‘The Strangers:’ Why a Consistent Atmosphere Matters

It’s a fun experience, revisiting a film you haven’t seen in a long time. Especially one that you haven’t seen since you were younger. When you’re a kid, everything seems to hit harder. Comedy is funnier, horror is scarier, you get the full range of emotions in a much stronger way than I think we do as adults. Granted, we’re also idiots at that age, and we tend to believe passionately in our opinions without any room for nuance. Everything is an extreme, the best or the worst or the coolest. It’s difficult to be objective at an age where you don’t even know what that word means yet.

I saw The Strangers shortly after it was released in 2008, and it terrified me. I had been exposed to horror before at this point, having The Ring and The Grudge both firmly solidified in my brain as some of the most horrific things my cowardly younger self had encountered in life thus far. But that type of horror is fairly in-your-face about what’s supposed to scare you. There might be a fair amount of build-up to get there, but once it’s ready, those kinds of horror movies throw their monsters at you with all the subtlety of a Godzilla movie.

And they were also firmly rooted in the supernatural. As scary as a long-haired Japanese girl crawling out of my TV was as a concept, there was a part of my brain, even at that age where I was probably still dumb enough to believe I could be abducted by Aliens at any given moment, that understood how unlikely to happen it was. It was spine-tingling and nightmare-inducing, sure, but none of that fear was founded in any real sense that it was something I needed to be genuinely concerned about.

But The Strangers was a different beast altogether.

Not content to simply throw its villains in your face and parade them around like the attractions in a carnival haunted house, The Strangers took a much more subdued approach. The titular villains begin to appear early on in the film, quietly and clandestinely. They make scattered appearances in the background of scenes, scenes that are otherwise mundane and unthreatening. The film doesn’t call attention to them either, leaving the viewer to discover them on their own. The effect is immediate: As soon as you notice one of the masked intruders creeping around the corner, unnoticed by the characters in the film, you feel incredible unease. It’s so inherently disturbing, having the threat be on screen with the characters having no idea. You feel like you’ve uncovered some dark secret you aren’t supposed to know. It’s Hitchcock’s lesson about the bomb under the table personified.

Kid me thought that was just about the scariest thing he’d ever seen.

And these weren’t some paranormal or metaphysical monsters, either. The attackers were human, and very, very real. They were ordinary people who only wanted to kill and torture innocent victims, presumably for fun. Psychopaths. The final lines in the film, where our ill-fated heroine asks her torturers why they did this to her, gave me absolute chills: “Because you were home.” This was something that could actually happen. I left The Strangers feeling profoundly colder at the thought that people like that could actually exist. It affected me like no film up until that point really had.

Years go by, and I’m in college now. I’m hanging out with a friend one night, who decidedly doesn’t like most horror, and he suggests we watch The Strangers after seeing it while browsing through Netflix. And it having been about a decade since I’d seen it at this point, I agree. Now, I warn my friend to be wary: This movie is intensely scary, and he should prepare himself. He reluctantly agrees, and we begin the movie.

The first thirty minutes or so are as creepy as I remember, if not more so. The usage of background imagery to conjure scares, showing the audience the villains before the actual character know they’re there such an effective device for delivering suspense and tension. The design of the villains, with their simple burlap masks, is also still deeply, inexplicably unsettling.

So far, so good.

But then, the film hits its halfway point. And man, does it fall apart.

All of the suspense, the tension, the dread of the first half of The Strangers is immediately abandoned in favor of standard slasher clichés. Instead of the creeping terror of a subtle, understated home invasion, we get a borderline Looney Tunes-style run-around, where every character makes the absolute worst decisions possible. Any and all atmosphere that had built up for the first act had completely dissolved by the first hour has gone by, and my friend and I have gone from being spooked to laughing like it’s a sitcom.

Seriously, you could set scenes in this movie to the Benny hill theme, and it wouldn’t be any less ridiculous. In every situation presented to them, they make the completely incorrect choice, to a degree that almost feels like a parody. It’s a film that tries to be grim, grisly, and violent, and instead only feels like a mildly mean-spirited slapstick comedy.

There’s one moment in particular, one caused by a case of mistaken identity that’s supposed to be one of the more heartbreaking and hopeless points in the film, that I couldn’t stop myself from laughing at. And I’m guessing that probably wasn’t the reaction the director was looking for.

It sort of redeems itself by the end, circling back around to the same tone as the opening act. The final scene still works just as well as it did a decade ago, because it rolls back the frantic pace a bit and allows the film to slow down and stew in its own darkness again. The final lines still as chilling as ever, and the film ultimately leaves you feeling hollow inside. This is the tone that the film should have aimed to sustain the whole time, a bleak coldness and despair, rather than a failed attempt at a the amped-up energy of a cat-and-mouse action film. But by this point in its runtime, it’s too little, too late.

It’s a shame that the second and third acts are so uneven. There’s certainly potential there, as the opening and closing moments have some of the most inventively subdued moments of fright I’ve seen in a mainstream horror film since. The Strangers would have worked better as an imitation of something like Halloween, where the slasher elements take place tastefully and carefully in the dark, rather than the kinetic adrenaline rush that it decides to become in its current state. Perhaps rewritten with a larger cast, who gets picked off one by one by the ever present but rarely noticed Strangers, and that can sustain the slow build-up promised by the film’s opening act.

Ultimately, the uneven quality of the film overall cements itself to me as a fairly middling experience. It’s not terrible by any means, but it certainly isn’t the terrifying thrill ride I remember from my childhood. I never saw the sequel Prey at Night, but I’ve heard that it has many of the same faults as its predecessor, so I haven’t felt an overwhelming urge to look into it. Maybe on day I’ll give it a shot, but as of now, I’m fine with just leaving things as they are, with The Strangers being yet another thing from my youth that hasn’t quite lived up to its memory.

Have you seen The Strangers or its sequel? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!

And, as always, Happy Halloween!

One thought on “‘The Strangers:’ Why a Consistent Atmosphere Matters

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s