By Landon Evanson
“Why are you doing this to us?”
“Because you were home.”
One of the most cold-blooded lines of dialogue ever uttered was generated by a childhood memory of Bryan Bertino, writer and director of The Strangers (2008).
The story goes that one night there was a rapping at the door of the young Bertino’s home, and the stranger asked for someone who simply wasn’t there. They departed, but Bertino would later discover that other homes in the area had been broken into that night.
The burglars didn’t act because the Bertinos were home.
It was an unsettling moment that stayed with Bertino, and led him to create a film where the protagonists would not be as fortunate.
James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) and Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) experienced unimaginable hell for the very reason the criminals spared Bertino’s family years prior; because they were within the walls of what should have been sanctuary.
A night of stalking and terror at the hands of three masked individuals concluded with Hoyt and McKay side-by-side, tied to chairs, their executioners standing before them.
The scene played out in real time, with no music. The Man in the Mask (Kip Weeks) tilts his head in the direction of Dollface (Gemma Ward) after her inexplicably evil phrase, unable to wrap his hidden head around her reasoning for the impending carnage. McKay pleaded that they didn’t need to go through with it, that she and Hoyt had not seen their faces, to which Dollface removes her mask, sealing their fate.
Hoyt, who had unsuccessfully proposed just hours before, was the first victim. With stabbings paced out, Hoyt’s sounds of prolonged anguish are unendurable, as McKay places her head on his, doing all that she can to offer a loving touch and comfort in a violently inconsolable moment.
We are offered but a glimpse at the first of McKay’s wounds, but as the shot carries outside the home, we hear three more, and are not spared her agonized screams at every piercing.
The slaughter lasts just over three minutes, but feels like an eternity. In a word, to watch the scene is excruciating. It was nearly impossible the first time I laid eyes on it, and in a rarity for horror, it has only gotten more so. Knowledge of what is about to play out on screen is all it takes to cover your eyes, look away, hold your head in your hands or your breath hoping that it’ll just end.
Though difficult to take, and for as odd as it sounds, it’s worth making oneself sit through it at least once, because it serves as an antidote to slasher films and the rock ‘n roll mayhem of Rob Zombie films like The Devil’s Rejects (2005) and 31 (2016). Having one’s life helplessly ripped away is a horrific thing. Death itself is not the worst of the experiences, it’s in knowing that it’s about to happen. That it will be painful. And it will take time.
Bertino experienced something as a child that lingered in his subconscious into adulthood, and utilized it to create a chilling flash of terror that will haunt the memories of those who’ve seen it forever.
For years, I had watched horror films and wondered why we rarely saw real.
Then I saw real.
I don’t want to see real anymore.