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Max Just Added the Creepiest Home Invasion Thriller You Haven’t Seen

The line separating us from evil is fragile.

Three masked killers stand in front of an innocent couple in 'The Strangers'
Universal Pictures
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Most horror movies take place in a heightened version of our world, one where masked murderers stalk babysitters, vengeful ghosts invade people’s dreams, and every small, middle-of-nowhere town is secretly the home of a murderous clan. Horror fans have grown used to taking even the most absurd premises at face value, and there have been plenty of terrifying films where characters experience improbable or impossible circumstances. However, there have also been some horror movies that manage to blur the line between fiction and reality.

The Strangers is one of them. Writer-director Bryan Bertino’s 2008 sleeper hit is, even by horror standards, an incredibly simple movie. It’s a home invasion thriller played with a completely straight face, and its refusal to ever overcomplicate itself is a huge reason why it’s still so effective. A belated prequel, The Strangers: Chapter 1, just hit theaters, which makes it the perfect time to revisit the original film on Max.

The Strangers begins with misleading introductory text that falsely promises it’s inspired by true events and teases the “brutal” night that awaits. This introduction is followed by shots of suburban homes as seen from a passing car’s window, which gives way to an unnerving 911 phone call made by two young boys, accompanied by shots of them walking through a house’s open front door. As one of the boys tells the operator there’s “blood everywhere,” Bertino cuts to close-up shots of a record player still turning, a wedding ring box next to rose petals on the floor, a bloody knife, blood splatter on a wall, and a shotgun resting on a kitchen counter.

These opening minutes set viewers up for a lived-in story of an American couple’s normal night taking a horrifying turn. Throughout its lean 85-minute runtime, The Strangers follows Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) and James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) as they return from a wedding to the latter’s childhood summer home only to find themselves attacked and stalked by three masked home invaders. Along the way, we learn about Kristen and James’ relationship, including that she turned down his wedding proposal just a few hours before The Strangers begins. We’re given just enough information to understand the tension in their relationship, but not so much that the thriller gets lost in melodrama.

The house, like their relationship, feels lived in and familiar. It was clearly built decades ago but doesn’t look old, and it’s full of personal items without being cluttered. These details make it easier to accept The Strangers’ protagonists as completely ordinary people, which makes it all the more unsettling when masked intruders begin to appear in the corners and halls behind Kristen and James. Their comfortable, recognizable domestic space is suddenly invaded by faceless evil, and the first instance of this in particular, in which Bertino uses an unbroken wide shot to show a masked maniac standing in the darkness far behind Kristen, is tremendously chilling.

In The Strangers, danger always seems to lurk just behind you.

Universal Pictures

Bertino doesn’t overplay the moment, or any of The Strangers’ other scary scenes. Even when the film throws out some admittedly ludicrous contrivances, it maintains a level of grounded reality that makes its largely plausible home invasion story seem all the more frightening. The fact that the film refuses to follow the map of a typical Hollywood thriller not only enhances that aspect, but paves the way for a memorable climax.

That scene uses just one line of dialogue to highlight how the only thing that’s ever really separating us from evil, even when we’re in the comfort of our own homes, is a shared sense of moral decency. In doing so, The Strangers doesn’t just make you jump but leaves you unsettled, a far rarer accomplishment in horror.

The Strangers is streaming on Max.

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