When we have been talking about the horror films in the previous chapter I have taken a little time to note whether the film we were discussing was a film that preyed on social anxieties, or one that tapped into deeper more mythic fears. For 99% of horror films that classification is sufficient.
But there is a third kind of horror film. The rarest of the rare, a kind of film that strikes us more deeply than mere subtext, even deeper than the fairy tale. The type of horror for which no metaphor will suffice.
This is the kind of horror that drives deeply into our collective memories and taps into our most primal survival based fears that live like unexorcisable ghosts all the way down at the core of our lizard brain. The fear of being hunted. The fear of being eaten. The fear of our mates being taken. The fear of having our homes invaded. When these rare films that circumnavigate our cortex and strike right at the lizard jelly of our brains come, they tend to create a feeling more akin to revulsion than fear.
The Strangers is one of those movies.
In many ways The Strangers is the film that the opening of Scream promised all those years before. A genre film played with a heretofore unseen level of reality. The Strangers opens with at upper class houses seen from the point of view of a passing truck window (David Fincher would use a similar shot to open Zodiac). The houses are isolated, but not remote. Separated from each other by wide yards and deeply wooded lots. Already a feeling of horrible randomness is established, one might as well hear “Eeny Meeny Miney Moe” on the soundtrack.
From there we cut to later in the day, two children walk through the bloody disquieting aftermath of what’s clearly been a night of mayhem. This creates a feeling of fatalism, so closely linked to the random; we know the story will not have an happy ending. But just as importantly it creates a feeling of specificity. This could have happened anywhere, but it did happen here.
Finally we flashback to some hours before before. Ti West has spoken about how too many horror characters appear to be equipped to be in a horror film. Rarely have there been protagonists more ill equipped to deal with horror than these two. . Dressed in formal wear, speaking in hushed tones trying to dance around a new wound (she has just turned down his proposal of marriage) the two know each other intimately but not well. The first half hour of the film could be a John Cassevettes or Richard Linklater film. One can easily imagine the characters dealing with their new emotional lacerations as they move around the house that he has prepared for a celebration as the morning of their first day apart slowly dawns. This is key, if West has claimed that the characters of horror are all too often prepared for horror, I would go one step further and argue that horror films are all too often prepared for horror. They tip their hand from the beginning. It is key to the film’s effectiveness that the horror in The Strangers is an intrusion.
Stephen King put it another way when he was talking about Jack Finney’s novel, The Body Snatchers, “I have used the phrase “off-key not” earlier on, and that is Finney’s actual method in The Body Snatchers, I think; one off-key note, then two, then a ripple, then a run of them. Finally the jagged, discordant music of horror overwhelms the melody entirely. But Finney understands that there is no horror without beauty; no discord without a prior sense of melody; no nasty without nice.” Bertano is one of the few modern horror directors who bothers to establish the melody. Which is first interrupted by a knock on the door as the two are about to engage in some break up sex. A young girl, seen only dimly asks a mumbled question and then departs. It’s the first discordant note soon to be joined by many others. The attack begins subtly as an accumulation of wrong details (or discordant notes) a fire alarm moved, a door opened, a phone missing. Until finally they increase in number and intensity until the film escalates into a pounding Bartok like assault. (Interestingly enough The Strangers is the rare horror movie that relies on incidental music instead of a score. The first song heard is a Joanna Newsom song. Literally a discordant note. As Tyler realizes she’s not alone for the first time the record begins to skip adding even more disharmony.) The film proceeds more or less in real time, and the sheer speed of the collapse is jaw dropping.
The first of The Strangers is seen shortly after. The woman has been left alone while her boyfriend runs to grab her cigarettes. The girl pounds on the door again and asking the same question. Unsettled but not yet frightened Tyler retreats to the kitchen. Behind her is a perfect column of negative space, a discernable absence after a few moments, the lead stranger identified only as “The Man In The Mask” steps in. It’s one of the most perfect shots I know of in horror.
The way The Strangers are shot has its own unique signature. The masks the characters wear, a doll’s face a cartoon character, and what is little more than a pillow case slightly darkened around the mouth and eye holes, rival Michael Myers for minimalism. Though we do get a fair amount of close ups (and Bertano isn’t above giving us a quick jump scare with one of their faces suddenly looming on screen) They are much more often seen from a distance. Or not seen at all, just places of negative space where they easily could appear as they did at the beginning. Even when The Strangers are in frame they are often out of focus. They are kept both literally and figuratively indistinct, allowing us to project all kinds of things onto them.
The film continues switching between elegance and brutality. There are no meaningless kills in The Strangers. No groundskeeper or shop clerk to rack up the body count (the only other person to die in the film is a distinct subversion of that trope). Thus the lives at stake actually mean something and the investment the audience has is much higher. Though we know the characters doom is a foregone conclusion, they crucially do not. Once they understand the nature of the attack they make smart decisions, arm themselves stick together. After all it’s not even as though they are outnumbered over much. Really it is only one ghastly piece of bad luck that keeps their plan of survival from working.
It doesn’t work of course. We already knew that. What we didn’t know was how it would end. Not with our heroes taken out in the heat of the moment, attempting to evade pursuit. But killed while tied to a chair helpless and hopeless. Fully conscience of what is about to happen. Crucially this sequence takes place in daylight, and before they are murdered the strangers remove their masks.
This two beat process in which our heroes are dispatched brings a clarity to the genre. It’s not a gag, it’s not a kill, it’s a murder perpetrated on two helpless people for no reason at all. When The Strangers take off the masks there is nothing outwardly horrifying underneath. No waterlogged undead face. No John Doe Sermonizing. No Hannibal Lecter philosophizing. No ghosts drive them. No demons possess them. They are only human. And that’s true horror.
Bryan Bertano has yet to make a film after The Strangers. A fair amount of his films, including a sequel to The Strangers (a prospect I’m ambivalent about but open to) and a film that was supposed to be executive produced by Sam Raimi, have wound up in development hell. And though a few of his screenplays have sold, including a found footage film at Universal and a non horror film called Plastic Jesus, which was directed by Erica Dunton. There are currently no films in production that would get Bertano back behind the camera.
If that never happens, then The Strangers will stand as one of cinema’s greatest one offs. But I can only hope it doesn’t. Frankly it would be a crime. I consider The Strangers to be the finest horror film that the decade produced. And of all the films we’ve discussed I would only rank The Fly and The Blair Witch Project above it. It is a horror film that strikes directly at the heart, which is exactly where the essence of horror lives.