Shades of nihilism are no stranger to the horror genre. The human body is so often manipulated and destroyed in the face of an evil force. However, in the 21st century, a new type of nihilistic cinema was born in France with the New French Extremity. After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the world felt defenseless, and the films within this movement, such as Martyrs and High Tension, depend on the complete destruction of the human body to convey a sense of hopelessness: bad things happen to normal people and it cannot be stopped. But in the US, while there was a rise in torture porn films such as Saw and Hostel, there wasn’t such a pervading sense of nihilism in mainstream American horror cinema.
Enter Bryan Bertino, who burst into the film world in 2008 with his home invasion thriller, The Strangers. With his killers’ reasoning simply being “because you were home,” Bertino established himself as a filmmaker who was not interested in happy endings. Instead, his work encapsulates the deep sense of insecurity that came with post-9/11 America and pervades today. His entire filmography speaks to the futility of humanity trying to gain control over danger and how sometimes terrible things just happen to good people. There is no rhyme or reason as to why Bertino’s characters are targeted. Their horrific fate is nothing but random chance.
The shock of The Strangers during its initial release was particularly centered on that key phrase: “Because you were home.” Kristen (Liv Tyler) and James (Scott Speedman) are staying at his family cottage in the middle of nowhere. As they settle in for the night, they receive loud knocks at the door from a young woman who asks, “Is Tamara home?” This unsettling interaction launches a series of events where three people in masks terrorize the couple for no other reason except for their sick enjoyment. They have no history with Kristen and James and just so happened to choose the house because the couple opened the door. Common courtesy is weaponized as an invitation to kill.
Kristen and James are barely able to inflict injury on the masked assailants. Even when they find a gun or grab a knife, they are unable to ever gain the upper hand against the three strangers. These are not bumbling criminals, but sociopaths who do this for the thrill of the hunt. They know what to expect from a desperate couple trying to save themselves, and they toy with them all night as a sick game. The only goal is pain — they don’t want money or revenge. They just want blood.
This invasion of the domestic space has a close correlation to post-9/11 cinema, as genre film even more explicitly established homes as a place of danger rather than safety. While home invasion was not a new topic, in the 2000s, homes were most often invaded by random strangers rather than monsters or bloodthirsty serial killers. The monsters are the humans themselves, capable of horrific violence.