Bertino: The Strangers (2008)
Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers is one of the most original horror films of the 2000s, and represents the moment at which the home invasion genre acclimatised to the digital age. In the opening montage sequence, Bertino undercuts any sense that home invasion is an exceptional experience, by juxtaposing statistics about violent crimes with a panorama of normal suburban homes. We then proceed to a domestic unit that is already ruptured before the home invasion even begins – Kristen McKey and James Hoyt, played by Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman, sitting sombrely at a traffic light following a failed marriage proposal. They return to a house decked out in rose petals, in anticipation of Kristen saying yes, with memories of the wedding they just attended ringing in their ears, and compounding their shared trauma.
From the start, then, domestic interiority is non-existent in The Strangers, as James loses all power as man of the house the moment that Kristen rejects him. Since this occurs before the film begins, we never see him as a viable suitor, or the couple as marriage material. Instead, the first act is suffused with the hauntology of futures that could have been, which generate a more sombre mode of horror than regular home invasion. James’ first look of horror occurs in flashback when he presents Kristen with the ring, while the first jump scare occurs when he pops the champagne that was meant to crown the proposal. Even though Kristen only just rejected him, the proposal, and wedding they attended, already seem like the remote past.
Even more disturbingly, Kristen still seems to love James, and want to continue living with him. There’s no overt issue with their romance, at least nothing explicit enough to be discussed – just an inherent dissonance to the fact of the proposal itself that Kristen can’t or won’t put into words. The three strangers of the title emerge in the midst of this dead zone, this cognitive dissonance, knocking on the door right when Kristen and James retreat to their bedroom for grief-love-making. As such, the strangers personify the dissonance at the heart of the suburban dream, condensing every conceivable antisocial behaviour – vandalism, carjacking, stalking, home invasion and finally murder – over the ensuing night of rampage. To make matters worse, James and Kristen are temporarily staying in James’ father’s house, and are haunted by an older and more distant patriarchal authority. James’ height as a child is written on the walls, and he gradually regresses into his father’s shadow, eventually confessing to Kristen that he lied about hunting with his old man, and can’t even load a gun.
In other words, there is barely a home to invade here in the first place, inducing Bertino to do away with the jump scares that were in vogue in the mid-00s. Jump scares are all about disrupting boundaries, but those boundaries don’t exist to begin with in The Strangers. Rather, the strangers are like an emanation of the house, always already inside it, and so appear quietly and subliminally, before receding again into the background. They don’t exactly enter, or invade, so much as manifest more and more vividly at the threshold of the property – looking in windows, banging at doors, or tampering with objects that regulate the boundaries of the house, such as the fire alarm or mobile phone charger. Their main signature is undoubtedly banging on doors, but it soon becomes indiscernible whether they are attacking inside or outside doors – or attacking the front door from the inside or the outside.
Over time, the strangers start to feel more at home than James and Kristen, whose failed marriage proposal makes them strangers to each other in their own home. In that respect, the film is closer in spirit to a ghost story, in which the strangers come into focus as the true inhabitants of the house, turning Kristen and James into ghosts themselves. Like ghosts, the strangers tend to be scariest when observing the couple curiously, inquisitively, their heads slightly cocked, as if contemplating their own doubles. Hence the strange sympathy between the strangers and James in particular, who often finds them articulating his anxieties and rage in ways he cannot. In one scene, for example, he finds they’ve entered the petal-strewn bedroom that was supposed to consummate the proposal, and scrawled “Killer” on the walls.
Rather than breaking down the boundaries of the house, the strangers thus promulgate a dissonant and diffuse spatiality that quickly becomes the main horror register of the film. Since the strangers are both inside and outside, the film is claustrophobic and agoraphobic at the same time, shifting anamorphically from interiors to exteriors unlike it’s unclear who’s looking in and who’s looking out. In response, Kristen and James gravitate to the threshold of the house, and attempt to restore it, but find it collapsing into a Moebius strip, revealing they’re outside when they think they’re inside, and vice versa. It doesn’t help that they’re at the fringes of the grid, where suburbia meets exurbia, too remote to rely on neighbouring houses (which are still visible) but not remote enough to rely upon a sense of the “outside.”
Bertino embeds this dissonant spatiality into the very fabric of the film, which gradually collapses the analog coordinates of home invasion into a series of digital glitches. The strangers embody these glitches, often doing the same action twice for no discernible reason. We also hear it in the grainy record that plays during most of the opening act, and which becomes the media emblem of the film. Kristen and James put this record on as a throwback to an earlier and more traditional time, in an effort to deal with the heartbreak of the marriage proposal. However, it quickly becomes a source of digital glitch, and even invites the strangers in, skipping and freezing in sympathy with their movements. In doing so, it introduces a slightly grating undercurrent to the film’s images, a tactile immediacy that recalls 00s torture horror and the more visceral import of digital footage. Likewise, the film’s other images and textures, from the granularity of sodium lights to the tinkling of wind chimes, gradually dissociate into a tortuous angularity that operates directly upon the viewer’s skin.
Beyond a certain point, both the house and film become entirely porous, flooded and dissolved by the sodium lights outside, and then by a fire that one of the strangers lights. Couple and strangers now enter into a casual proximity, a shared domesticity. The male stranger wanders slowly through the house, as Kristen walks behind him, adopting the guise of the stranger herself, in an inversion of the opening scenes. Soon after, Kristen slips out of a cupboard as the female stranger contemplates the wedding ring left on the table. Gradually, the couple and strangers converge on the detritus of the failed proposal, until the strangers give the couple the marriage they can never have. For it turns out that the strangers themselves are a family – a bland, smiling, white-faced family according to the masks they wear, and an even more normcore family once they take off those masks in the climactic scene. This family, and the fear of not living up to it, is at the heart of Kristen’s rejection, so only being brutalised by this family can galvanise her into finally accepting James’ proposal.
The filmthus ends with a morbid marriage, as Kristen and James formally declare their love to each other in front of the strangers, who promptly shoot them on the spot. Before they die, they ask the strangers a simple question – “why are you doing this to us?” – and receive an equally simple answer – “because you were home.” Rather than being anomalous invaders, the strangers are integral to the operation of suburbia, to the very notion of being home. They are the disavowed other that must be traversed to conceptualise home in the first place, but at this late stage of suburbia they can only be overcome through death. When they take off their masks, their real mask is normality, since the very fear they generate is the main precondition for suburban normality to begin with. And The Strangers basically ends with that proposition, or frames itself as a austere eighty-minute proposition, grimly insisting that everything that seems to be outside suburbia is what actually comprises it to begin with.
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