Is THE STRANGERS the Most Effective Horror Movie Since BLAIR WITCH?

Posted by Peter Hall - March 29th 2009 @ 9:21 pm

It wasn’t until this past Saturday that I fully realized just how strong of a film THE STRANGERS (review) is.  Seeing it in theaters elicited seat stirring and all manner of other audible audience discomfort, but seeing it in a home theater was an entirely different experience.

We regularly host movie days and less than twenty four hours ago THE STRANGERS entered the lineup.  Of the 10 people in the room, at least one refused to even watch the movie.  After much coaxing, however, she was at least willing to remain in the room, albeit with her gaze averted most of the time.  What happened next I was not expecting.

Over the years I’ve shown all breed of films at our movie days.  Nothing has come close to grazing the reaction THE STRANGERS got.  [REC] had people literally pulling their hair out, but even it was not as universally effective as Bryan Bertino’s film.  I cannot recall the last time a film merited such discussion.  Not post-coital examination of what worked and why (my crowd could care less to this regard), but full on mid-film murmuring.  It was not out of disinterest in the film.  No, not at all.  Grown men were chattering like school girls in an attempt to diffuse the tension.  Several even pointed this intention out, begging for people to start talking again whenever the home invasion film struck the crowd to silence.  I was reveling in it, proud that a studio picture could work such a number over on a crowd as large and as diversified as those in my basement.

It wasn’t until the picture ended and someone jumped up to turn on the lights that some began to decry the film.  Its moronic test-screening infused last grab for attention, while not a deal killer, was a lame after taste memorable enough to overpower everything that had come before.  Fortunately most were able to acknowledge that the film worked, worked better than they were expecting it too.  I was amazed at how easily two plastic masks and a sack could get under the skin of an entire room full of people.  Why though?

I’m not entirely sure.  Obviously THE STRANGERS taps into a very prescient fear, particularly one for those living in suburbia or, diametrically, relative isolation.  Hell, I think it would work even on the most hardened of city folk (maybe even more).  I posit that it doesn’t matter where you’re from or what you’re experiences are.  THE STRANGERS works so well because it plays into the exact formula of what most expect a horror film to be.  It plays to the rhythm of fear, a rhythm all of our hearts have been indoctrinated to squirm to since childhood, when watching horror at slumber parties was a cross generational, cross cultural experience.  There is a cinematic language of anticipation, a language coded by John Carpenter and carried over through the intervals by other slavish students of the rhythm.

Now the wheel has come around once again.  Not since BLAIR WITCH has a filmmaker exhibited an elite ability to penetrate the imagination of as broad a spectrum as possible.  Not unlike the innovative WITCH, THE STRANGERS is/was an experience that all felt and reacted to simultaneously before reaching a conclusion that could scapegoat the genuine intensity that had come prior.  BLAIR WITCH featured an end that was brilliant and iconic in its defiance to sate the mass crowds need for completion.  On the other hand, THE STRANGERS, while denying a look at the titular killers,  featured a final sequence so moronic that it undercut most of what proceeded.  It is this ending that I think, from a devout standpoint, seals THE STRANGERS as a tampered vision versus the cohesive mystery of BLAIR WITCH.  Never mind my take on the matter, though.  What matters is the general crowd.  The crowd who don’t strike up a horror blog for shits and giggles.  The crowd that want a thrilling distraction from the real world without pondering any of the effort that went into creating it.

To that crowd, I further posit that THE STRANGERS is  the most effective horror movie in just slightly less than a decade.  For the record I do not think that it is, by my measure, the best horror film of the millennium, but it is hard to ignore its pulse pushing power.  Not even THE  RING pulled the pants wetting stunts THE STRANGERS did, a surprise considering THE RING is the only movie I’ve ever walked out of because the audience was too damned raucous (we went back to a later showing when all the 13 year olds would be in bed).  I think [REC] (review) could have pulled  a coup on the American studio system were it not for the subtitles and our nation’s generalized indifference to reading.

Anyone have a better title to take the crown?  I can’t think of one.  I wish I could.

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  1. March 29th, 2009 | 10:07 pm | #1

    Not much I can add to all that. I put The Strangers as my #2 film of the year. I agree with everything you have here, except maybe what you said about the ending… I didn’t have any issue with it. Specifically what tampering did you suspect?

  2. March 29th, 2009 | 10:10 pm | #2

    Have no idea what to say- not a fan of The Strangers. At all.

  3. March 29th, 2009 | 10:29 pm | #3

    I am a big fan of this one as well. I love the fact that the killers never really say anything in the whole movie and you’re never really sure who they are. They’re just there and causing chaos. Slightly reminded me of Funny Games as well.

  4. March 29th, 2009 | 10:55 pm | #4

    Christ, I fucking hated that movie. Its comparable film, Ils, was a billion times better.

  5. randy
    March 30th, 2009 | 12:20 am | #5

    Funny Games.

  6. March 30th, 2009 | 5:17 am | #6

    Corey, I don’t like the jump at the camera gag at all, which has become a studio standard. It should have ended with the two boys crossing the strangers and then walking towards the house.

    Brad, I actually think ILS is a better movie as well, but I still respect that THE STRANGERS appeals to a wider audience than anything in years.

  7. Brian
    March 30th, 2009 | 8:06 am | #7

    ILS is entertaining, but I would suggest that THE STRANGERS is a much more complete film.

    As I mentioned in your earlier review, any movie that causes me to covet firearms in the middle of the night is pretty damn effective.

  8. March 30th, 2009 | 11:08 am | #8

    Peter — you’re quite right. I’d completely forgotten about that tacked on bit at the end… in my mind, I’d re-edited it to end with the boys walking towards the house. Ok, so now I agree with you 100%.

    I loved Funny Games as well (except for the scene that rewound itself), and Ils was ok — but not as powerful as The Strangers.

    The Strangers seems to be a film like Blair Witch (which you wisely compare it to). Blair Witch is either absolutely terrifying… or a really boring 90 minutes of people walking past trees. I’d recommend checking out Eden Lake as well, if this kind of thing works for you…

  9. Birdy
    March 30th, 2009 | 2:10 pm | #9

    To me, the only really effective part of the film was the masked killers. There were other moments that I appreciated, but without those creepy masks and the motiveless crime (something that is far too often given up by those who somehow think that understanding that the motives of a killer having some sort of base in reason or upbringing makes them more terrifying, instead of less)I would have out and out hated the movie. I disliked Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman’s performances, but then I do tend to think of them as one-dimensional actors. They ruined the movie for me, essentially–far more than the cheap ending.

    Of course, I hated the ending to Blair Witch as well. I found it effective to a point, but I will never really be creeped out by what essentially looks like (spoiler) someone peeing in a corner. To me, there is a line where you reach too much obscurity, and they left it in the dust. I didn’t need to see more, really, but just to have a more clearly defined image than the guy in the corner. (end spoiler) I appreciate a film that requires the viewer to think instead of spelling things out. I just don’t appreciate a film that seems to give up.

    …Wow, that was a long reply.

  10. March 30th, 2009 | 3:41 pm | #10

    Yeah, the more time I gave it, the more it grew on me in terms of being an -ideal- nightmare as opposed to a feasible one.

  11. Dave Z.C.
    March 30th, 2009 | 5:13 pm | #11

    I definitely agree with this post. I watch a lot of horror movies, and The Strangers really stuck with me moreso than any I’ve seen in a long while. Honestly, it made me creeped out to be in my house alone for several days. The way the villains are not over-the-top, invulnerable forces like Jason or Michael Myers really makes them hit home. Like you said, it’s not the best horror movie in a long time, but I agree it’s definitely very effective.

    Also, I agree with Corey’s suggestion of EDEN LAKE. I loved that movie.

  12. March 30th, 2009 | 5:23 pm | #12

    Oh, I loved EDEN LAKE. If you’re interested, my review is here. I never got around to publishing my top ten list of 2008, but EDEN LAKE landed in at #3. THE STRANGERS was at #10.

  13. Matt
    March 30th, 2009 | 7:40 pm | #13

    I agree The Others did stick with me. I loved how quite the film was, it added to the tension. I didn’t like the ending either, I like Peters ending better. It was in my top 10 of the year.

    Now let’s talk about Blair Witch. This film holds a special place in my horror heart. I lived in Hagerstown in 98-99 and I can remember the missing posters for the 3 characters all over the place (as far south as Waldorf MD I’ve heard), people talked about the ghost story, the missing kids. Myrick and Sanchez had a stroke of marketing genius…It was far from a perfect film. Heather Donahue’s acting was over the top and the camera made folks nauseous at times…I don’t think the film “gave up” as far as the ending was concerned. If you recall Birdy they set up the standing in the corner early in the film, I felt it was effective. It still gives me the willies 10 years later (Jesus…10 fucking years). Blair Witch wasn’t the best horror film of the millennium…but it is definitely in my top 10.

  14. Matt
    March 30th, 2009 | 7:42 pm | #14

    opps…meant to say I loved how quiet the film was.

  15. Brian
    March 31st, 2009 | 9:19 am | #15

    Matt noticed he misspelled “quiet” but failed to recognize he cited a shitty Nicole Kidman movie instead of THE STRANGERS.

  16. Ripp
    March 31st, 2009 | 3:35 pm | #16

    I still say that movie would have ended in .357 magnum seconds at my house. Roll credits!

    However, being at Peter’s house this last Saturday I can attest to his observations. Just thinking about our friend Tyler’s reaction to the scene where Liv Tyler is standing at the kitchen sink getting a glass of water still cracks me up. First of all it took him a good 20 seconds (in maybe a 25 second shot) to notice the dude w/the sack on his head standing in the background. Second his freak out went something along the lines of: “Ohhhhhhhh god Ahhhhhhhhh*insert high pitched girlie shrill sound here*hhhhhhhhh hahahahahaha”. Priceless.

  17. Matt
    March 31st, 2009 | 4:53 pm | #17

    Brian,

    I have no excuse for that one…none…zip…

    I hang my head in shame.

  18. Birdy
    March 31st, 2009 | 5:21 pm | #18

    They did set up for the ending to Blair Witch earlier in the film, but it still felt like they gave up to me. Maybe it just wasn’t a movie I was meant to like. Although the marketing was genius. I watched the ‘documentary’ on the story about it that came out before the movie. Got me geared up to see it. Maybe that’s why I didn’t like it much–I was expecting to be blown away based on the marketing beforehand.

    The kitchen scene in The Strangers is one of the moments I really liked. It built tension well, and it was believable that Liv Tyler wouldn’t have noticed (partially because she’s pretty wrapped up in herself. Did I mention I don’t like her?).

    Another moment I liked was when they started beating on the door. The pure overwhelming nature of the sound was very effective. After it went off, we scared the pants off of one of the guys that had watched it with us (I saw it in basement movie group set-up as well, though not the one mentioned in the article) by beating on the door to the room he was staying in. It’s probably not a good idea to try and sleep in a house that also holds myself and some of my friends. Especially after watching a horror movie.

  19. May 15th, 2009 | 12:33 pm | #19

    I thoroughly enjoyed the experience of watching this film. I watched it several months back with my flatmate. I consider myself to be quite a hardened horror fan, but this film wormed its way under my skin and refused to budge. There was nervous silence throughout the screening (something that rarely happens) and a few anxious glances exchanged.

    It is most successful in the way it makes you feel unsafe in your own home – what could be more disturbing than that?

    As for that poster…

  20. dawn grove
    May 23rd, 2009 | 9:46 am | #20

    I have just discovered the internet practically and love movies and sharing opinions etc. The Strangers still affects me to this day,almost a year later. Psychological terror is what works best for intelligent thinking people,and it’s been found here.

  21. May 23rd, 2009 | 1:41 pm | #21

    You know what is psychologically terrifying? Somebody who has just discovered the internet.

    No offense.

  22. March 10th, 2011 | 10:36 am | #22

    stranger in our house seemed `scary` at the time- but it isn`t now

  23. Edo
    August 20th, 2011 | 10:56 pm | #23

    The Strangers is one of the scariest movies i saw in a long time..i remember i went with my ex to see it and she was freakin out..its just the fact that it can happen to anybody..thats what scares you and the fact that they dont say a word thro the whole film its scary..this movie will always scare me no mattter how mant times i see it

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