The Strangers (2008 film)
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Bryan Bertino|
|Written by||Bryan Bertino|
|Edited by||Kevin Greutert|
|Distributed by||Rogue Pictures|
|Box office||$82.4 million|
The Strangers is a 2008 American horror film written and directed by Bryan Bertino. Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman) are expecting a relaxing weekend at a family vacation home, but their stay turns out to be anything but peaceful as three masked torturers leave Kristen and James struggling for survival. Writer-director Bertino was inspired by real-life events: the Manson family Tate murders, a multiple homicide; the Keddie Cabin Murders, that occurred in California in 1981; and a series of break-ins that occurred in his own neighborhood as a child. Made on a budget of $9 million, the film was shot on location in rural South Carolina in the fall of 2006.
Originally slated for a theatrical release in November 2007, it was postponed before a theatrical release on May 30, 2008. It grossed $82 million at the box office worldwide and received mixed reviews from critics, with some praising its atmosphere and tension, and others criticizing its script and characters. Contemporary film scholars have interpreted it as a criticism of the perceived safety of pastoral life, as well as an exploration of stranger-on-stranger violence. A sequel, titled The Strangers: Prey at Night, was released ten years later on March 9, 2018.
The film opens with a "Based on True Events" message. James Hoyt and his girlfriend Kristen McKay arrive at James' remote childhood summer home, tired and irritable after a long evening at a friend's wedding reception. At the wedding, James proposed to Kristen and she refused. James calls his friend Mike and asks him pick him up in the morning. Shortly after 4 a.m., there is a loud knock at the door. A young blonde woman, whose face is hiding in the shadows, asks "Is Tamera here?" When told that she is at the wrong house, she leaves with the casual caveat that she will "See them later."
Due to the tension between them, James leaves to go for a drive and purchase a pack of cigarettes for Kristen; before he departs, he starts a fire in the hearth. Shortly after he leaves, Kristen realizes the chimney flue is closed, and attempts to open it; while she does this, smoke emanating from the fire triggers a smoke alarm. Kristen attempts to disarm the smoke alarm when she is startled by another knock at the door; she drops the alarm on the floor. It turned out to be the same blonde woman at the door from earlier. Unnerved, she retreats to the bedroom. She calls James' cellphone from the landline, but their call is cut short due to battery shortage. Soon after plugging in her charger, she returns to the kitchen, where, unbeknownst to her, a man in a sack mask watches her from an adjacent hallway and vanishes as she turns around.
In the living room, Kristen notices the smoke alarm she left on the floor is now sitting on a chair, and realizes someone else has been in the house. Upon going to retrieve her cell phone from the wall charger, she finds it is cut in half, and begins to panic. When she hears a startling noise from the backyard, she arms herself with a kitchen knife, and opens the curtains to find the Man in Mask, staring at her along with a pound towards her. She stumbles into the hallway, and watches as the front door unlatches. When she goes to push the door closed, she sees the blonde woman outside, now in a doll mask. After locking the door, Kristen hides in the bedroom and hears the strangers outside banging violently against the walls of the house.
The noise eventually stops and James returns to the home. After she explains what has happened, he goes outside to the car to get his phone, whereupon he finds the car totalled and sees Dollface watching him from afar, speechless. The couple attempt to leave in James' car but another woman in a Pin-Up mask rear-ends them with a pick-up truck, forcing them to flee after encountering the Man in Mask. Back inside the house, Kristen and James find a shotgun and wait for the intruders in a bedroom. One of the strangers enters and put on a country record on the turntable, filling the house with music.
Mike arrives and realizes something is wrong after seeing the smashed car in the driveway along with the door wide open. He enters the house, and James, mistaking him for one of the strangers, shoots him in the head. Devastated, James remembers an old radio transmitter in the backyard shed. He leaves Kristen inside and encounters Pin-up Girl searching the backyard with a flashlight. When James tries to shoot her, the Man in Mask runs up towards him, and knocks him unconscious, discharging the gun in the process. Kristen hears the shot, and runs to the shed to find James after hearing a terrifying noise from behind her. She finds the radio, but Pin-Up Girl smashes it with an sledgehammer after hearing the sound static. Kristen carefully rushes back to the house, where she encounters Dollface, who taunts her with the household items. Then Dollface threatens her with a kitchen knife. Before Dollface could stab Kristen, James is violently thrown through the backdoor by the Man in Mask. James tells her to run but encounters Pin-Up Girl, blocking the front door leaving them no way out. Kristen attempts to leave but is incapacitated by the Man in Mask, leaving both James and Kristen unconscious.
James and Kristen awaken at dawn as the curtains are pulled, and find themselves tied to chairs in the living room with the strangers standing before them. Kristen asks, "Why are you doing this to us?" to which Dollface replies, "Because you were home." The strangers then unmask themselves to the couple offscreen, and take turns stabbing the couple in the stomach and chest with the same kitchen knife used to threaten Kristen. After untying them the strangers leave them to die. As they drive away in the pick-up truck, they ride past two young Mormon boys on bicycles distributing religious tracts door-to-door. Dollface gets out of the truck and asks for a tract. One of the boys asks if she's a sinner and she replies, "Sometimes." The strangers drive away, as Pin-Up Girl states, "It'll be easier next time." The two boys come upon the house with the door wide open and discover the chaotic scene, including the bodies of Kristen, James, and Mike inside. One of the boys approach Kristen's body, and as he reaches out to her, she wakes up and screams revealing she is still alive.
- Liv Tyler as Kristen McKay
- Scott Speedman as James Hoyt
- Gemma Ward as Dollface
- Kip Weeks as Man in Mask
- Glenn Howerton as Mike
- Laura Margolis as Pin-Up Girl
- Alex Fisher and Peter Clayton-Luce as Mormon boys
Film scholar Kevin Wetmore noted the film's portrayal of violence as a reflection of its contemporary culture, writing: "Death is a random act in post-9/11 horror—the result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as the cliché goes. Unlike in eighties slasher horror, for example, where engaging in negative behavior such as drinking, doing drugs, having premarital sex are often forerunners to being killed by the killer(s); [here], death is random and unrelated to one's behavior."
In The Horror Show Guide: The Ultimate Frightfest of Movies, Mike Mayo noted the film's "grim realism," writing that the main characters "could have wandered out of a gloomy Ingmar Bergman film," ultimately branding the film as an example of "naturalistic domestic horror" akin to Michael Haneke's Funny Games.
The film has also been noted by scholar Philip Simpson as highlighting "the divide between the underprivileged and privileged classes," as well as for its inversion of commonly-held beliefs about violence in urban areas and pastoral ethics: "The Strangers, as many horror films do ... undermines the conventional notion of rural society as a simpler, crime-free place. One might call the narrative sensibility informing The Strangers 'pastoral paranoia', in that danger lurks among the rough folk of the country rather than the suburbs and cities. Of course, it may be that provincial violence is a result of contamination, or in other words that the kind of stranger-upon-stranger violence typically associated with urban life metastasizes to the rural, a phenomenon noted by Louis Wirth."
In his book Hearths of Darkness: The Family in the American Horror Film (2014), scholar Tony Williams notes the film's setting within a 1970s-era home as representative of an "American tradition of violence that is random and without any coherent explanation." Additionally, Williams reads the three masked assailants as metaphors for the "repressed and unresolved tensions affecting the couple inside the house."
Screenplay and inspiration
Writer-director Bryan Bertino wrote the screenplay which was originally titled The Faces; it was the third screenplay he had ever written. Bertino had a particular interest in the horror genre, noting how one can connect to an audience by scaring them, and would state in subsequent interviews that he grew up watching horror films. In particular, he stated he was significantly inspired by thriller films of the 1970s while writing the screenplay, and envisioned a film that "put the audience in the world of the victims."
As a kid, I lived in a house on a street in the middle of nowhere. One night, while our parents were out, somebody knocked on the front door and my little sister answered it. At the door were some people asking for somebody who didn't live there. We later found out that these people were knocking on doors on the area and, if no one was home, breaking into the houses.
In interviews, Bertino stated he was "very impressed" with some of the theories circulating on the Internet about the "true events" the movie is allegedly based on, but said that his main inspiration was the true crime book Helter Skelter about the Manson Family murders; some journalists speculated that the film was also inspired by the unsolved Keddie Cabin Murders of 1981 that occurred in a small vacation community in California's Sierra Nevada. The film's premise has been compared by some film critics to the French horror film Them, released two years earlier, which also features a couple terrorized by strangers in their remote home.
Bertino entered the screenplay for The Strangers into a screenwriting contest, after which he sold its directorial rights to Universal Pictures.
When casting the two leading actors in the film, Bertino sought Liv Tyler for the role of Kristen. Tyler, who had not worked for several years after the birth of her son, accepted the part after being impressed by the script, which she read while on a flight from Japan to Los Angeles: "I especially liked Bryan's way of saying a lot, but not saying everything. Often in movies, it's all spelled out for you, and the dialogue is very explanatory. But Bryan doesn't write like that; he writes how normal people communicate—with questions lingering. I knew it would be interesting to act that." Canadian actor Scott Speedman was cast as James. Speedman was also impressed by the script, stating that "the audience actually gets time to breathe with the characters before things get scary as hell. That got me interested from the first pages".
In casting the three masked intruders, Bertino chose Australian fashion model Gemma Ward for the part of Dollface, feeling she had the exact "look" he had imagined; Ward was officially cast in the film in September 2006. In preparing for the role, Ward read Vincent Bugioisi's Helter Skelter for inspiration. Kip Weeks was then chosen as the Man in the Mask, and television actress Laura Margolis, who found the script to be a real "page turner", was cast in the part of Pin-Up Girl. In retrospect, Bertino said he chose the three actors based on their abilities to convey their characters in spite of the fact that their faces remain unseen onscreen.
Bertino had not initially planned on directing The Strangers, and had been disconnected from the project after selling directorial rights to Universal Pictures. Both Justin Lin and Mark Romanek were attached to direct, but eventually backed out. Approximately two years after Bertino had sold the screenplay, Universal passed the project onto its subsidiary, Rogue Pictures, who approached Bertino to direct the project, despite his lack of experience.
On a $9 million budget, filming for The Strangers began on October 10, 2006, and finished in early 2007. It was shot on location roughly 10 miles outside of Florence, South Carolina, and the 2,000-square-foot (190 m2) house interior was constructed by a set crew. Though the film takes place in 2005, the house itself was deliberately constructed with an architecture reminiscent of 1970s ranch houses and dressed in furnishings applicable to the era. Bertino based the house on the types of homes common where he had grown up in rural Texas. The property was located on the outskirts of Timmonsville, South Carolina. Despite weather complications, the film was largely shot in chronological order.
During production, it was reported that Liv Tyler came down with tonsillitis due to the extensive screaming the role required her to do. Tyler would later recall it being the most difficult film she had ever worked on, "both physically and emotionally." According to Laura Margolis, who played the Pin-Up Girl, Tyler also specifically requested that she not see her mask prior to filming: "I got strict instructions not to let Liv see me in my mask before we shot," Margolis recalled. "The first scene that I shot was stalking [her] outside of the barn. I had been told that she really wanted to be scared. She didn’t want to have to fake it, and so it was my responsibility to really scare her. So we shot that scene, I ran at her, she started actually screaming, and then she kicked me away."
The masks featured in the film were chosen by Bertino, who wanted them to appear as though the killers "could have picked them up at any store."
Film editor Kevin Greutert was hired to edit the film; at the time, he recently finished editing Saw III. Several changes were made to the film during post-production, primarily regarding the conclusion: In the screenplay and the original footage shot, the three masked strangers reveal their faces on camera. After the sequence in which Kristen and James are stabbed, the strangers wander around the house, cleaning up parts of the crime scene before dressing into Kristen and James's clothes. Following test screenings, it was decided by the producers that the strangers' faces should remain unseen to the audience, which required the sequences following the stabbing to be excised.
A musical score, consisting of 19 pieces composed by score producer tomandandy, was released on May 27, 2008, and was distributed by Lakeshore Records. The album was received with generally positive reviews by critics. "It's a creepy score for what appears to be a movie that will make you jump as well as make sure that the doors are locked at night," writes reviewer Jeff Swindoll. "This is an impressive score and adds a tremendous chill-factor to the film," says Zach Freeman of Blogger News, grading it with an A.
All tracks written by tomandandy.
|6.||"James and Kristen"||2:39|
|7.||"3 AM Knock"||4:47|
|10.||"Run to Car"||1:54|
The producers originally planned for a summer release in July 2007, which was eventually postponed to November 2007; however, this date was postponed as well. The producers instead opted for a summer release, and The Strangers had its theatrical debut in United States and Canada on May 30, 2008. In its opening weekend, the film grossed $21 million in 2,467 theaters, ranking #3 at the box office and averaging $8,514 per theater. The overall box office return was successful, earning $82.4 million worldwide.
Marketing and promotion
In late July 2007, Bertino, Tyler and Speedman attended San Diego's annual Comic-Con event to promote the film; all three were present for a questions-and-answers panel session, as well as a screening of the film's official teaser trailer; this trailer was released on the internet several weeks later. It was not until March 2008 that a full-length trailer for the film was released, which can be found on Apple's QuickTime trailer gallery. The trailer originally began running in theaters attached to Rogue Pictures' sci-fi film Doomsday in March 2008, and television advertisements began airing on networks in early-mid April 2008 to promote the film's May release.
Two one-sheet posters for the film were released in August 2007, one showing the three masked Strangers, and the other displaying a wounded Liv Tyler. In April 2008, roughly two months before the film's official theatrical debut, the final, official one-sheet for the film was released, featuring Liv Tyler standing in a darkened kitchen with a masked man looming behind her in the shadows.
The Strangers was released on DVD and Blu-ray in the United States on October 21, 2008. Both the Blu-ray and DVD feature rated and unrated versions of the film, with the unrated edition running approximately two minutes longer. Bonus materials include two deleted scenes and a making-of featurette. The DVD was released in the UK on December 26, 2008. The film was available on Universal VOD (Video on Demand) from November 19, 2008, through March 31, 2009. In commemoration of the film's 10th anniversary, a two-disc collector's edition Blu-ray by Scream Factory was released on March 6, 2018, featuring a 2K video transfer, as well as a combination of new and archival cast and crew interviews.
On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 45%, based on 153 reviews, and an average rating of 4.9/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "The Strangers provides a few scares, but offers little else to distinguish itself from other slasher films." Metacritic reported an average score of 47 out of 100, based on 27 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews". Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "B–" on an A+ to F scale.
Unfavorable reviews included Roger Ebert's of the Chicago Sun-Times, who gave the film one-and-a-half stars out of four, saying: "The movie deserves more stars for its bottom-line craft, but all the craft in the world can't redeem its story." Bob Mondello of NPR said the film was "A sadistic, unmotivated home-invasion flick." Steven Rea of The Philadelphia Inquirer noted that "No one is getting at anything in The Strangers, except the cheapest, ugliest kind of sadistic titillation." Elizabeth Weitzman of the New York Daily News compared the film to 2007's Vacancy - a comparison which "does "Strangers" no favors. Vacancy director Nimród Antal gave us a pair of heroes who fought like hell to survive, becoming closer and stronger in the effort. Bertino's undeveloped protagonists are colossally stupid and frustratingly passive." Stephen Hunter of The Washington Post panned the film, calling it "a fraud from start to finish." Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle, said the film "uses cinema to ends that are objectionable and vile," but admitted that "it does it well, with more than usual skill." Wesley Morris of The Boston Globe said of the director, "Bertino has the pretensions of an artist and the indelicacy of a hack. He tries to get under our skin with a pile driver." Stephen Whitty of The Star-Ledger opined of the film, "Unfolding with an almost startling lack of self-awareness, young filmmaker Bryan Bertino's debut is such a careful, straight-faced knockoff of '70s exploitation films that it plays like a parody."
Among the positive reviews, Jeannette Catsoulis of The New York Times said The Strangers is "suspenseful," "highly effective," and "smartly maintain[s] its commitment to tingling creepiness over bludgeoning horror." Michael Rechtshaffen of The Hollywood Reporter called the film a "creepily atmospheric psychological thriller with a death grip on the psychological aspect." James Berardinelli of ReelViews gave the film 3 out of 4 stars, saying that, "This is one of those rare horror movies that concentrates on suspense and terror rather than on gore and a high body count." Scott Tobias of The A.V. Club said that "as an exercise in controlled mayhem, horror movies don't get much scarier."
Additional positive feedback for the film came from Joblo.com reviewer Berge Garabedian, who praised director Bertino for "building the tension nicely, with lots of silences, creepy voices, jump scares, use of songs and a sharp eye behind the camera, as well as plenty of Steadicam give it all more of a voyeuristic feel." Empire Magazine remarked on the film's retro-style, saying, "Like much recent horror, from the homages of the Grindhouse gang through flat multiplex remakes of drive-in classics, The Strangers looks to the '70s.", and ultimately branded the film as "an effective, scary emotional work-out." Slant Magazine's Nick Schager listed The Strangers as the 9th best film of 2008.
In 2009, the film was ranked #13 on "Bravo's 13 Scarier Movie Moments" television piece, and in a 2018 retrospective, Clark Collis of Entertainment Weekly deemed the film a "modern-day slasher classic."
In August 2008, Rogue Pictures confirmed that a sequel was in the works, with Brian Bertino co-writing the screenplay with Ben Ketai. The project was originally slated to enter principal photography in 2009, during which time it was tentatively titled The Strangers: Part II. Directors Laurent Briet and Marcel Langenegger were considered to direct, but landed eventually to Johannes Roberts. After a troubled development period, filming on the sequel began May 30, 2017. Later titled The Strangers: Prey at Night, the film was released on March 9, 2018.
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