Posted on November 25, 2016

Bertino’s The Strangers Evokes an Archaic Malevolence

Dawn

R                     86 mins.                      Bryan Bertino             USA                2008

Grade: A-

I have recently been exploring a sub-genre of horror that used to terrify me—the home invasion film. I created a list of some of my favorites so far (most of them on the milder side as far as violence and sadism goes), and I heard from a lot of people about other films I should watch. One that came highly recommended was The Strangers, a 2008 film directed by Bryan Bertino. I want to say thank you to those who recommended the film, because it is indeed exceptional.In fact, I was surprised how similar The Strangers was to a film I recently watched and loved—Mike Flanagan’s Hush (2016). I thought Flanagan’s film—about a deaf woman who is terrorized in her house in the woods by a masked man whose motives are never revealed—was a masterpiece of simplicity, perfect in its pure terror. The Strangers is similar; in fact, much as I love Hush, I have to say that The Strangers is even better.

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The Strangers centers on couple James (Scott Speedman) and Kristen (Liv Tyler), who arrive at James’s isolated family house very late at night after, it turns out, Kristen has turned down James’s marriage proposal. The emotional distress they are both suffering gets over-shadowed, though, after a young woman knocks on their door and asks “Is Tamara there?” The couple close the door on her with only a slight expression of concern for her well-being—even though she seems to be alone and disoriented. The young woman is not alone, however, and soon she and two other masked figures are terrorizing James and Kirsten. And there you have the substance of the plot.

One of the many things that makes The Strangers stand out—besides the pitch-perfect performances by all the actors (especially Tyler and Speedman)—is Bertino’s direction. He is the master of the terrifying shot, without employing any cheap jump scares. (There’s one jump scare, but it’s not cheap!) The masked strangers move into shots, their masks hovering eerily in the overwhelmingly brown-hued mise-en-scène of both interior and exterior sets. They seem to be able to move around freely and penetrate the house at will—an uncannily nonhuman, malevolent force.

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And I use the phrase “nonhuman malevolent force” purposefully. Although the three masked strangers are indisputably human, they accrue the power of an almost demoniacal force. They barely speak and the few utterances they make suggest a motiveless evil. At one point, when the strangers have James and Kirsten tied to a chair, Kirsten asks, “Why are you doing this to us?” And one of the intruders responds, flatly, “Because you were home.”

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Indeed, I read the masked intruders of The Strangers as the presence of the archaic demonic, a presence that I’ve recently been discovering in early art that seems to have passed in pure form into the modern horror film. Check out this painting by Rubens from 1626-1628, Angelica and the Hermit. And then check out the detail from the top right corner. The demonic lurks around the edges—just as in Bertino’s film. Motiveless malevolence is a constant in human lives. In The Strangers, James and Kirsten fall victim to it for no reason other than that they were home.

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That The Strangers is almost religious in evoking the demonic is heightened by its framing narrative: the film begins and ends with two boys on bicycles who are delivering religious pamphlets. One of the boys asks one of the intruders at the end, “Are you a sinner?” “Sometimes,” she replies. Her aim, though, is not to sin less but to sin more—more perfectly and completely.

One thing I did leave the film wondering was whether, given the religious undertones of the film, Kirsten and James were actually being punished. The Bible has many exhortations to care for the “stranger,” and there is that moment when the couple shuts the door, late at night, on the stranger who comes to their door. Finally, though, I don’t believe that James’s and Kirsten’s “sin,” if you can call it that, brought the intruders’ wrath down upon them—although, human as we are, we like to attribute meaning to the often meaningless things that happen to us.

The Strangers is absolutely chilling in its simplicity. It is about nothing more or less than the archaic omnipresence of evil. James and Kirsten don’t deserve what happens to them—but when has evil ever considered its own justification.

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Bertino has a new film out, The Monster, as of a week or so ago, so I’ll definitely be checking it out.

And people also recommended Them (Ils, 2006) and Kidnapped (Secuestrados, 2010) as outstanding home invasion films, so stay posted for reviews of them.

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