Welcome, dear readers, to Substream’s 31 Days of Halloween. While every holiday captures the hearts and minds of the Substream staff, Halloween holds an especially important place in our hearts. Now that we’ve entered the month of October, it’s time for us to share our love for this holiday with you.
Every single day in October, our collection of spooky staff writers and ghoulish guest contributors will walk you through a horror or Halloween-themed movie they adore. The goal is to both celebrate the titans and icons of the season while also introducing you to new films and scares to fill your autumn nights. Lock your doors, check under your bed, and settle in as you join Substream for our 31 Days of Halloween.
Day 27: The Strangers (2008)
At the risk of coming off sounding macho or brave, I like to think it takes a lot from a movie for it to leave me afraid.
Yes, I’ve seen my fair share of horror and thrillers and mysteries and gore, many of which have shocked and startled and upset my stomach. I’ve been scared often, but I’d say a select few have truly made me afraid; more than just bobbling my tub of popcorn or using my fingers as shutters in front of my eyes – I mean left with a shiver down my spine even after the lights come back up, looking over my shoulder walking to my car leaving the theater, leaving the tv on while falling asleep. I think you can be alarmed while you’re watching, but if you’re still feeling that dread after the credits, that chill an hour later, or lying in bed that night, or even the next day, that’s when it’s something truly scary.
Written and directed by Bryan Bertino, there have been talks that the film’s “Inspired by True Events” mention is a reference to the Manson-Tate murders and the Keddie Cabin Murders, when it’s actually something much more personal – as a child, living in a secluded neighborhood, there was a knock at the door while his parents were away. The visitor asked for someone who didn’t live there and left. It wasn’t until later that they found out that the group were going around to homes, knocking, and breaking in when there was no answer at the door.
So, what is it that makes The Strangers so scary?
The nothingness throughout the movie is what drives a shiver down your neck and its biggest strength is in its simplicity. From beginning to end, nothing spectacular happens – it is the most-average, run of the mill scenario you could think up – a basic home invasion film, and the longer it plays out, the more horrifying it gets. Because sure, when Freddy is invading your dreams at night or you find yourself in a Jigsaw trap wagering blood in exchange for your freedom, or when Jason dies again and again or your friends and family have their bodies snatched and taken over, it’s scary. But it’s unrealistic.
But what about if it’s just you and your significant other. Just at home, by yourselves, in the middle of the night.
You’re a normal couple.
It’s a normal evening.
Inside a normal house.
In a normal neighborhood.
Then there’s just a seemingly normal knock at the door.
Kristen (Liv Tyler) & James (Scott Speedman) arrive at James’ childhood home late after a wedding and there is noticeable tension between the two. As the early stages of the evening progress, the two begin to reconcile a bit before they are interrupted by a soft yet jarring knock on the front door. A shadowed girl whispers “is Tamara home?” and the couple send her on her way. Rattled, they shut the door and head back inside. Assuming things are back to normal, James heads to the store for a pack of cigarettes for Kristen. While he’s gone, a heavier knock hits the door, and the same voice, steadier and full speaking volume, plainly asks once again “is Tamara home?”There isn’t much more I can give in terms of specifics for purpose of avoiding spoilers, but following the first visit and especially after the second, the night spirals into a dark game of cat-and-mouse with the couple just trying to survive until daylight.
The framing and pacing of the film, as well as how the film itself is shot, are where a bulk of the scares come from. I read recently that not only was it filmed sequentially, but the entire movie was shot on either handheld cameras or steadycams. While that was something I didn’t know for a while or notice, even after many viewings, once I did learn that, it made the effect evident and it makes every scene more tense. Whether it’s a shot aimed at an empty room or framed on a motionless character, it still has that little bit of drag or sway and sets you off-balance. Every shot is always moving. By shooting in-sequence, it helps the dread stay at a peak, and for a movie that takes place over the course of only a few hours, there isn’t much time to allow for a drop.
Obviously with masked characters, you don’t have the benefit of facial expressions to help dictate mood. To overcome that, body language plays a huge role in what makes these characters so threatening and terrifying. Coupled with the way shots are framed and the uses of foreground and background composition, not being able to see the killers’ faces ends up a non-factor.
Along with that, language plays a part in arguably the most terrifying part of the film. Some killers, like Freddy Krueger or Ghostface, talk throughout their movies, dropping cheesy one-liners as they slash their way from one group of coeds to the next. Then, there are the indestructible behemoths like Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees who have been silently, slowly stalking their victims for decades.
With Dollface, Pin-Up Girl, and The Man in the Mask, The Strangers find themselves somewhere in the middle. The first time we encounter one, she is knocking on the front door at four in the morning asking for someone who isn’t there. And then, as their hunt concludes, Kristen pleads “why are you doing this?” to which Dollface calmly, plainly responds:
“Because you were home.”
I’ve watched this movie a few times a year consistently over the past decade and it makes my teeth rattle each and every time.
And lastly, I bring my contribution to this year to a close with what was, the more I think about it, one of the first movies (if not the first movie) that really made me start to appreciate horror. A decade after its release, I still get that cold feeling when the curtains are open at night.
Because for as much as I love a good supernatural ghost story or creatures on the hunt, I don’t know that there’s anything scarier than the thought of what could be happening on the other side of the front door on any given night.
As the tagline says: Lock the door. Pretend you’re safe.
Maybe home isn’t the safe place you thought it was.