As much as I’m usually game for cheap, single-location genre exercises, I tend to avoid the home invasion thriller as a medium. Occasionally, the campy humor of a Knock Knock or a Trespass will pique my interest, but I have a general aversion to the genre as a whole when it’s played seriously. This is mostly because home invasion premises tend to lazily rely on the threat of sexual violence to mine their terror, an exploitation genre go-to that’s getting to be just as boring as it’s always been repulsive. The 2008 home invasion nightmare The Strangers does an excellent job of getting around that exploitative tedium by instead conjuring the most terrifying motivation for a domestic break-in imaginable: nothing at all. In most home invasion scenarios, a woman is trapped in house alone as male assailants threaten their financial & sexual safety from all directions. In The Strangers, a romantic couple are surrounded by a mixed-gender posse of masked sadists who seem to want nothing at all. It’s a purposeless, nihilistic cat & mouse game, in that it’s like watching cats bat around a half-dead mouse for 86 minutes just for the mild amusement. There’s something much more disturbing (and yet less morally grotesque) about that approach and the film easily ranks among the best examples of its genre because of it.
Liv Tyler & Scott Speedman star as a disheveled romantic couple bickering in the late night/early morning hours after a friend’s wedding. It’s the kind of drunken argument they should know better than to continue into the delirious headspace of a post-midnight mental haze, but feel compelled to continue anyway. In this vulnerable, volatile atmosphere, a trio of masked killers gradually emerge from the shadows both inside & outside the house. With practically no dialogue and no discernible intent they stalk, hunt, and torture the couple as the night stretches past sunrise. There are, conceivably, only two potential victims in this scenario, so The Strangers has no real potential as a body count slasher. Its tension is instead drawn from the couple being out-gamed & outnumbered, with the potential window for survival incrementally closing as the violence inflicted upon them rises exponentially. When asked, “Why are you doing this to us?” the masked assailants only answer, “Because you were home,” a response so succinctly chilling it was eventually marketed as a tagline. That just-because ethos is a powerful source of terror that largely substitutes any need for a fully-developed plot. Likewise, the look of the killers’ masks is distinctly memorable enough on its own to fill in any void left by their oppressively sparse dialogue. The Strangers dwells in the terror of negative space and the absence of intent, a much more satisfactory source of scares than what’s usually achieved with the home invasion template.
As you likely already know, the titular killers in this home invasion chiller recently resurfaced in a decade-late sequel titled The Strangers: Prey at Night. Watching the original film, I was struggling to imagine a scenario where Prey at Night could be accused of being blasphemous to or “ruining its predecessor, a fate most horror sequels inevitably suffer. The Strangers does a great job of steeling its potential sequels from that concern. Not only does it intentionally leave its ending open to the possibility of subsequent episodes, but it sticks to such a simple, bare-bones story structure that almost anything could be built on its foundation without feeling out of place The difference between the first installment in the Strangers series and its potential follow-ups, then, is almost entirely a matter of style. Prey at Night is a love letter to the neon-lit, post-Carpenter slasher of the 1980s, a violently campy romp that gleefully accepts the phrase “style over substance” as a challenge instead of a potential criticism. It’s a far cry from the cold, keep-it-simple nihilism of the original film, but also not at all tied to that blueprint as a sacred text. There’s almost no text at all to remain true to. Dialogue mostly fades away in The Strangers after its early, scene-establishing arguments in favor of well-staged attacks on its central, petrified couple. The only connective tissue between the two films, really, are the killers’ iconic masks, which is honestly more than enough to justify the liberties of Prey at Night.
The Strangers itself is not above mining nostalgia from past horror greats in establishing its own aesthetic. The opening warning, “What you are about to see is inspired by true events,” distinctly recalls the similar introduction to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That grimy 70s horror throwback atmosphere is only palpable in the film’s simplicity & the distinct design of its killers’ masks, though. If it’s at all an exercise in overt style, its indulgences can only be detected in its attention to detail. Intricate lighting choices allow for some impressively built tension, as the obscurity of shadows affords the killers a wealth of hiding places and the movie literalizes Liv Tyler’s often-deployed deer in the headlights routine. The sound design is even more meticulous, aurally attacking the audience with the chills of scraped metal and history’s most unexpected Joanna Newsom needle drop. Since light & sound are the two most essential components to cinema, I’d say that attention to craft alone makes the film praiseworthy even as a barebones genre exercise. It’s also, to be frank, damn scary, a rare achievement from a horror film so familiar in its basic template. Even though that home invasion template is typically something I avoid on-sight, I was wholly won over by The Strangers. I even preferred it over its Carpenter pastiche sequel, something I never would have expected going in. The sequel’s camp + violence genre formula is usually much more my speed.