“Why are you doing this to us?” pleads Liv Tyler to the three masked killers that have been terrorising her throughout the night. “Because you were home,” comes the rather heartless response. And this pretty much sums up The Strangers, the debut of writer/director Bryan Bertino. Whereas many slashers, and horrors in general, go out of their way to justify the motives of their killers (usually through some tragic prologue, which sets the antagonist up as a victim out for revenge), Bertino bypassed this in favour of getting straight into the action. And this was probably where its strength lies the most, as it is the ambiguity of the villains that makes it all the more menacing – who are they, what do they want and why are they doing this? Yet, to say horror fans constantly complain about the neverending glut of remakes and sequels the genre spews out, The Strangers was greeted with an unexpected amount of hostility upon its initial release. Sure, it lacked originality and was hardly destined to reinvent the formula, but slasher films very rarely attract such mainstream attention, especially ones not linked to Michael Bay or Rob Zombie, so it was a shame that the movie failed to make the impression many had hoped for.
Bertino clearly wanted to make a bare bones slasher, stripping away the comic book stupidity of Freddy vs. Jason and the excessive gore of Tom Savini’s work and return the genre to its roots – the suggestive style of Bob Clark’s Black Christmas and, more significantly, John Carpenter’s Halloween. With a minimal cast of characters and one isolated location, all the elements were present and correct and the filmmakers’ decision to keep the running time under ninety minutes would mean that the story would not outstay its welcome. Yet there was clearly something wrong with the end result. Was it the lack of originality? Had we seen it all before? Maniacs in masks stalking beautiful young women is hardly a new device, in fact it is almost a standard within the slasher genre. The masks themselves were not entirely unique, with the central antagonist sporting a sack over his head which is not only reminiscent of Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th Part 2 but also Scarecrow in 2005’s Batman Begins.
The story begins with two young Mormons who arrive at an isolated house whilst distributing pamphlets, only to discover the aftermath of a gruesome double murder. The action then jumps back a night to introduce James Hoyt and his girlfriend, Kristen McKay, whose relationship has become extremely fragile since she rejected his proposal, and the two have returned home in silence. After calling his friend, Mike, to come pick him up, they are interrupted by a loud bang at the door, where they find a young girl searching for a friend. Unable to help, they head back inside and James decides to make his way to the store to buy cigarettes, leaving Kristen home alone. Soon afterwards, various bizarre noises begin to unnerve her, heightened even more when the young girl returns to find the mysterious friend that she had previously mentioned. Kristen eventually calls her boyfriend to plead for him to return home, though he attempts to reassure her that it is all in her mind. But, unknown her her, a figure appears in the room behind her, before disappearing into the darkness.
But her suspicions are aroused when her cell phone disappears and, as she looks out through the window, the man with the sack over his head stares back at her. She makes her way through the house and barricades herself in a room until James returns, who attempts to write off her eccentric behaviour as paranoia. Eventually agreeing to leave, he heads outside to find that his car has been vandalized and comes face-to-face with the young girl, now wearing a creepy mask of her own. Another girl appears, who crashes a pickup truck into his car to keep them from escaping, prompting him to flee back inside and seek out his father’s shotgun. Mike suddenly appears to give James a lift but when he enters the house he is shot in the face by his friend, believing him to be one of the intruders. The word ‘killer’ is written in blood on the wall in a further effort to drive them insane.
With the phones out of order, James heads outside towards an old barn to use a CB radio but comes across the second girl but, as he prepares to shoot her, the man jumps out of the darkness and overpowers him. With Mike’s car on fire, and their only chance of escape ruined, Kristen makes her way into the kitchen and hides inside the pantry as the man takes a seat at the table. Eventually he exits the room but, as Kristen is about to step outside, the young girl appears at the door and makes a grab for her. She wakes up the following morning to discover that both herself and James are tied up as the three creeps stand over them. They remove their masks and offer some nonchalant reason for their actions before killing them both. As they head down the road they pass the two young Mormons and stop to collect a pamphlet, before continuing on their journey, leaving the corpses of James and Kristen to be discovered by the children.
One of The Strangers‘ greatest flaws is the first fifteen minutes, which attempts to flesh out the two protagonists and give the viewer some insight into their dysfunctional relationship. A similar narrative technique was used with Nimród Antal’s 2007 thriller Vacancy, which saw bickering couple Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale (whose Underworld co-star, Scott Speedman, would play the role of James in this movie) fall victim of a group of twisted snuff filmmakers. But whereas Antal (and, more importantly, writer Mark L. Smith) lost his nerve by seemingly killing off his hero, Wilson, only to bring him back at the last moment, there is no such comfort with Bertino’s film. There is also no chance of the story returning to its original state, with both protagonists senselessly slaughtered whilst bound to a chair, without even being given the dignity of dying fighting. In fact, this is a bold move of the director’s to kill off his leading lady, Hollywood star Liv Tyler, thus denying the actress the chance to return for a sequel.
The Strangers is certainly an attractive piece, with a seductive, dark mood created by renowned cinematographer Peter Sova, whose acclaimed work on the likes of Diner, Good Morning, Vietnam and Donnie Brasco has proven him to be an extremely talented D.O.P. The score also helps generate an air of menace, performed by tomandandy, previously known for their music on Killing Zoe, Mean Creek, Right at Your Door and The Hills Have Eyes. Wisely avoiding unnecessary gore or nudity, The Strangers instead focuses on two characters and their attempt to survive the home invasion of three deranged maniacs, whose identities are concealed throughout the movie. Whilst the villains fail to evoke the eerie menace of the likes of Michael Myers (Carpenter’s original creation, not Zombie’s redesign), they still succeed in being threatening and their lack of backstory only adds to the mystery and tension, although the possibility of sequels could dampen this effect.
Shot as the director turned twenty-nine, The Strangers was reportedly based on an incident from his youth when a man appeared at his family home looking for a friend. The following day there were reports of several robberies in the area. Bertino also cites Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry’s book Helter Skelter, a document of the crimes committed by The Manson Family in the late sixties, as another major influence. Initially employed as a grip on a low budget feature, Bertino had succeeded in pitching his script to Andrew Rona at Rogue Pictures and eventually landed the job of directing the movie as well, a process which seemed to come along extremely quickly, despite having no prior experience behind the camera. With this in mind, The Strangers is a bold debut with assured direction and a confident pace, but in a genre oversaturated with countless offerings – some good, most dire – it lacks the originality or bite to make any major impact on horror fans, reducing it to B-movie status.