Film: The Strangers (2008)
Written and Directed by -Bryan Bertino
Genre: Horror, Mystery, and Thriller
Before you continue to read, know that there are major spoilers for “The
Strangers”; as well as minor spoilers for the “Friday the 13th” franchise. At the
very least, watch “The Strangers”. This film deserves a little respect; so don’t
treat this as if it’s just another “Insidious Franchised Analyzed” review.
When thinking of horror, what films come to mind? Friday the 13th? A Nightmare on Elm Street? Halloween? While all of these films are great for one reason or another, one film is often forgotten in the midst of such horror legends; this film being Bryan Bertino’s horror-masterpiece: The Strangers. It is the story of James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) and Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) as three ambiguous killers hunt them down over the course of one night in 2005. They’re in the middle of nowhere, have no power, and the batteries of their cell phones have been removed; meaning their only chance at survival is to fight back. When stripped to its bare bones, this film seems nothing more than another copycat slasher flick. Especially considering that it came out during the time where horror films were nothing more than home invasion storylines or torture-porn. However, through expert writing, directing, acting, and much more this film becomes one of the greatest horror films of the decade, perhaps even of all time.
The first thing that comes to mind when thinking of this film is the well-written killers. Unlike a typical horror film, the killers of The Strangers are quite underwhelming. Which is why they’re so scary. The killers are blank canvases. They’re called “Man in the Mask”,“Dollface”, and “Pin-Up Girl”; which when compared to Pennywise the Dancing Clown (or even Jason), are some of the most uncreative and basic names in horror history. And to go along with their simple names comes an even simpler motive. None of them are a supernatural monster out to gain vengeance for the death of the mother who was killed when attempting to gain vengeance for the death of her son. (I think I got that right. With the amount of ret-conning in the Friday the 13th franchise, it’s hard to be sure.) Instead, when asked by Kristen for the reason behind their attack, they give the most simple, yet soul-crushing answer to ever be spoken by any character in any film. Their reason for torturing James and Kristen is, “because [they] were home.” After nearly an hour and fifteen minutes of on-the-edge-of-your-seat suspense, to hear this answer adds a level of realism and substance that can’t come from any other killer.
James and Kristen
James and Kristen are two of the most realistic characters to ever be portrayed in a horror film. More often than not, the characters in horror films are treated as numbers on a chalkboard. They are corpses before they are even killed; providing no charm or depth. They are on screen to be killed. James and Kristen are written as people, struggling with real problems in their everyday life. The tension and bitterness between the two of them after their falling out makes these characters believable. When they are thrown into this horrific situation, they aren’t complete idiots running around yelling, “OH MY GOD! OH MY GOD!” Yet, at the same time, they’re not experts at kicking ass. As I said, they’re people. Sure, they make dumb mistakes every once in a while, but they’re mistakes that would definitely be made by any person. Their actions are a clumsy mixture of logic and emotion clashing against each other. However, writing can only take a character so far. Without Scott Speedman, and Liv Tyler’s phenomenal performances, these characters would have fallen flat. Their line-delivery is great, but what’s even better is their facial expressions. There are numerous moments of silence in the film as the characters look-around and hide. Tyler, in particular, is excellent at telling an entire story purely with her eyes. James and Kristen would be nothing without Scott or Liv.
The biggest thing that makes The Strangers one of the best horror films of all time, in my opinion, is the film techniques used. Most of the shots in the film are handheld. This style is perfect for multiple reasons. One reason is that the shaky camera has a direct correlation with the rocky and uneasy relationship of James and Kristen. The camera is constantly moving, and these movements are enhanced whenever the camera is focused on either James or Kristen. However, towards the end of the film, the camera becomes smooth. This is because of the bond that is rebuilt between the two as they are dealing with the situation together. Second, it puts the viewer into the scene. Nobody views the world in a still, elegant manner; so the shakycam technique makes the viewer feel as if they are there experiencing the same things as James and Kristen. Another technique that is done well is lighting. The film is lit naturally, meaning there are no additional lights added to the scene that wouldn’t already be there. This cascades most of the shots in shadows, allowing the killers to hide in plain sight. One shot, in particular, is a long shot on the outside of the house.
All lights, but one coming from the window, are off. This shot lasts for what feels like thirty seconds. The viewer would already feel uneasy as they watched because of everything that had already happened, but this fear is escalated after they saw a single mask appear from the shadows in the distance. No attention is brought to the mask whatsoever; in fact, the camera cuts inside without referencing the killer that was seen. This same technique was used in the poster for the movie. At first glance, it appears to just be an image of Kristen standing in the middle of the house, until you look deeper in the background.
Overall, the best way to describe why The Strangers is so good, is due to subversion. The entire film, from the acting, to the filmmaking, to the writing, is a subversion of the horror genre. It subverts what the horror genre was at the time, and what it continues to be. It didn’t scare the audience through cheap jump scares or loud noises; it scared the audience by showing them just how scary real life could be. The film claims to be based on a true story, and even though this isn’t true, the film is able to accurately portray what real people would do if they were put into the horrific situations they watch in other films. The sequel film, The Strangers: Prey at Night, has just been released. The stylistic filmmaking seems to remain intact, however, the clips shown so far lead me to believe that they may tread over the same ground; which would be a shame considering that originality was such a key factor in the first film. Here’s hoping that the sequel, which took the better half of a decade to make, does justice to such a groundbreaking film.