While my horror-related haul wasn’t as sprawling this Christmas as it was last Christmas, I still received a few terrifying tokens in my stocking this year. Among them, Michael got me the 2005 movie The Strangers starring Liv Tyler. Michael is a considerable Liv Tyler fan but held off on seeing this particular movie for over a decade because it looked too scary. This gift was thus twofold: he bought me the DVD and, bonus, resolved to watch it with me, despite resisting this action repeatedly over the course of our two plus year relationship. While Michael was terrified throughout the whole film, my feathers remained surprisingly unruffled. I do find the film intriguing, however, for its exploration of senseless human malice.
The Strangers is one of the few home invasion horror movies that I’m aware of, a trend that I surmise started with the brutal 1971 thriller Straw Dogs and has remained buoyant in different contexts through movies like the 1990s film Fear and the more contemporary Purge series, which features home invaders on the one night of the year that crime has been legalized in a futuristic, semi-dystopian America. The Strangers starts a lot more simplistically, though with emotional tension, after James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) proposes to his girlfriend, Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler). He prepares for a night of dashing romance but confronts a rejection from a girlfriend who just “isn’t ready.” They brood as they return home from the wedding they were attending, and after James leaves to get Kristen more cigarettes, signs of the home invasion begin.
The movie, while certainly intriguing, had significantly scary scenes but lacked a sort of unnamable essence that would have made it truly terrifying. While individual scenes were unnerving and I very much enjoyed the film, I did not find it consistently frightening (although if you ask Michael, I don’t think he’ll agree). However, certain elements of the movie are indisputably creepy: the home invaders wear unsettling masks that must have inspired the masks in the Purge series, and the chaos begins when a woman whose face is drowned in shadows knocks on the door at 4 a.m. and states that she’s “looking for Tamara.” Frighteningly enough, she comes back later and knocks again, before most of the action happens. Taken together, the scene invokes all the horror one would imagine herself feeling if a persistent stranger knocked on the door at 4 a.m.
Its attempt to be realistic might have been one of the scariest elements of the movie. While there are certain shocking scenes, the invaders aren’t as creative as the whack jobs in Straw Dogs who hang a cat from a tree to foreshadow their series of harassment. The realistic nature of the invasion in The Strangers makes us feel that much less far removed from the event. More notably, the film starts by telling us that the movie is inspired by true events and presents statistics for the prevalence of violent crimes in America, a sure sign that the filmmakers want you quaking under your sheets anticipating a 3:00 a.m. wakeup call from an anonymous murderer days after you watch this movie. And indeed, while the experience of watching the movie wasn’t truly terrifying to me, I imagine its memory will linger long after the initial viewing and might stubbornly infiltrate my active imagination some idle evening at 2 a.m. If the movie delivers any message, it tells us with assurance that we may all be the victims of violent crime, that none of us are safe from human malice.
And the presence of human malice might be what is most fascinating about this film. In a previous post, I wrote about the nature of evil, with a focus on Terry Eagleton’s definition of evil, which posits that the truly evil person commits evil acts for the sake of committing them, with no end in mind. Films like The Purge are terrifying because they take this hypothesis a step further and argue that all of us (or most of us) would commit evil acts if we could do so with no consequences. The Strangers, on the other hand, treats the invaders as malicious anomalies, but it by no means implies that other such anomalies don’t exist. These invaders – unlike many horror entities – are the epitome of Eagleton’s definition of evil, because they wreak havoc on James and Kristen for the sake of hurting them, physically and emotionally, while receiving no additional benefit from their evil acts. Given the slow, methodical way in which they torture James and Kristen before the movie’s climax, it becomes apparent that they want to see their victims suffer, that they seek to incite terror. When the shaking, bloody Kristen asks her tormentors “Why are you doing this to us,” one of the three masked villains succinctly answers “Because you were home.” The message is resoundingly clear: these three invaders have no motives except to do harm. Significantly, they steal no jewels or money during the invasion, despite their multiple opportunities to swipe Kristen’s diamond engagement ring. They commit evil for the sake of committing it with no awareness or interest in the monetary reward they may accrue through their violence.
Home invasion movies are a startling reminder of our own vulnerability. Someone need not have any motive – be it personal or financial – for hurting us. We may all be, at some time, the victims of an unexpected attack. Just as in The Walking Dead other people become more a danger to the group of survivors than the zombies, so movies like The Stranger suggest that what humans may do to other humans is scarier and more malevolent than anything an imaginary ghost or vampire could do. And what’s scarier still in The Strangers is the complete lack of motivation behind the action, the sheer desire to, as the Joker in The Dark Knight puts it “watch the world burn.”
What becomes interesting to ponder in this film is: how does a group become evil? It is easy to conceive of an evil person – someone who wants to commit malicious deeds for the sake of doing so (although more often than not, there is an ulterior motive behind this desire). But how do three such people who desire to incite violence and harm for no reason, no financial gain, find each other? Likely, even in 2005, someone could have put out a Craigslist ad entitled “Evil woman looking for evil friends.” But save some weird internet society, how else could these people have found one another? Were they a small cult? Part of a cult? Was one group member able to spread his or her malevolence to the other group members? If so, we may take another frightening message from this film: evil is contagious. This is especially supportable if we look at cults in American history that have committed atrocious deeds. One evil person often can and does spread his evil to others.
But the element of mystery behind the invaders is, I think, one of the greatest strengths of the film. We never learn the names of the three home invaders. We see them from many angles and often with masks on, but we never see their faces. And we know nothing about their origin, nothing about their history or their plans for future invasions. Just as the “it” in It Follows remains enigmatically unexplained, so these invaders have no motive, no identity, and no history. In their lack of identity, they are likely to stand for malevolence and evil itself. At the end of the film, they pile into a beat up Ford truck and drive off nonchalantly, as if it were just another night on the town.
See The Strangers, by all means, but if you don’t have a security system installed in your house, be ready to invest in one after you see the movie. I’m not completely joking when I say I’m considering it. The Strangers, in which three people descend on a house just for the sake of being malevolent, will leave you wondering why people do what they do. You’ll be pondering such a question, that is, when you aren’t awake at 2 a.m., fretting an unexpected home invasion.