Nihilistic At Play: The Strangers, 10 Years On
Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers rocketed into theaters during the summer of 2008 and left audiences afraid to return to their homes. The simple, yet extremely effective story of a home invasion showed us that even our own sanctums are not always safe from invaders, and we can be vulnerable even in the most familiar of spaces.
The film opens as Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman) arrive at his family’s summer home for what is supposed to be a romantic evening. Instead, they deal with the aftermath of a proposal gone wrong. Through flashbacks, we learn that James had an elaborate plan to propose following their friend’s wedding; when he took out the ring, Kristen said she wasn’t ready for marriage, leaving them both crushed, and their relationship on shaky ground.
They aren’t in the house long before they hear a knock at the door. Confused, given the very late hour, they open it to see a young woman, standing just outside of the light being cast from the doorway, asking if Tamara is there. They say no, she must have the wrong house, and send her on her way. This is only the beginning of the encounter; the woman soon returns with two friends, all wearing masks, and the group begins to terrorize the couple. At first, they simply tease their prey by banging on doors and windows and moving things around inside the house — letting the pair know that they aren’t alone and that they certainly aren’t safe. The harassment eventually escalates to something viciously brutal, as it becomes clear that the visitors aren’t here simply for pranks.
One of the things about The Strangers that continues to ring true ten years later (and will probably continue to do so for decades to come) is the nihilism at play in the story. The fact the titular strangers have no motivation other than causing harm; the fact that this horrific fate befalls James and Kristen for no reason other than the fact that they the group showed up at their door. At the end of the film, Kristen asks the trio why she and James have been targeted.
“Because you were home.”
The now famously chilling line cuts to the heart of what makes this film so terrifying. There is nothing personal going on here — no reason for them to be attacked other than the fact that they were just there. No revenge, no money, no outside influences. They just existed and happened to cross paths with the wrong people. And that was enough.
This nihilism is reflected throughout the course of the film in subtle ways. There is something very defeating about the way that Bertino uses the home — a setting that commonly denotes safety and comfort — and turns it into one that feels exposed. Rather than seeing these characters as being safe within the walls of the house, we instead see the house as a place surrounded by any number of unseen dangers. We don’t know where the intruders are at any given time, which means that they could be in any space outside the home, or in any number of the shadowy places within it. Nowhere is safe in this film, and despite the fact that the characters are inside, ostensibly protected by brick walls, Bertino does a brilliant job of making them vulnerable.
A moment early on is particularly frightening in this regard. When Kristen is in the kitchen and hasn’t yet realized that the house has been compromised, we see the masked man emerge from the shadows of the living room and into the kitchen doorway. She doesn’t notice his presence; after watching her for a few moments, the man silently departs, leaving the audience with a sense of violation that extends beyond the screen and into the space surrounding us. Could there be somebody behind me right now? These moments are frightening on a very personal level, as it feels that the movie has left the screen and entered our own consciousness.
The emotional core of a relationship on the brink further heightens the sense of drama and, ultimately, defeat in the story. Before coming into contact with the intruders, Kristen and James have already gone through what is possibly the worst night of their lives. The emotional toll they’ve experienced is evident from the first time they appear onscreen — they are exhausted and miserable. Tyler and Speedman convey the characters’ sense of hopelessness and dejection so well that the audience can’t help but become wrapped up in their troubles. We see how much they care for each other and how devastating this unexpected crossroads is for them. It leaves both them and us in a compromised state before the strange woman even knocks at the door.
This film is chilling because it makes us realize just how easy it is to simply be a victim of circumstance. Random happenings find us every day — what’s to stop one as vicious as this? How can we defend against it? How can we spot it? The simplest answer is that we can’t, and that’s what makes this story so scary. We’re not dealing with ghosts or monsters, but ordinary human beings who want nothing more than to destroy us — for fun. There is no rhyme or reason behind why this trio did what they did, and when the credits role, we are left to wonder just who could be hiding in the shadows surrounding our own homes, and if we will be unlucky enough to be home when they knock.