May 30, 2018 The Strangers – 10 Years of Anonymous Scares
What is scarier than a brutal and vicious motive? Having none whatsoever! Trafficking in a heavy dose of crazy without conscience, The Strangers initially lifted Horror lover’s butts out of their seats back on Friday, May 30, 2008.
Written and directed by Bryan Bertino (Mockingbird 2014, The Monster 2016) – who was, in fact, making his directorial debut with the film – The Strangers took inspiration from real-life events in the form of the 1969 Manson family murders – particularly the 1974 book Helter Skelter – along with another California incident, the 1981 unsolved murders at Keddie Cabin. In composing the screenplay, Bertino has also noted that he was inspired by events much closer to home, a series of break-ins that occurred in his hometown when he was a youngster, inspiring him to blend together all these varying elements and craft his own tale of mayhem without motive.
For those that are not in the know, The Strangers revolves around a couple – Kristen (Liv Tyler: Armageddon 1998, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring 2001) and James (Scott Speedman: Underworld 2003, XXX: State of the Union 2005) – who go to the country to spend a quiet weekend together in a family-owned summer home. Here is the twist: James has just proposed to Kristen, and she has refused his offer of marriage. Tired, irritated, and on edge with one another, James phones a friend and asks a favor – to be picked up in the morning light – thereby hoping to avert a truly uncomfortable weekend with the woman he wanted to call his wife.
Of course, life never goes according to plan! In the wee hours of that high-tension evening, there is a knock on the door. Why the couple answer this call we will never know, save for the fact that it would completely destroy the premise of the film. At the door is a blonde girl who asks for “Tamara” and is told that she is at the wrong house. To this, she eerily promises that she will see the couple later and disappears into the shadows. What follows is a tension-filled thrill-ride full of scares thanks to the dastardly trio of masked mayhem – The Man in the Mask (Kip Weeks: 20 Funerals 2004, Glory Road 2006), Pin-Up Girl (Laura Margolis: Dirty Sexy Money series, Higher Power 2018), and Dollface (Gemma Ward: The Black Balloon 2008, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides 2011).
Perhaps the film’s eeriest lines occur in the blatantly simple exchange between Kristen and Dollface. Tormented to the brink of madness, Kristen inquires, “Why are you doing this to us?” Dollface simply shrugs, “Because you were home.” This basic dialogue encompasses the entire premise behind the scares inherent in The Strangers: a simple night at home turned to horror thanks to the rabid crazy of anonymous strangers hellbent on destruction; no real motive other than possible boredom.
That said, The Strangers – which was shot entirely with hand-held cameras – arrived at a time when the current “cabin in the woods” obsession was just taking flight in modern Horror, making it one of the first films to traffic in insanity vs. isolation. Made on an estimated budget of roughly $9-million, the film was shot on location in rural South Carolina, contributing to this feeling of vast nothingness. However, despite this, The Strangers was not wholly unique for its time, and some fans and critics made comparisons between the film and the 2006 French offering, Them, which also centered on a couple terrorized by strangers at a remote home.
Needless to say, moviegoers and critics alike were polarized in their reactions to the film. Some felt that it did an excellent job of building tension and dark atmosphere, while others felt that the script and characters were flat and, therefore, weak. Digging deeper, some viewed the film as a kind of socioeconomic commentary on rural life and its perceived safety, while others noted its harsh look at stranger violence – which continues to be on the rise in America. No matter how you analyzed the film, no matter how you boiled it down, The Strangers is a Horror offering that portrays realistic violence, crimes that could happen anywhere in the world rather than the fantastical Slasher murders depicted in cult-classics like 1978’s Halloween and 1980’s Friday the 13th. In this sense, Bertino was reviving something in the world of Horror, bringing purely human villains back to the forefront.
In fact, it is interesting to note that this was only the third screenplay for Bertino, who wanted to explore the point of view of victims who, in their immediate situation, had no knowledge or understanding of what they were going through and why; they were merely trying to survive the torture. He hoped to create a sense of empathy in his audiences, which, in truth, is not a common emotion we feel when partaking of the Horror genre. Perhaps this was what made so many uncomfortable? Whatever the case, it was through a series of coincidences and foibles that the young writer-director was given the opportunity to bring his story to life for the big-screen, and all things considered, his work here is admirable.
So, what should fans know about The Strangers? Well, for starters, those generic face masks were chosen by Bertino for exactly that reason – they were generic; there was nothing supernaturally haunting about those masks, and anyone could pick up something similar in any Walmart in the country. Furthermore, to use them to their full efficacy, the masked actors were directed not to allow Ms. Tyler to view them in costume until they were on-screen together, in hopes of garnering more realistic, truly horrified reactions from the actress. Clearly, it worked: during filming, it is said that Tyler came down with a case of tonsillitis from all of the screaming she did on-set.
The Strangers would go on to be released to DVD and Blu-ray on October 21, 2008, in the United States. Nearly a month later it became available to VOD, and since then, in March 2018, a 2-Disc Collector’s Edition Blu-ray was released to mark the film’s 10th anniversary. Similarly, also in March 2018, the film’s long-awaited sequel, The Strangers: Prey at Night was released to American theatres. Much like its predecessor, it too has garnered mixed reviews.
Some have deemed The Strangers a modern-day Slasher classic, while others continue to doubt its place in the lexicon of Horror. So, while the film will probably always earn highly-mixed reactions, The Strangers’ staying power is in its ability to continue to polarize audiences even a decade later. Let us face it, love it or hate it, you have seen the film, and it has registered some kind of reaction with you. Do you still lock your doors at night and refuse to answer a knock at the door past 9 PM? Are those generic, plastic Halloween masks just a little more spine-tingling than they should be? If so, perhaps The Strangers has seeped into the marrow of your bones much further than you ever believed possible!