Regan’s head turning in The Exorcist; Michael Myers emerging from behind the hedges in Halloween; that decapitation in The Omen. Certain scenes will always be morbidly burned into the brains of horror fans. But after the lights go up, and credits roll, audiences return home, safe in the knowledge that their doors are locked. Yet 15 years ago, an all too real nightmare shattered those illusions of safety as audiences met The Strangers, with one scene standing above all others.
Nihilistic, tense, and terrifying, Bryan Bertino’s home invasion horror preyed on a chilling primal fear: What if we’re not alone in the house? Starting on a somber tone with Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James’ (Scott Speedman) failed engagement, the film’s sense of despair continues to spiral downwards as the couple is terrorized by three masked psychopaths.
“I lived in a house that was similar to the one in the film. Very remote, in between towns, and surrounded by fields,” Bertino tells Den of Geek on the eve of the film’s 15th anniversary. “We were the latchkey generation of parents being out and kids left alone. One night when I was eight, my 11-year old sister and I hear a knock on the door. She answered, and these people asked if our parents were home? She lied and said, ‘Oh, my dad’s in the shower.’ We later discovered that they were knocking on doors in the neighborhood and whoever didn’t answer, they would break in. That stuck with me, the randomness of it.”
At the start of The Strangers, audiences are told “what you are about to see is inspired by true events,” and while the director’s haunting experience was the main inspiration, the Tate-La Bianca murders also left their mark on the filmmaker.
“On the Helter Skelter influence, the Manson Family didn’t even meet the people that they thought were actually in the house,” Bertino notes. “That sad and fatal randomness struck me as a recipe for a script but as I was writing, I was interested in a story from the victim’s point-of-view.”
In what can be described as the opposite of a jump scare, the film’s most famous set piece still sends shivers up the spines of viewers as The Man in the Mask quietly observes Tyler’s character from the shadows. As the camera lingers for an uncomfortable amount of time, the tension is drawn out like a razorblade, with Kristen completely unaware that she’s being stalked from the shadows. Fifteen years later, the scene still has the ability to create knots in the stomach and a large reason why is because it makes the audience complicit in the horror that’s about to unfold, because unlike the main character, we know what’s going to happen, which was vital to the director.
“I’ve always said that kitchen scare starts five minutes earlier when Liv wanders around, it just keeps building,” says the director. “It was always a big moment in the script. Everyone has ways of comforting themsleves by saying, ‘Well, I’ve been home all day, there’s no way someone is hiding in the closet.’ But what if there was? What if someone walked in a door that you didn’t hear? What if that feeling behind you really was someone watching you? That moment was confirmation of all those horrific fears and the origin of the idea was from those nights when I was a kid or left alone.”
As the scene unfolds, Kristen isn’t immediately attacked, which only escalates the psychological mind games. Instead this stranger vanishes as quickly as he appears, opting to play a sadistic game of cat and mouse. For the director, patience and studio support was key.
“Coverage for horror is one of the most important aspects, but this is a section of the movie where we didn’t have a lot of coverage. I always envisioned it as a very long, drawn out moment and felt that cutting to a bunch of different shots would have taken away from it. The scare worked in the opposite way that some great jump scares do. For example, in Texas Chain Saw, when you first see Leatherface, it’s very quick and sudden.
Bertino continues, “I’m fortunate that the studio didn’t ask me to make cuts because that’s the kind of stuff that people at the time did not understand. That scene needs patience to pay off because if we just cut to a closeup of Bag Man, it wouldn’t have any impact. You have to let the audience fall into the space, just as Liv did. We pulled out a wall on set, put the camera very far back during filming, and we let it develop like it was a play.”
With a methodical pace and ominous tone, The Strangers excels because there’s a very real sense of dread and horror lurking in every corner. For Bertino, that scene could have been very different after some footage was lost and needed to be reshot, but ultimately, this proved to be a blessing in disguise.
“The number one direction I give in all my movies is ‘slow down.’ In that part of the film, we actually lost a bunch of footage. We shot on film and there was a hair in the gate. We lost sections with Liv sitting around and doing things before that scare. We ended up having to recreate some of the stuff from that part of Liv by herself. That allowed me to insist on more patience and reaffirmed my belief that we shouldn’t be moving quickly at all. Once we nailed that beat, the pacing was always going to pick up and not stop until the end, but there was no desire to rush to that point.”
Cleverly establishing its familiar yet isolated aesthetic right from the very first shot, it’s notable that throughout The Strangers there’s a deliberate lack of background music. In terms of sound and tone, Bertino took inspiration from classics of the genre while actively pushing against another.
“What drew me to horror is my love of drama, mainly American cinema in the ‘70s. I would never put myself at this level, but I wanted to make more of a John Cassavetes film than a typical teen horror. The sound in films like The Mothman Prophecies, The Exorcist, and Texas Chain Saw Massacre was a huge influence on The Strangers because it’s so central to the overall experience.
“With horror, you need all departments to work well. Sound was crucial because a big element of when you get scared is when you start to imagine hearing things, like that bump in the other room which sounds like the loudest thing in the world. I adore Se7en and it’s one of my all-time favorite movies, but I also think it launched us into a genre of super killers with imaginative lairs and vast basements. I wanted The Strangers to feel like they went to Walmart for their masks or used a cloth bag that had some potatoes in it.
Like David Fincher’s classic, Bertino’s film is drenched in nihilism and while horror has traditionally been a genre that innovates, there are still some rules that viewers expect to be followed. Most killers are given a reason to kill and our heroes are usually saved. Not so with The Strangers. Sometimes bad things happen to good people for no reason. That sense of randomness and bleakness is famously captured in the moment when The Strangers are asked why they’re tormenting James and Kristen. “Because you were home,” they reply.
“When I wrote the script, I never knew that would be a line that’s said back to me or become famous in horror circles. What drove me was getting rid of any safety net for the audience or this belief that the main characters had done something to deserve this. That was crucial. I think it’s also a reason why it took a while for any studio to make the film, because we’re all programmed into thinking that killers must have a reason to kill. The Strangers was a very nihilistic way of looking at things, and some people really weren’t okay with the fact this movie doesn’t make you feel good. There’s no sense of victory here, which is something most horror films have.”
Cleverly deciding not to reveal the identity of the three masked psychopaths, the film ends in an intense and grisly finale as the strangers torture and kill their victims. The filmmaker says there was more footage shot for that scene, with potential for an even longer director’s cut.
“That scene was cut down. We got an R-rating not because it was Hostel-level violent but because Liv and Scott’s performances were so gut-wrenching and emotional during that scene. Their performances made it really hard for people to watch. The scene was trimmed down because it was so intense. In some ways, it stopped being a horror movie at that point. It just became this tragic moment between two people who are being stabbed to death, suffering as they watch someone they care about dying.
“If I was going to do anything new with the movie, I would extend that scene because I feel it was such a powerful performance by all the actors. I was blown away and wish more people could see certain elements that were cut out. We definitely shot more, I’m sure it’s on a hard drive somewhere.”
What’s a horror film without a good jump scare? In The Strangers, the best one is saved for the final shot as two young boys wander into the house. As they attempt to revive Kristen’s seemingly dead body, she lets out a blood-curdling scream. This has led some fans to wonder if Tyler’s character survived the horrific ordeal.
“I’ve always imagined it would be very hard to live!” the writer-director confesses. “I mean, she gets stabbed a lot of times!”
While it’s easy to feel safe in knowing that some horror villains can be categorized as vampires, zombies, or other supernatural creatures, the fact that these strangers were three everyday people with no overt motive to kill remains haunting. The horror that unfolded was simply a case of wrong place, wrong time. That gruesome simplicity was an important element for the writer/director.
“I don’t think The Strangers were monsters in the traditional sense of horror villains,” he says, “they were just regular people that did something horrific. To me, that’s much more frightening. The thought that these killers have families and you could be waiting in line at the store with them. Standing in line with someone who has killed someone is more frightening to me than just simply defining people as a ‘monster.’”
Made on a budget of $9 million, the film became a sleeper hit, grossing $82 million at the box office and spawning a sequel in 2018, The Strangers: Prey at Night. For its director, he has a very clear idea why his film resonated with film fans.
“In some ways, it was a different type of slasher movie. Yes, it still had familiar beats and characters with masks, but grounding it in a relationship drama made the film more accessible. In my heart, I think it’s a slasher movie where you care about the victims more. On some level, the ending is a twist too, because you assume the main characters are going to win and fight back. They fact they don’t makes it more painful and shocking, because as an audience, we’re so programmed to think there’s a happy ending. For some people, they go home, lock the doors and feel safe. They don’t want that taken away, but The Strangers did that.”
While Bertino isn’t involved in Renny Harlin’s new trilogy about The Strangers, the director of The Dark and the Wicked does plan on getting behind a camera again very soon.
“The Strangers feels like its own thing now, kind of like an ex-girlfriend that’s off living her life!” he says. “I hope she does well. Right now, I’m busier than I’ve been in a long time. I’m thrilled about what’s to come. Hopefully, I’ll be behind the camera at least twice in the next two years.”