31 Days to Scare ~ The Strangers (2008)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A young couple staying in an isolated vacation home is terrorized by three unknown assailants.
Stars: Liv Tyler, Scott Speedman, Glenn Howerton, Gemma Ward, Laura Margolis, Kip Weeks
Director: Bryan Bertino
Rated: R
Running Length: 85 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: I made a strategic error when I first saw The Strangers in theaters during the summer of 2008.  Somehow, I had missed catching it during its time in first-run houses, and when I noticed it was the late-night offering at the neighborhood second run (Riverview Theater – a classic!) I took advantage of the nice July weather, walked several blocks, and saved some gas—big mistake.  Two hours later, I was a jittery Ichabod Crane nervously trying to get home as fast as possible.

Even though it was just as dark going to the movie as it was coming back, Bryan Bertino’s home-invasion horror rattled me so much that every rush of wind through the trees gave me chills, and each twig snap made me jump in fright.  A week later, The Strangers was still playing at The Riverview, and having enjoyed it so much the first time; I roped a few friends to go back with me and see it for a second time.  We drove. 

Watching The Strangers again recently reminded me of the lasting willies it leaves the audience with; real-world scares that extend out from the screen and up your spine.  Like a few movies I’ve covered this year, it’s an often bleak experience that rides a fine line of going too far, and though writer/director Bertino demonstrates that he knows when to rein it in, it’s not before a tremendous amount of pain is inflicted on a young couple who are terrorized in their home by a creepy trio that appears to have no motivation to stop by.

Returning in the wee hours of the morning to their isolated home after a wedding, something is amiss between Kristen (Liv Tyler, Ad Astra) and James (Scott Speedman, Run This Town).  Their relationship is at a turning point, but it’s far too late (early?) to figure things out.  All both want to do is find what little normalcy they can still grab ahold of in the comfort of their home, but a knock on the door interrupts any plans to keep the outside world silent.  On the other side of the door is a woman at the wrong address who won’t go away despite Kristen and James insisting she continue her search elsewhere.  She does eventually go away, but loud noises around the compound and other outside distractions suggest she’s not alone…and the couple begins to wonder how secure their house has been this whole time.

At 85 minutes, Bertino manages to take his time to let this story develop.  There are many silent exchanges between Tyler and Speedman’s characters to establish their relationship, freeing them from the pitfalls that come with a weaker screenplay’s forced exposition.  Instead, Bertino allows us to get to know the couple more through their resilience during a nightmare than upfront before everything goes haywire.  Speedman and Tyler are terrific as adults who are intelligent enough to figure out the danger afoot but not quick enough to outmaneuver a trio of killers more experienced in this type of gameplay.

I appreciated the simple way Bertino (The Dark and the Wicked) and late cinematographer Peter Sova let some of the scariest moments play out, with the horror gradually focusing in the frame or being noticed by the characters.  It’s often more effective than a one-and-done jump scare (of which there are a few doozies!), and editor Kevin Greutert (who graduated the following year to direct three Saw films, including the recent Saw X) cuts these sequences beautifully.  Horror films can sometimes struggle with sticking the ending, but no matter what you think of the finale, Bertino has rounded out any rough edges before the night is through.

It took a decade for a long-anticipated sequel to arrive, and The Strangers: Prey at Night is another terrifying encounter with the three masked assailants.  As sequels do, it provides a more expansive world for the murderers to play in, but thankfully, it doesn’t lose sight of what made the original so scary.  In 2024, expect more Strangers activity when director Renny Harlin begins releasing his trilogy of films that were made back-to-back.  The announcement that these new Strangers films were arriving was a bit of a surprise, but with Harlin at the helm, it could be a bloody good time.  For several reasons, I’ll never forget my first run-in with The Strangers, and you should make it a memorable experience, too, whether seeing it for the first time or circling back to it.

Where to watch The Strangers (2008)

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