The Strangers (2008), In Retrospect

If your internet tendencies at all reflect my own, you’ve probably noticed that Google has been serving ads for The Strangers: Prey At Night almost nonstop in anticipation of its quickly approaching March 9 release. And with Prey being the first sequel to an original that came a decade ago, a lot of that advertising seems centered around reminding people what The Strangers OG was about—and then proceeding to introduce an almost entirely new vibe (more on that later).

This advertising, more than anything else, reminded me that I haven’t seen The Strangers—a horror flick that I’ve regularly claimed as a favorite over the past ten years—in… almost ten years. I realized that, like a fond memory, the delight associated with the film was still strong, while the actual details were cloudy, with fuzzy edges and few recallable details.

Well, time to rectify that.

Today, I’m fresh off of a viewing of 2008’s The Strangers, and I’m happy to report that a rewatch only strengthened my remembered delight by sharpening its detail.

The Strangers was director Bryan Bertino’s first film (ever), and how he came about directing it is a story worth telling. In the early 2000s, Bertino was working as a gaffer (lighting guy) on low-budget films by day and writing screenplays by night. Long story short, he was able to sell his The Strangers script to Universal Studios, who later asked him to direct it because their first choice, Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo and a lot of celebrated music videos), had demanded a $40 million budget to make it. LOL.

Bryan Bertino and Liv Tyler in The Strangers (2008)
Bryan Bertino and Liv Tyler in The Strangers (2008)

So, boom—young, lowly gaffer/screenwriter hobbyist is handed $9 million from Universal Studios to make his first movie. Mix in Liv Tyler, veteran cinematographer Peter Sova, and a brief cameo by Dennis from It’s Always Sunny, and we ended up with what I think is a damn fine movie.

Let’s start with genre. The Strangers technically falls into the home invasion subgenre, which is a realm that sometimes breeds a very specific realistic-in-the-icky-way, torture porn-style film that I personally have no interest in whatsoever. The kind of home invasion that I can stomach is the kind that centers around the game—the us vs. them, outside vs. inside, cat-and-mouse game, full of clumsily loaded shotguns, severed phone lines, and watching your one and only getaway vehicle burn in the driveway from behind barely parted curtains.

It’s a kind of film that, when done successfully, is able to illicit a sweaty-handed, edge-of-your-seat need for survival within the pits of its viewers’ stomachs, while simultaneously flooding them with an equally all-consuming and utter hopelessness. This kind of film requires a careful balance of clever writing, compelling acting, and a delicate mix of subtlety and well-timed exclamation in its cinematography—all areas in which The Strangers succeeds.

The first act of the film introduces us to our protagonists, Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman), who we soon learn are living in the awkward aftermath of a freshly rejected marriage proposal. They’re returning to James’s family’s secluded summer house (in the off-season, presumably), which James and his friend Mike (Glenn Howerton) had decorated pre-proposal in anticipation of a very different kind of night.

Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler in The Strangers (2008)
Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler in The Strangers (2008)

James and Kristen quietly wander into the master bedroom to find rose petals resting on every surface and lining a path to the bathroom. A bottle of champagne awaits the hypothetical happy couple in a bucket of mostly melted ice. “Yeah, I don’t know about the tub,” a dejected James breaths, gesturing toward our next shot of a handful of sad-looking petals littered around the drain. “I didn’t know if the roses go in first or after.”

Everything about this introduction is impressive. There is very little dialogue, and the uncertain terseness of what we do get is perfectly and realistically human. Just hours before, Kristen and James were happy—escaping, as lovers do, from a wedding reception crowded with friends to an empty parking lot for what Kristen likely assumed would be a casual romp in the back of the car but what James hoped would bind them together for life. Now, in the summer house decorated for a much brighter reality, everything is different.

Speedman and Tyler expertly play their halves of a fractured couple that, with a single question, went from carefree and in love to two people who no longer know the rules of their relationship—how to look at each other, whether they’re allowed to touch, whether anything will ever feel alright again.

It would’ve also been easy, here, to sour the audience toward Kristen. She, after all, is the one who rejected James, so why should we care if the masked strangers rip her to shreds? But the well-acted, careful writing in this first act makes sure never to cast an unsavory veil over either protagonist. Instead, the viewers feel the unintentional heartbreak of two people who love each other realizing that they’re sadly on different pages, and maybe have been all along.

Glenn Howerton and Kip Weeks in The Strangers (2008)
Glenn Howerton and Kip Weeks in The Strangers (2008)

The second act introduces our masked, murder hobbyist friends through the aforementioned oscillation between well-shot subtlety and exclamation. Everything is set to a deliberate and diegetic soundtrack, courtesy of the living room’s vintage turntable. The camera is often less stable than it could be and tightly frames sections of a full picture at intentionally odd and withholding angles. Luckily, it never devolves into “shaky cam” territory, and we’re left with a film that feels at once more authentic and intimate—as if we’re watching a polished home movie.

There are also a few meaningful moments when tight framing is traded for a wide-angle shot—I’m thinking of the silent reveal that a masked man has joined Kristen inside of the house, specifically—and those conscientious choices consistently read as effective moments of terror.

Equally withholding is our band of antagonists, that—aside from “Is Tamara home?”—remains mostly silent, terrorizing James and Kristen with a delightfully nihilistic brand of indifference. Their apparent lack of motivation is confirmed at the end of the film in a chilling exchange of it’s-already-all-over dialogue that you’d be lying if you said you didn’t love.

Strapped to a chair next to a similarly restrained James, Kristen whispers to the masked but otherwise average-looking trio standing before them, “Why are you doing this to us?” After a slight pause, a voice we recognize from the initial knock at the couples’ door hours before matter-of-factly replies, “Because you were home.”

Liv Tyler in The Strangers (2008)
Liv Tyler in The Strangers (2008)

It’s the perfect confirmation of the meaningless we’ve expected all along, and it’s followed by the mercilessly unrushed plunge of a kitchen knife first into James a couple of times and then into Kristen. The film wraps as it catches up to its own beginning, ending on a jump-scare involving Kristen and one of the Mormon boys. And perhaps I’m in the minority here, but I didn’t find that to be an unpleasant or cheap closer; I appreciated the fun of it after the strenuous hopelessness that the film demanded over its previous hour and fortyish minutes.

Now, as I catch up to my own beginning, I rewatched the trailer for The Strangers: Prey At Night, and I went from not knowing how to feel about it to pretty excited. The first minute or so of the trailer features a lot of callbacks to 2008’s original, while the next minute of the trailer sets up something that feels new and fresh. Prey teases quite a bit more (potentially self-aware) slasher-esque fun than we got from the original, and I think it could end up making for a delightful, if different, sequel.

Different, also, is the majority of the creative team. Though Bertino penned this screenplay, directorial duties for Prey went to Johannes Roberts—a British director responsible for a lot of thrillers and spooky stories that I haven’t ever seen. Likewise, DP duties went from the original’s Peter Sova to Ryan Samul—another person with a robust 45 credits on their IMDb page with which I am also unfamiliar.

Does any of that matter? I have no idea—ask me after March 9. But what it does illustrate to me right now is that The Strangers: Prey At Night is going to attempt to be a worthy, evolutionary sequel to a 10-year-old film that probably was never meant to get one. And I have to admit, I’m a little bit excited about it.

Gemma Ward in The Strangers (2008)
Gemma Ward in The Strangers (2008)
About Carly Smith 17 Articles
Carly is an unapologetically opinionated writer who enjoys long walks on the beach, gazing adoringly at breathtaking sunsets, and consuming all forms of unadulterated, stomach-churning, sweat-inducing horror — the bloodier the better. Hit her up on the Twitter she sometimes uses @snarlyjones.

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