The Strangers Blu-ray Review (originally published 2018)
After a 4 a.m. knock at the door and a haunting voice, Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) and James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) find that their remote getaway becomes a night of psychological terror as three masked strangers invade. Faced with inscrutable tormentors, Kristen and James must go beyond what they think they're able to endure if they have any hope to survive. (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)
The home invasion horror subgenre reared its head towards the end of the post-9/11 decade alongside a crop of Texas Chainsaw Massacre-like rural thrillers, vigilante movies, and rape/revenge stories. It grew further during the Obama administration before eventually emerging as one of the most politically prominent horror subgenres of the era, thanks to James DeMonaco’s The Purge (2013) and its many sequels (and eventual television spin-off). It’s difficult to completely define the subgenre, because its key elements tend to overlap with other horror variants. For example, French survival horrors – Alexandre Aja’s Haute Tension (2003), Julien Maury & Alexandre Bustillo Inside (French: À l'intérieur, 2007), and especially David Moreau & Xavier Palud’s Them (French: Ils, 2007) – are all, at their bases, home invasion movies. The definition is further muddled by the fact that home invasion and survival horror tend to operate on a similar character arc, in which the protagonists evolve from a depressive state to a stronger and determined survivalist state. Home invasion stories tend to set themselves apart a bit by being framed around the emotional angst of an estranged family unit or romantic couple. The malaise of a failing relationship is then used as a shortcut for character attributes/motivations, as well as the subtext of the grueling ordeal the protagonists must overcome. In this regard, the template for most of these films is either Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (1972) or Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971).
Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers (2008) was a popular home invasion film with a box office haul of $82.4 million on a paltry $9 million budget. Surprisingly, it wasn’t immediately turned into a franchise (the belated sequel is finally coming this month) and there weren’t many similar movies produced in its wake (at least not in America). Bertino’s film is immediately frightening, because the director has the patience to silently squeeze maximum suspense and maintains the core concept’s simplicity for a taut 85 minutes. It also helps that the performances are natural and the tone is consistently bleak; however, the film endures on repeat viewings, because its villains are emotionally detached from their work. They aren’t vengeful ghosts, they aren’t robbers, they aren’t supernatural beasts, and they aren’t trying to open a portal to hell – they just want to torture and kill people. More specifically, they want to torture and kill people they don’t know. Purposefully or not, this arbitrarily-motivated violence captured the general public’s fear of terrorism. Many people understood the basic politics behind terrorist attacks, but they struggled to accept the random nature of its methods. This fact was not lost upon critics at the time and, while The Strangers suffered mediocre reviews overall, its most ardent critical supporters were quick to correlate the film’s scares with America’s post-9/11 dread.
It is also politically relevant because it sticks to the subgenre’s key thematic components. As established by Straw Dogs and Last House on the Left, home invasion movies are often literalized class struggles. Usually, the victims are comparatively affluent people, content with their lot and ignorant of the struggles of the lower classes. Their attackers are destitute or at least representative of destitution and often motivated by issues of class standing. The ironic implication apparently relates to the idea of upper/middle class whites fleeing urban areas as families of color began moving into their neighborhoods after the Civil Rights Movement (a phenomenon colloquial referred to as White Flight). Filmmakers (Wes Craven, in particular, as Peckinpah was more interested in exploring modern concepts of masculinity) liked the idea of poking fun at this perceived safety that the homogenized white suburbs offered by having them breached by predominantly white criminals.
Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997, remade in 2007) and the Purge movies brought this theme to the fore and directly subverted the victim/attacker configuration, but The Strangers shoves the subtext further into the background. The summer home setting/suburban neighborhood is the main indicator of Kristen and James’ wealth and we know nothing about the killers, outside of vague indicators of their age and race. Their age is of note, however, since it fed into the general and ongoing fear of out of control adolescents that runs through decades of evil child movies. The Strangers takes after Them in this regard. While the locations are different, the basic idea of psychotic teenagers playfully, elaborately scaring, torturing, and killing people they do not know connects the films. It seems unlikely that Bertino was directly influenced by Moreau & Palud’s film, though, because his script was completed well before Them was released and sat on Universal Studios’ shelves for about a year before its final theatrical debut.
As far as the ‘based on the true story’ hullabaloo is concerned, Bertino claims that he was inspired by relatively harmless childhood experiences and the Manson Family’s Tate/LaBianca murders. Given the timeline of the onset of the subgenre’s popularity, i.e. the early 1970s, it’s possible that all home invasion movies were inspired in part by the Tate/LaBianca murders and the volatile reaction to the crimes. Another event that may have inspired The Strangers, among other home invasion stories, was the Keddie Murders – a still unsolved cold case from 1981 that saw a woman, two of her children, and one of her children’s friends tied up and slaughtered while staying in a cabin in the tiny Northern California community of Keddie.
Scream Factory has included both the theatrical R-rated cut and the unrated cut on separate discs. They have created a new master from the original theatrical 2K digital intermediate and filled the gaps on the unrated transfer with HD inserts from the original Universal Blu-ray (much in the same way they did for Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake  and Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell ). Unfortunately, I don’t have access to the original releases this time for a direct comparison, so I’m judging the 1080p, 2.40:1 transfers on their own merits. Bertino and cinematographer Peter Sova do a lot with subtle, soft lighting schemes to convey their dark and disturbing atmosphere and this could have easily wreaked havoc on a lower resolution transfer. The simple, mostly brownish color timing appears consistent and warm with only minor low-level noise/blending issues. The only problem here is that the filmmakers decided to mix constantly shaking hand-held camera work with a super-tight and wide 2.40:1 aspect ratio. This causes blurry, streaky images and the transfer can only do so much to clear them up.
Both cuts are fitted with their original 5.1 soundtracks and presented in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio. The intimate subject matter obviously doesn’t lend itself to the most expressive sound design, but the filmmakers still find plenty of reasons to be aggressive. They pump up the dynamic levels by contrasting literally whisper-soft dialogue with absurdly loud impact noises and other amplified versions of everyday sounds. The incessant thumping around the house (and later the shed) radiates throughout the speakers with pinpointed directional enhancements that might have you checking behind your couch for intruders. Composing duo Tomandandy’s (Thomas Hajdu and Andy Milburn) eerie score helps round out the holes in the stereo/surround channels with dissonance, along with the echoing pop/country music streaming from the record player during some scenes. You’ve probably never heard Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” sound any creepier.
Disc One (Theatrical Cut and recycled supplements):
The Element Of Terror (9:12, SD) – The original Universal US Blu-ray/DVD’s interview featurette.
Strangers At The Door (9:37, SD) – Further interviews with the director, Liv Tyler, and Scott Speedman, taken from the German Kinowelt BD.
Two deleted scenes (4:51, SD)
Trailer and TV spots
Disc Two (Unrated Cut and Scream Factory exclusive supplements):
Defining Moments (29:37, HD) – The first new interview features writer/director Bryan Bertino reminiscing about his inspirations, selling the script (which he wrote for a contest), being thrown into the Hollywood machine with no experience, production design, casting, and the film’s release.
All The Right Moves (11:34, HD) – Actor Kip Weeks (who plays Man in the Mask) talks about his thinly-defined character, being required to sing a folk song for his audition (despite the character not saying or singing anything during the entire movie), basing his movements on a gorilla, and the efforts of the rest of the cast.
Brains And Brawn (13:44, HD) – Actress Laura Margolis (who plays Pin-Up Girl) discusses working with Bertino, her character as the group’s leader, Liv Tyler’s desire to be genuinely scared, the movie cutting around the killers’ faces during the finale, and she breaks down the scenes where she was replaced by a male stunt person.
Deep Cuts (20:29, HD) – Editor Kevin Greutert rounds out the new reviews with a look at, well, the editing process, naturally.
The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.