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James loves Kristen. And he plans to pop the big question right after a friend's wedding reception, then take his new fiancée to his parent's vacation house—already outfitted with sprinkled rose petals and iced champagne—to celebrate. But something goes terribly wrong with his marriage proposal scenario. She says no.
Little does the young couple know that her turning him down will be the highlight of the night. (Did you know that this was a horror movie?)
The troubled couple goes to the isolated vacation house to talk through the future of their relationship. But a booming knock on the front door at 4 a.m. quickly changes the sad subject. A young woman stands on the shadowy front stoop asking for a person they don't know. (It's a little spooky, but you know how crazy these kids are nowadays.) After she leaves, James decides to go out for cigarettes.
By the time he returns, the spookiness—escalated by repeated door pounding and window thumping—has pushed Kristen into terror mode. James thinks it's all in her imagination. But the three people in the creepy masks who smash up his car and drive an ax through the front door soon change his mind.
James and Kristen are willing to put their lives in jeopardy for each other. They both make stupid choices in the heat of the moment, but usually the choices are driven by the desire to help or protect. Before it's all over, Kristen voices her true feelings of love for James.
A print of Eric Enstrom's "Grace" (which depicts an elderly man praying) hangs on the wall in the vacation house. Two young boys hand out pamphlets titled "Christian Living." One of the killers asks for a flyer and the boy asks her, "Are you a sinner?" She replies, "Sometimes."
James and Kristen embrace and kiss. Before they're interrupted, pre-sex undressing involves him reaching beneath her skirt to remove her panties (revealing a bare thigh) and her reaching down to unzip his trousers.
Kristen decides to take a bath to relieve her tension, and James unzips her dress. (We see her back.) In the tub, she's mostly covered by bubbles. Later, the camera spies her in panties and T-shirt as she dresses.
The Strangers begins by ramping up the tension level through the use of loud, violent sounds. But it's not satisfied to leave things there. One of the most visceral moments involves James shooting a man with a shotgun. The blast rips the side of the man's face off, throwing blood and gore on the wall beside him. We're shown a close-up of the ruined face framed by a pool of blood.
Additionally, windows and windshields are smashed, an ax is used to hack up radio equipment and splinter a door, and a car is set on fire. Kristen and James are sliced, buffeted and beaten in their efforts to escape their masked tormentors.
[Spoiler Warning] Minutes before the credits roll, Kristen is thrown into a wall, knocked senseless and dragged down a hallway by her feet—while she rakes the floor with her fingernails for purchase. By then, she and James are both blood-spattered and covered with scrapes and gashes. The killers tie them both to chairs and take turns gruesomely eviscerating them with a carving knife. The grim and bloody aftermath of the masked trio's attack is discovered the next morning by two young boys.
Is it still relevant, then, to mention that we see a tight shot of a nasty cut on Kristen's hand that James wraps in a cloth?
Crude or Profane Language
About 15 f-words. The s-word and "b--ch" are each spit out twice. Jesus' name is abused once.
Drug and Alcohol Content
James opens a bottle of champagne from which he and Kristen drink. Then he drives. Kristen also drinks a beer. And she smokes cigarettes to try to cut through the tension.
Other Negative Elements
In an interview with MoviesOnline, The Strangers writer/director Bryan Bertino said, "I read Helter Skelter when I was like 11. That to me was where I think I first started getting interested in the idea of people just walking into a house that you didn't know. I lived in a house in the middle of nowhere in Texas on this road where you could call out in the middle of the night and nobody would hear you. ... I was scared by that."
It's that childhood fear Bertino grabs by the throat and wrestles into place on the screen. He helps us empathize with the struggles of an average young couple and then turns everything inside out—effectively immersing us, and them, in a creepy world of loud thunderous thumps, irritating noises (such as the skip of a record needle and a single repeating country music phrase) and stark silences. It gets to the point where sounds themselves seem violent.
But then the psychos enter stage right—killers hidden behind soulless, grinning masks who are made more terrible by their seemingly nonchalant attitudes about the gory work at hand—and the violence is no longer imagined. The blood flows. The good die. The wicked walk free. And the director's youthful nightmare makes an unintentionally poignant statement about today's horror movie genre and the bilge water it keeps pumping out.
After their night of butchery, one killer says to her less-seasoned fellow slayer, " It'll be easier next time." Truer words are rarely uttered on celluloid. For isn't that exactly what happens? Murders that were so unbelievably shocking back when a Texas boy read of Charles Manson's gruesome actions are much easier to swallow now after years of being bombarded by such things.
We grow numb. And it somehow gets easier to accept a dark cinematic celebration of unredeemed terror and death as something worth watching and paying money for. We ticket-holding frogs in our about-to-boil pot of water start to accept that this ghastly stuff is entertainment.
At the height of her torturous turn in The Strangers, a blood-smeared Kristen keeps asking, "Why are you doing this to us?" Eventually one of her tormentors blandly replies, "'Cause you were home." Maybe the line should've been, "'Cause you came to the theater."