“Because you were home.” Even after 10 years, those chilling four words still wield so much power, and I don’t know that there’s another phrase uttered in the last decade of modern horror that has had the same impact that this simple statement from Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers had had on our psyches, on our imaginations, and on the genre as a whole. It’s that randomness of the violence inflicted in The Strangers that has made it endure as a modern horror classic, but it’s the film’s emotional core that also makes it one of the most emotionally devastating genre films to have ever graced the big screen.
At the start of The Strangers, we’re introduced to a young couple, James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) and Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler), who are on their way home from a wedding, but there’s very little reason for them to still be in a celebratory mood. During the reception, James proposed to Kristen, only to have her turn him down because she’s not quite ready, making their arrival back at the Hoyt vacation home—which is donned with candles, champagne and rose petals—a complete gut punch for the couple. And as if that wasn’t enough, their terrible evening is about to get a helluva lot worse, as they’ve been selected by a trio of unknown masked killers to become their latest victims, leaving the conflicted couple wholly unprepared for the onslaught of terror to come throughout the remainder of the night.
When it comes to those of us who bleed the dark and the macabre, many of us have our own flavors of the genre that we prefer, and there are usually certain types of films that seem to hit us harder than others. For me, slasher movies have always been my cinematic catnip, and when you couple that with a home invasion story (which are really the only types of films that can manage to crawl under my skin these days), I’m a happy camper, and that’s probably why my affection for The Strangers runs as deep as it does. Bertino’s debut feature is a standout for numerous reasons, but easily its greatest asset is the film’s overt simplicity. From the no-frills narrative to its straightforward carnage to even the meticulous sound design that is so crucial here, The Strangers is truly lean and mean home invasion horror at its very best.
As far as protagonists go, we know very little about James and Kristen other than the fact that they are (or maybe “were” is much more accurate) in a relationship, and despite the fact that there may not be wedding bells in their future, there still a great deal of love between them, which is why I’ve always been so invested in both Speedman and Tyler’s characters in The Strangers. I also really appreciate the fact that Bertino doesn’t do what most directors would do, in terms of the conflict between the lovers, and lean into any sort of stereotypical spitefulness or pettiness simply because it’s more “fun” to see people being nasty to each other in horror movies (I do love that stuff as much as the next person, but it would completely change the whole vibe of The Strangers). And sure, James is absolutely heartbroken over being rebuffed by his girlfriend (I love that Speedman gets the ice cream eating scene in this), but we never see him turn on Kristen either, and I have to say I find that rather refreshing in modern horror.
James still takes the time to help Kristen remove her jewelry and her gown so that she can take a relaxing bath (the rose petals line KILLS ME every time), and when Kristen runs out of smokes at four in the morning, good ol’ Jimmy is more than happy to make a run for her, proving he still cares for her deeply (although that last one might also be partially about him needing to take a little ride to clear his head, too). But I do think that both Speedman and Tyler are just wonderful together in The Strangers, and it's that emotional rawness we see in their portrayals that makes this something more than just another movie about people fending off domestic invaders—it’s also about how fear can isolate us, which is then further heightened by the arrival of the Man in the Mask, Dollface, and Pin-Up Girl, who are looking to indulge their homicidal tendencies.
Also, because I’ve always been a fan of the “less is more” approach in the realm of genre storytelling, I enjoy the fact that Bertino apes Carpenter’s methodology from Halloween here, giving us masked killers that we know very little about, even by the time the film’s conclusion rolls around (the only real tidbit Bertino gives us is that the attack on James and Kristen was probably Dollface’s first murder spree, and that’s not really all that much). As someone who doesn’t need every little detail spelled out for me, that kind of ambiguity is so much scarier to me than if the first-time director had incorporated a scene where the three assailants offered up a ton of exposition just to satiate those viewers who need all the answers to The Strangers. What you don’t know is often more terrifying than what you do know, and that’s why the movie’s antagonistic threesome have remained so ingrained in our imaginations and in the genre as a whole over the last decade.
When I heard that Scream Factory was putting together a Collector’s Edition Blu-ray for The Strangers, I was very excited simply because the Blu-ray I had been relying on for the last few years had a few noisy spots that were always disappointing to me, and it lost some sharpness in the film’s darker scenes as well. Scream’s new transfer is gorgeous, though, and for fans who have been looking for a better-looking version of The Strangers, I don’t think you’ll ever see anything that looks as sharp as this particular transfer (and holy hell, that audio mix is superb, too—the first time Dollface knocks at the door, I nearly jumped out of my skin even though I knew it was coming).
The special features on this Collector’s Edition Blu-ray of The Stranger are great, too. I’ve been primarily watching the unrated cut of the film for years now, so that wasn’t necessarily the biggest draw for me here (and really, it’s only about two minutes of extra footage that isn’t super crucial to the story anyway—although the extra scene featuring the Man in the Mask is somewhat intriguing), as I was more interested in the new featurettes provided on the unrated disc. I enjoyed the two different mini docs featuring Bertino and Strangers editor Kevin Greutert, as I thought they both offered some really compelling insights into their respective creative processes (Bertino’s whole story about how the film even got made in the first place is really a testament to how important perseverance is for up-and-coming filmmakers). The Pin-Up Girl featurette also dives into some of the altered shots in The Strangers, which I think fans will find interesting, and the standard disc of The Strangers features some great vintage EPK (electronic press kit) materials, too. So, for the fans out there who enjoy The Strangers and are wondering if the “double dip” is worth it here, my answer is a resounding “Hell yes.” This Blu-ray is everything I could possibly want, and more.
Movie Score: 4/5, Disc Score: 4.5/5