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Strangers in the House

The horror of isolation.

12:00 AM, May 30, 2008 • By SONNY BUNCH
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TWO YEARS AGO I wrote a piece in New Atlantis on Japanese horror films, their remakes in America, and the anxieties in the Japanese and American psyches they reflected. The J-Horror genre, I thought, was a critique of technology and tech-connected life, turning everyday devices like televisions and cell phones into conduits of evil: "Unease with the modern world has created a demand for films that portray technology as a growing menace; ever increasing penetration by technology into our lives means that this anxiety will, in all likelihood, be with us--and on the screen--for quite some time."

It pains me to say this, but as far as American horror films go, my thesis was dead wrong. The most recent spate of them--films from the torture-porn genre especially, but others as well--focus more on the helplessness created by isolation and a lack of technology. The sense of helplessness is often exacerbated by failed modern conveniences: a broken-down car, a cell phone that doesn't work. Cabin Fever, the Hostel films, Turistas, The Ruins--these are all movies that play up a feeling of terror inspired by a lack of technology and distance from civilization.

Consider The Strangers, released this week. Purportedly "inspired by true events"--whatever that means; there doesn't seem to be any consensus on just which events "inspired" this movie--The Strangers focuses on Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman), a couple confronted with the horror of a random home invasion/torture/murder. As it opens, the camera's eye heightens our sense of isolation, moving from denser to more sparsely populated areas. Traveling down a road, we see the city, then the suburbs, then an A-frame house surrounded by a white picket fence, then a dilapidated barn and then, finally, we arrive at James's parents' vacation home. The point is clear: We're moving away from the safety of civilization and into the unknown.

As the drama unfolds, it's clear that the isolation isn't limited to the couple's physical distance from society; they are isolated emotionally from each other. Kristen seems to have rejected James's proposal of marriage. As the couple staggers through the night, trying to repair the damage to their relationship, a knock at the door is heard, and the weirdness begins. A trio of unknown assailants begin a relentless assault on James and Kristen and the modern marvels that could save them: They sneak in and dispose of cell phones, dart around the front yard and destroy their Volvo sedan, and smash up a radio that represents the couple's last hope of deliverance.

Neither we nor Kristen and James see the faces of the assailants--which remain concealed behind dime store masks--provoking a feeling of randomness about the crime. And that randomness only adds to our sense of helplessness. As signatories to the social contract, we like to think that, if we behave in a reasonable manner, others will as well; if we don't do wrong to someone, what reason do they have to do wrong to us? When James and Kristen ask the faceless villains why they have attacked them, the reply is chilling: "Because you were home."

If we're not safe in our own home, where are we safe?

Combining the horror of random violent crime with the helplessness of isolation is nothing new. The whole Friday the 13th franchise is based on the same premise. But the mood of those films is lightened by their campy nature. There is no release valve in The Strangers, no relief from its brutality. There's also no moral. Its only point seems to be that bad things can happen at any time, and there's absolutely nothing you can do about it.

As a thriller, The Strangers is effective insofar as it has a number of chest-tightening sequences created by little more than mood, shadows, and figures in the background. It doesn't rely on sharp crescendos in the music or moments of shocking violence to provoke a start in the audience (though a Carrieesque ending feels forced). The little violence there is in The Strangers is methodical and unsurprising--in a way, inevitable. Not to mention gruesome.

The relentless use of the countryside as a site for random crime is a little silly: you're much more likely to be the victim of random violence on a city street than in a vacation home in the woods. But a random mugging is far less terrifying than a random home invasion, and The Strangers certainly succeeds in creating terror.

Sonny Bunch is assistant editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD and blogs at Doublethink Online.