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A film review by Jordan Pressler

“Because you were home.”

These 4 simple words appear rather mundane on paper, but when heard within the context of Bryan Bertino’s 2008 home-invasion horror film, The Strangers, it has the power to send shivers down the spine and remain in your memory for many years to come. And believe me, I don’t mean that in a pleasant manner. 

This astonishingly underappreciated gem of a movie concerns a young couple made up of James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) and his longtime girlfriend, Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler), who return from a friend’s wedding reception back to the former’s family summer home. The two lovers are suffering from a potentially disastrous dilemma: James made the bold decision to propose to Kristen out of love and inspiration from his buddy’s reception, only to be turned down due to her not feeling quite ready. Once tensions begin to simmer down, a perfectly timed knock is made on the front door by a young, blonde woman asking for someone named “Tamara”. Soon, a trio of masked, depraved murderers are finding their way into the once-serene residence and putting our central figures through sheer, seemingly unmotivated torment. Will Kristen and James make it out with their love and their lives intact?

Bryan Bertino makes a startling feature debut with this harrowing, pulse-pounding, gut-wrenching, atmosphere-driven descent into depravity. The promotional ads for this movie state, “inspired by true evens”, but by Bertino’s own admission, he based it off of an assortment of actual goings-on. First and foremost, his main inspiration came from a nightmarish encounter he had during his childhood: all alone with his younger siblings one night, a group of people knocked at the door, asking for someone who did not live there. After they left, Bertino discovered these people have been robbing others throughout the neighborhood. If people were home, they would leave. But if not, they’d break in and take whatever they could find. Other events that birthed his debut include the Manson family murders from the summer of 1969 and the Cabin Keddie Murders. 

Right from the very beginning, Bryan Bertino sets the stage for what kind of product he’s crafting. An ominous voice informs us of a troubling quantity of crimes taking place daily in the United States, followed by the voice of a terrified child tearfully and frantically telling a police officer, “There’s blood on the walls. Help us! Help us! There’s blood everywhere!” When we first meet James and Kristen, it’s immediately apparent something is not right with this couple. They sit at a stoplight with the most heartbroken visages and utter nary a word to one another. That’s the first thing I absolutely love about our writer-director’s work: he trusts the audience to see the pain and discontent within his protagonists without needing to spell it out. One look at their expressions, along with the fraught silence, and I already feel just as glum and on edge as these two. 

The summer home is beautiful, exactly the kind of place I would love to vacation, and that’s what makes it such a supreme location for all hell to break loose. Watching James and Kristen sit across from each other at the dinner table, but seeing that, emotionally, they’re lightyears apart, is heartbreaking. Boom! I already care about and feel sympathy for these ordinary, deeply wounded individuals. That’s the number one ingredient in horror for me: building a connection with the characters so that when bad things take place, I want to see them make it out alive and well. It helps when the two leads are as magnetic and expressive as Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, who use pained glances and tense movements to convey unbearable tension and boiling resentments. 

Just as the devastated lovers are getting ready to… ahem… make up with one another, we receive scare #1: a hard knock on the door. However, Bertino uses dim lighting to obscure the face of the woman about to make the night even more distressing. Once James departs to pick Kristen up another pack of cigarettes, the real nightmare commences. Dollface (Gemma Ward) returns to ask the same legendary question: “Is Tamara here?” Before we know it, a man in a sack mask (Kip Weeks) is hiding by the back window, and another woman by the nickname, Pin-Up Girl (Laura Margolis) is on her way to join in on the macabre fun.

The Strangers is one of the greatest and flat-out bone-chilling horror films I’ve witnessed in my 22 years of horror-saturated existence. Bertino proves himself a master craftsman of slowly mounting suspense and poignant character drama. He doesn’t depend on copious quantities of bloodshed to send the fear of God into his viewers; he demonstrates respect for them, using tense silences, a deliciously isolated setting, old-fashioned country romance music and natural sounds to construct an atmosphere of heart-stopping, teeth-clenching dread. The story is brilliant in its simplicity, but downright unbeatable in execution. Throughout the entire ordeal, we as the audience are subjected to these unimaginable horrors through the perspective of the tortured protagonists at the center of it. As Kristen cowers in the corner, screams in helplessness, and scrambles to find a spot to hide, we stay right there with her. No escape. No exposition. Just pure emotional anguish and empathy for this beautiful, innocent young woman. The eerie noises, from wherever they’re emanating, whoever’s causing them, why it sounds like a fork being dragged along a plate, that’s not for us to know. We are left in the dark with Tyler and Speedman, and I wouldn’t wanna be anywhere else. 

Now, while it’s extremely important to be emotionally invested in the plights of the protagonists, a horror movie is only as scary as the villains putting them through this nightmare, and Bertino’s titular demons out of hell are among the scariest creations I’ve ever felt terrorized by on film. The masks are simple Halloween store pieces of plastic (and cloth), yet as worn by Weeks, Ward, and Margolis, they function as vessels of pure, unadulterated, inhumane wickedness and have given me chills since the first night I caught a glimpse of them. How would you feel if you were all alone in your house one night, hearing strange sounds outside, then opening your curtains to find a 6’2 man wearing a white sack with a painted-on smile staring back at you? That instinctive scream of blood-curdling terror is exactly what Liv Tyler delivers, and she is phenomenal throughout. It’s never difficult to identify with her because she seems like an ordinary human being thrust into an unnatural set of circumstances. 

Some audiences have criticized Kristen and James for being “colossally stupid” and “frustratingly passive”, and while it would be hard to make a case that these are 2 of the smartest, most well-equipped characters in the genre, I just love them and cherish them and want to see them come through the other side. Hate to break it to you, but Sharon Tate and her 3 friends, who were needlessly, mercilessly butchered by members of Charles Manson’s cult, reacted the exact same way. They were not prepared to fight these armed assailants, and assumed that cooperating with their instructions would save them – it didn’t. 

Following the nerve-racking games of cat and mouse, the brilliantly staged stalking sequences and futile attempts at escape, Bertino packs an emotional gut-punch of a denouement. When visceral violence does take place, Bertino doesn’t linger on the physical piercings; he zeroes in once again on the mental agony of his characters and uses smart, tactful editing to refrain from the tasteless exploitation that has given slasher cinema a bad name. Heart-rending shrieks, harrowing implications and cutaway shots are all that this horror auteur needs in order to get his point across.  

Led by sensitive performances and brought to life by a creator in full control of his craft, The Strangers is a truly disturbing – and understated – exercise in sustained tension that is perfect for filmgoers looking to be scared by a motion picture as opposed to grossed out by bucket-loads of graphic entrails and viscera. I highly recommend watching it on a cold, quiet night with the lights off and a partner nearby to grab onto for comfort. And if someone knocks on your door at 4 in the morning asking for a girl by the name of Tamara, slam it shut and get under that bed!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Contributor

Jordan Pressler is horror movie fanatic and screenplay writer who’s work can be found on Fanon Fandom. Follow Jordan on Twitter.
Daddy Still Loves Us is a screenplay by Jordan Pressler. Click here to read it for FREE!

Daddy Still Loves Us is a 2019 American supernatural psychological horror film that revolves around an adolescent boy named Marcus, who finds himself falling victim to an inner malevolence after the death of his father.

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