One of my favorite horror films of all time came to the big screen in 2008 in The Strangers. Supposedly inspired by a true story, the film revolves around James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) and Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler), a young couple, who after her rejection of his marriage proposal, return for the night to a summer house owned by his parents. As if the night wasn’t bad enough already for the two of them, a mysterious woman knocks on the door in the wee hours of the morning, asking for someone who is not there. From there, the same woman, along with another woman, and a man, all now wearing masks, start terrorizing the couple from outside the house. The psychological warfare begins with continued knocks on the door, and other assorted noises. Eventually, the trio try to make their way into the house.
I remember watching the movie at a friend’s house late one night, after it had come out on DVD. I can still recall leaning forward in my seat for nearly the entirety of the film, heart pounding out of my chest all the while as the tension rose. This was director Bryan Bertino’s first film, and while other reviewers disagree with me, I’ve always thought he did a hell of a job with the suspense factor in this movie. Granted, there are plenty of loud, startling noises and some “jump scares,” but the rising tension is what kept me hooked from the beginning. When it comes to suspense versus surprise, at least for me, the former is always the better technique for horror movies or thrillers. One of the most unnerving scenes in the movie puts Kristen in the frame, pacing back and forth, smoking a cigarette, completely unaware that the man in a devilishly creepy sack mask has already entered the house and is silently standing behind her, staring.
Other reviewers have trashed this movie due to the “stupid” decisions the characters made while they were scared out of their minds, hearts racing and adrenaline exploding out of their pores, but without those decisions, there wouldn’t be much of a plot now, would there? When it comes to watching fictional characters on a screen, people always become armchair experts on decision-making in life-or-death situations, claiming they’d know exactly what to do in a split second if they were being terrorized by a group of psychos. What makes the movie even scarier is a moment near the end when Kristen and James are tied to chairs, the three intruders standing in front of them, and Kristen asks, crying, “Why are you doing this to us?” One of the two women responds in a very matter-of-fact manner, after a brief silence, “Because you were home.” I’ve always maintained that movie villains are all the more horrifying when they have no real motive for the evil they are bestowing upon their victims. The trio of baddies in The Strangers are no different, and that makes the movie even more enjoyable to me.
The small cast of this movie is rounded out by Glenn Howerton of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia fame. Howerton plays James’ friend Mike who comes to pick him up from the house to save him from the post-rejection misery. Mike meets an untimely end when he enters the house, and it doesn’t go down the way you think it would. Although the movie is nearly eight years old and there’s a statute of limitation on spoilers, you can watch the movie and see what happens for yourself there. This is not the greatest horror movie of all time, but it is more than sufficiently scary because it involves no supernatural elements, and the villains don’t offer much of a motive for what they are doing. Get some popcorn, turn the lights out, and enjoy this one.