide camera shot to slowly show audiences ‘Man in the Mask’ slowly emerging from a doorway while Kristen smokes unaware in the immediate foreground. It’s a long shot and once Bertino cuts away briefly we no longer see him leaving the audience to guess whether he’s still in the room. Arguably, this is one of the scarier movie scenes of the 2000s. While it something of a trope today, Bertino also juxtaposes terrifying moments with incongruent music playing on an old record player. And the anonymity of his trio of killers makes the movie’s theme of random violence more salient.
The Strangers Has Justifiably Earned Cult Status
Ten years passed before The Strangers: Prey at Night made it to theaters. Bertino returned to co-write the screenplay, but his talents were missed behind the camera. While it was visually well-crafted, Prey at Night feel short of the original. Ultimately, The Strangers is still just a home invasion movie. It may play on widespread suburban fears but it’s not a thematically dense movie. However, it’s an undeniably scary and disturbing thriller. And its simplicity – alongside Bertino’s grasp on style – ensures it will find new audiences over time.