Home invasion horror films announce their plot right up front—and you can be pretty sure of what you’re getting: strangers break into a home and terrorize the inhabitants, typically for no other reason than the sadistic pleasure of torturing and killing. There are some great films out there that hew closely to this plot, delivering a terror predicated on the sadism of the stalker/s and the inexplicability of their actions. Funny Games, both the US (2007) and original Austrian (1997) incarnations, directed by Michael Heneke, and the more recent Hush (2016), directed by Michael Flanagan, are noteworthy examples.
I’m interested, though, in films that change the home invasion narrative in order to suggest some sort of closer threat—a threat that breaks down, in one way or another, the line dividing inside and outside, us and them, home and beyond, friend/family member and stranger, even self and other. All of the films below do this in different but always thought-provoking ways. They ask us to consider who the “strangers” in our lives really are, where they are—and what they are capable of doing.
You’ll notice all the screenshots of windows below: windows loom large in all these films, serving to question the boundary line between inside and outside that they also erect, even if only falsely and fleetingly. There are also a lot of masks, although while some masks can clearly be seen, others can’t.
The Ones Below (David Farr, 2015)
The Ones Below follows two couples who live in the same apartment building, each of whom is about to have a child. Something goes wrong for one of the couples, however, and the accident implicates all four of them. After the lone baby is born, guilt, anger, and grief (along with the haunting and only slowly-disclosed events of a more remote past) ensure that the lives of all four characters soon start spiraling out of control. As one couple repeatedly enters the apartment of the other couple—uninvited—the film raises questions about who is responsible for the loss of a child and who has the right to raise a child. The acting by the four leads—Clémence Poésy, David Morrissey, Stephen Campbell Moore, and Laura Birn—is simply stellar, as is the direction of David Farr, whose visual style evokes Hitchcock at almost every turn.
The Ones Below is streaming on Netflix—and you can check out a guest post by Erin Wilson on the representation of motherhood in the film.
The Blood Lands (originally White Settlers, Simeon Halligan, 2014)
The original name of this UK production, White Settlers, is a much more effective title, suggesting, as it does, the central thematic of colonization: who has the right to live where? Ed (Lee Williams) and Sarah (the wonderful Pollyanna McIntosh, who starred in Lucky McKee’s The Woman), escape their hectic urban lives by buying an old house in Scotland, hoping to start a B&B. Their pursuit of their dream, however, infringes on the locals, who resent what they see as Ed and Sarah’s illegitimate occupation of land and property that isn’t theirs. The film explicitly raises the colonial past of England and Scotland (including the Battle of Culloden)—and it was released in the run-up to the September 2014 Scottish referendum on whether or not to become an independent nation. As Ed and Sarah are beset by masked marauders on their first night in their new home, the film asks us to consider whose home it is, exactly.
The Blood Lands is streaming on Netflix.
The Gift (Joel Edgerton, 2015)
I loved The Gift. It was one of those films I went into with no expectations, and it blew me away. It’s the directorial debut of Joel Edgerton, who has made a name for himself until now through acting—and he also stars in The Gift, playing the film’s creepy lead, Gordo, with a brilliant mixture of menace and likeability. Gordo shows up one day in the lives of wealthy, successful couple, Robyn (Rebecca Hall) and Simon (Jason Bateman), the latter of whom Gordo claims he once knew (although Simon has difficulty remembering him at first). Despite Simon’s reluctance to have anything to do with Gordo (which seems at first at least to be about class), Gordo persists in bringing gifts to the couple, refusing to allow them to dismiss him. As it turns out, Gordo has a reason for re-connecting with Simon—and the final and most devastating “gift” he gives to the couple is the embodiment of those reasons, as well as a recognition of Simon’s and Robyn’s quite different moral worth. The Gift takes the notion of a home invasion to a very different place than the other films on this list! Plus the ending just kind of left me speechless.
The Gift is streaming on Showtime and Amazon.
You’re Next (Adam Wingard, 2011)
I’ve written about You’re Next before (a short piece on how windows and masks function in the film), and it’s one of my favorite films of this decade. It stars the wonderful Sharni Vinson as Erin, who is heading with her boyfriend to a family reunion to celebrate his parents’ anniversary. They’ve barely begun the first horribly uncomfortable meal before they are attacked through the expensive windows of the luxurious Davison mansion. Of all the films on this list, You’re Next is, for a significant length of time, a fairly standard home invasion film, but then it takes a turn and you realize neither the family nor the masked strangers are quite what they seem. Among other things, graduate student Erin turns out to be a hardened and supremely resourceful survivalist, which certainly no one expected!
You can rent You’re Next on Amazon and itunes.
Goodnight Mommy (Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, 2014)
Goodnight Mommy is an exceptionally creepy Austrian film directed and written by Fiala and Franz. Susanne Wuest plays a mother who returns to her home and twin sons after cosmetic surgery, her face swathed in bandages. The twins, Elias and Lukas (Elias and Lukas Schwarz), are unnerved by their mother’s appearance and soon begin to wonder whether she is indeed their mother. What followings is an intriguing “home invasion” film that focuses only on these three characters—mother and sons. Is one of them an imposter? Elias and Lukas seem willing to go to extreme lengths to find out, but are they who they seem to be? Goodnight Mommy is brilliant at illuminating how violence can inhere in our closest relationships and how the very people we are closest to may in fact be the most strange.
Goodnight Mommy can be streamed for free with an Amazon Prime membership.
The Break-In (Justin Doescher, 2016)
The Break-In is a found-footage film that centers on engaged couple Jeff (Doescher) and Melissa (Maggie Binkley), who are expecting a baby. Jeff just got a new phone and is filming much of what the couple does; he’s also recently had security cameras and a security system put in, since there have been a string of break-ins in his neighborhood. Those break-ins get closer and closer, as Jeff and Melissa’s best friends and next-door neighbors, Steve (J. P. Veizaga) and Lisa (Melissa Merry), are robbed and assaulted. Anxiety mounts for Jeff and Melissa—until the unthinkable happens and they are confronted by an armed invader. Who the intruder is and what the intruder does will definitely make you think.
The Break-In can be streamed for free with an Amazon Prime membership.
They Look Like People (Perry Blackshear, 2015)
Blackshear demonstrates in this film what spectacular results you can achieve on a small budget when you’ve got good acting, writing, and directing. Christian (Evan Dumouchel) finds his old friend Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews) on the street outside his apartment in New York City, and, since it seems he might be in trouble, invites him to stay. But Wyatt seems increasingly off-balance—becoming convinced that aliens are threatening him and his friends. Is his world, his home, under threat from aliens—or is the threat closer to home? They Look Like People adeptly plays on how hard it can be to discern what’s real, as well as how real, and how ubiquitous, the “voices” in people’s heads can be. Figuring out what’s wrong with Wyatt, and what the real invasion is here, is the moral choice Christian confronts in this film, and it may involve the most insidious kind of invasion of all.
They Look Like People is streaming on Netflix.
All these films will challenge you, surprise you, and make you think about where horror actually lies. They all, in short, offer some version of the terror brilliantly articulated in one of my favorite poems, Emily Dickinson’s “One need not be a chamber to be haunted”:
Ourself, behind ourself concealed,
Should startle most;
Assassin, hid in our apartment,
Be horror’s least.