When we’re children, we believe that the monsters lurking in our rooms behave by certain rules. Monsters under the bed can’t get you if you don’t touch the ground, closet monsters can’t get you if the door is shut, and both are completely stymied by the blanket forcefield. Horror movies are all about bringing the viewer back to childhood, and so, subconsciously we expect the villains to play by the same rules. Get home, get into a closet, hide in bed, that’s as good as calling “base” in a game of hide and seek. When the monster actively throws those rules back in our faces, the film becomes truly terrifying, which brings me to Bryan Bertino’s skeletal thriller The Strangers.
The plot is barely a wisp. A young couple, Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman), come to an isolated country house. It’s clearly prepared for a romantic weekend, complete with rose petals on every conceivable surface, but there’s an awkwardness between the two. It stems, we later learn, from a marriage proposal that Kristen refused. They are left in a gray area: are they broken up or not? Fortunately, they don’t have to worry about that for too long, as a trio of creepy masked people (never named in the context of the film, but identified in the credits as Dollface, Pin-Up Girl and the Man in the Mask) show up and start fucking with the heroes. The harassment escalates into a brutal on cat and mouse game that will only end in tears.
A quick note on the leads: Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman aren’t exactly my dream cast. They do fine work here, especially (and I can’t believe I’m typing this) Tyler, whose reaction to Speedman’s proposal (a look of surprised horror that she quickly tries and fails to hide) is a remarkable bit of acting. They have good chemistry and play the early relationship-at-an-end scenes well.
The relationship between the two leads would have been simpler in most films. Make the two characters deeply in love and when a bunch of folks from the full contact cosplay league show up to play brain football, the audience’s sympathies immediately go to the threatened lovers. But giving James and Kristen a problematic backstory does several things. First, it anchors the film in something real. Second, it packs the innocuous opening with cringe-inducing awkwardness, so that viewers are already hiding from the film before it gets wet. Third, the rose petals covering things give the resistance a tragic air. And last, it’s intended as a direct contrast to the image of the strangers. James and Kristen are an abortive family. The Strangers are coded as a family, with the Man in the Mask as father, Pin-Up Girl as mother and Dollface as child. Unlike James and Kristen, the sick family of the Strangers seems to work as a unit. After all, they clearly have the same hobbies.
This isn’t to suggest that the Strangers are some hugging lesson-learning “It’s a Sunshine Day” singing nuclear Stepford unit. Though the film clearly takes place in reality, it also strongly implies that the Strangers are something other than human. It’s not an absolute, being more akin to the Greek concept of sliding-scale divinity. Dollface is the most human of the Strangers, committing the least onscreen violence, playing creepily on the swings and being by far the chattiest. Pin-Up Girl is slightly more inhuman, having only a single line (the film’s chilling closer), and still requiring the use of a flashlight. The Man in the Mask is unequivocally not human. He never speaks, only wheezing asthmatically whenever onscreen. He watches the heroes at several points, apparently baffled by completely mundane activities. He apparently possesses supernatural powers, being entirely silent when he wishes and showing the ability to enter and leave the locked house at will. Based on the scant dialogue, the acts of that night are Dollface’s first. Though never stated, it seems as though the Man in the Mask was the originator, recruiting the others in turn. The implication is that these acts change the perpetrators into something other than human. Pin-Up Girl is farther along her transformation, while the Man in the Mask has emerged from his chrysalis as a creature of nightmare.
The masks go a long way toward creating the feeling of alienation. Most often in films when a character wears a mask, it is to hide his identity from the audience. Slasher films employ the mask for this reason, but also to keep the audience from identifying with the killer, and to increase the audience’s dread of him. The human mind has a tendency to create faces where there are none (a phenomenon called pareidolia, which is why there are pieces of toast revered as holy relics) because faces carry real, recognizable human emotion. Take your killer and hide him behind a hockey mask, William Shatner’s eyeless face, or just a sack and some cartoon girl mugs, and you take this potential for empathy away. The faceless killer is a killer without mercy or compassion. Bertino knew the importance of masks, originally titling the film The Faces, which sounds like a documentary about Rod Stewart when he didn’t suck.
The look of the film helps anchor it in reality and draw the mind away from the implied supernatural elements. Most of the camera work is handheld, giving it immediacy. Not because that is how the human eye perceives action, but for the same reason Psycho was shot in black and white despite the widespread availability of color. The bumpycam makes The Strangers appear, at least subconsciously, like news footage. The colors are muted, with a reddish filter being used in near darkness. This gives some of the shots a warm look, which is a direct contrast to what’s happening onscreen, further jarring the viewer outside of his comfort zone. Red makes other appearances, first on the rose petals that periodically rear their incongruous heads, then the reddish bathwater as it comes out of the faucet, later in the taunting messages the Strangers leave and finally in the blood in the third act.
The relentless red coupled with the handheld camera gives The Strangers a distinctly savage feel. It bolsters this by subtly showing technology as either useless or actively destructive. The earliest actions of the Strangers are to disable the porch light, destroy the cellphones and render the car undriveable. James has a shotgun that ultimately does far more harm than good and Kristen’s use of the CB radio exists more to cause frustration than anything else.
Another film might suggest that if the heroes sank to the barbarism of the Strangers they might win some kind of victory. Here, the masked killers are unstoppable and any attempt to stop or delay them will inevitably backfire. They are the bogeymen of childhood, limitless in their ability to terrorize. As children, we’re admonished to never talk to strangers. It’s telling that the horror begins when James answers the door to Dollface’s knock.
A film as primal as The Strangers needs an appropriately basic fear to prey upon. Despite having not a single act of sexual violence, the film is rife with rape imagery. An early scene has Liv Tyler parting red curtains with a large knife, only to reveal the Man in the Mask leering on the other side of the window. Forced entry, both violent and clandestine, appears repeatedly. The Man in the Mask appears suddenly in the house in an early scene, only to later bash the front door in from the outside. Dollface’s knock, which sets the plot in motion, interrupts James right as he is about to consensually enter Kristen for some tragic break-up sex. Eventually, the Strangers’ repeated violations of the house’s borders cause a reversal, rendering the outside marginally safer than the inside. As though to confirm this, the Man in the Mask sits down at the head of the table, claiming the house as his. The Strangers makes the one place that should always provide protection and inverts it.
There is no shelter from the Strangers. They are not human. They cannot be fought or reasoned with. So rent the film, lock the door and turn out all the lights. But don’t look behind you. That’s when they attack.