Halloween Endurance Test: the Strangers (2008)

The Strangers totally destroyed me the first time I watched it. I had heard about it on one of those “Top Ten Horror Movies” television shows VH-1 constantly plays in October. They said it was spooky ‘cuz the titular “Strangers” barely talk. No motive behind their attack is ever discovered. Enough to be scary on its own, but that’s not what destroyed me.

The movie starts with Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) and James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) returning to the Hoyt family’s summer home after a wedding. He had proposed, and she refused. Making for one tense cottage stay. This killed me because a month before viewing it, my own 2+ year relationship had dissipated out of nowhere.

The opening still makes me a little uncomfortable. At least until they start having break-up sex. Lucky Hollywood fucks…

Or unlucky Hollywood fucks, as their coitus is interrupted when a blond girl (Gemma Ward) knocks on their door. She’s at the wrong house, but she’s also hesitant to believe them when they tell her that it isn’t the house she’s looking for.

After the midnight caller, James decides it would be a good time to go on a Chee-to run or something. He leaves in the only car. ‘Cuz it’s not like anything weird was going on that he might want to protect his ex from, or anything like that. I know what you’re thinking, and no, James is never implicated in being behind the attacks. Just so we get that out of the way.

Naturally after James leaves the girl returns; wearing a giant doll mask. Before she reappears, however, we see just how defenseless Kristen’s position is. While the house has two solid, wood front doors, the back doors are sliding glass. Which probably aided in creeping me out, ‘cuz the house I grew up in had doors like that out back too. They’d be super easy to just smash.

(Not that I ever had anything to worry about growing up. We didn’t live out in the middle of nowhere, oh wait, well, we lived in a town situated in the middle of nowhere. We had neighbors, and streetlights, and stuff. The only thing I had to worry about was the abusive drug dealer down the street.)

Of course, our assailants don’t actually want to come in. They tease her, following Kristen as she tries to hide around the house, knocking on the windows whenever she starts to feel safe. And also driving home the obvious point: you’re not safe if your hiding behind glass.

Scott returns, experiences the shenanigans himself, and finds his father’s shotgun. After an axe attack destroys the front door, Scott and Kristen decide holing up in the closet for the night is their best option.

Leading to one of the most shocking scenes. Scott’s in the closet, holding a shotgun with a twitchy trigger finger, when his friend, Mike (Glenn Howerton) arrives to pick him up. (Scott had called him earlier during the break-up sequence.) You can see the axe-wielding, mask wearing male Stranger (Kip Weeks) stalking behind Mike but just as Mike crosses the open closet and gets blasted to pieces. Making our “heroes” feel even more helpless.

This whole film is based off the old, over-the-shoulder scare. The one last seen in the grocery store scene in My Bloody Valentine. Where you can see the assailant behind our protagonist’s back, yet when they finally turn around the baddie is gone. It’s worked beautifully here, keeping the viewer as off-guard as the characters on-screen.

Director Bryan Bertino also relied solely on steady cams to do all the filming; getting the feel of this film uneasy. Every shot has some sort of camera movement; not necessarily engineered to make you nervous, but enough to keep you unstable.

You also have to appreciate all the different noises the Strangers get out of the Hoyt house. They’re constantly running things along the outside walls; creating a uneasy din for everyone involved. Serving as a nice break from the Strangers otherwise incommunicado stance.

(Though it is fun to imagine all three Strangers standing out in the woods calling each other via walkie-talkie to coordinate their attacks. It’s never shown, but how else could they pull it off? Alas, we’re not privy to any of these moments. Though Kristen does catch one sneaking a squat on the Hoyt family couch.)

For a film so indebted to silence for its scares, it’s fitting that when it ends, nothing is explained.

Kristen: “Why are you doing this to us?”

Dollface Stranger: “Because you were home.”

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