Off-the-grid getaways are a great idea until your first night removed from civilization; usually, the realization that you’re miles away from the nearest podunk cop station and left to your own meager devices arrives in the early morning hours, when a creak or a thud or, dear god, not a knock at the door… jars you from a deep slumber. The next few seconds are excruciating. What if that noise isn’t just the house “shifting” or some nocturnal animal rustling after some prey? What if it’s… something else? And what if it gets closer? Shit, what if it’s already in the room?
Bryan Bertino’s debut feature, The Strangers, is in love with the simple terror of those malevolent forces that go bump in the night. Even better, in the classic John Carpenter tradition, it gets off on letting you see what its dramatis personae cannot. Check out that poster to the right. Think you can handle ninety minutes of that? Because, after a slow, thoughtful build, that’s exactly what Bertino brings until the closing credits.
The plot is very simple: a young couple (Scott Speedman and Liv Tyler) head out to the country for a romantic getaway, only to be confronted by an unwanted visitor at four in the morning. Though they assure the confused party that they’ve happened upon the wrong house, they don’t quite go away. In fact, they come back with reinforcements. And while there’s no rhyme or reason to their relentless home invasion, their endgame seems to be “You’re not going to live to see the dawn.”
Bertino, who also wrote the screenplay, isn’t trying to revolutionize this hoary formula; he’s just determined to carry it off with a little panache and an attention to character that’s generally been frowned upon since the slasher film craze of the 1980s. Though The Strangers is plenty brutal, it’s not excessively gory in the tradition of the Saw movies or, worse, the recent, batshit-insane French splatter flicks like Frontière(s) or Inside (both of which I liked, but… damn). It’s a quiet movie with a tragic undercurrent; it also gives you a genuine human rooting interest (as opposed to a giddy escalation of jugular chomping wrong).
And, like so many modern day horror flicks, it’s desperate to evoke the moody aesthetic of 1970s cinema, which is why I just had to start Mr. Bertino off with this question…
Q: Did you ever consider going out to John Larroquette for the opening narration?
Bryan Bertino: You know, I definitely thought about it, but then I realized it’d be too much. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is definitely my favorite horror film. Being from Texas, I’ve seen it so many times at high school parties and as a first date movie, so I thought about it to myself for, like, a second. But didn’t the remake use [Larroquette]?
Q: They did.
Bertino: Yeah, that definitely killed it for me.
Q: But it’s a compliment to your film that as I heard that narration, it put me in the mind of the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The remake never came up.
Bertino: (Laughs) Good. I try not to think about the other one anymore.
Q: You mentioned Texas Chainsaw Massacre as a good first-date movie. How’d that work out for you?
Bertino: Hit or miss. (Laughs) Sometimes you found the right girl.
Q: That’s a good litmus test. But in terms of the violence in your film, there are definitely similarities to Texas Chainsaw Massacre. You’re very good at suggesting brutality without getting overtly gory.
Bertino: I’ve said before that I don’t have a problem with violence. Some of the films from the past few years might’ve gone a bit too far at times, but, for me, I don’t have a problem with seeing violence if it’s done in a certain way. If it’s done to help the story, or if you’re really with the characters… I think that’s why The Strangers really affects people, even though there’s not a lot of violence. [The audience] feels like they’re with these people. I don’t think I was trying to make a commentary on the violence; I don’t think Psycho is an incredibly violent film, but it is an incredibly suspenseful film. I feel like I was maybe trying to play a little more towards that.
Q: You also really take your time setting up the characters. You seem conscious about avoiding dialogue that might read as cliched or expository. Did those opening scenes flow out naturally as you were writing?
Bertino: I started out writing drama before I began writing genre, and I still treat the two as if they’re the same: I want to care about the characters, and I want you to care about James and Kristen even if nobody ever came to the door. My goal with the first act was to make it feel like that first act could’ve played forever, and you still would’ve wanted to know what happened to them. I think that, at times, what’s sad about horror films is that it seems like the lines are an afterthought or just a way to get us to the next scare. So, my hope was that the lines would come out naturally. Even when we were working on set, Liv and Scott and I spent a lot of time rehearsing it, and throwing out lines from time to time. They’d be like, “No, we can do it with our eyes,” or “I could do that with a nod.” Less is more with dialogue. But I appreciate the compliment because I do like to think of myself as a writer who cares about drama more than anything else. And if that drama comes about through fear, even better.
Q: I know it’s hard to think about these things while you’re making a film, but were you conscious of delivering an economical run time? It’s a very terse film.
Bertino: I knew I didn’t want to make a real choppy film. I knew I wanted it to feel like a film that could’ve been shot in 1976 without it being overtly too much, or hammering away that it’s a “throwback” picture. A lot of the films that influenced me were from the 1970s, where things took a little more time to develop. It’s funny, though; as a first-time director, the one thing I think I underestimated was how scary it was going to be early. But in the long term, that helped me because… it allowed the stress that they felt to feel even more real. When it was directing, I’d be like, “Man, I hope it’s going to be scary here, here and here.” I didn’t realize that the moment where the man stands in the doorway behind Liv, people were going to be pretty willing to go wherever I wanted to take them.
Q: That’s such an amazing moment. Actually, I’m glad you brought that up because I wrote on the site about how that shot reminded me of Michael Myers rising up behind Laurie Strode. It sold me, and a lot of our readers, on the film. But when that moment arrived in the film, I found myself wishing that I hadn’t known it existed. Unbeknownst, it probably would’ve sent me into hysterics.
Bertino: (Laughs) You know, it is the thing… I mean, I’m sure you talk to a lot of directors. The marketing landscape has changed so much. The thing that excites me is… a long time ago I was in a college class, and someone asked me what I wanted to do. And I said, “If I can ever be a director, I’d like to direct one really good film.” Everyone’s like, “One good film!?!?” And I said, “No, that’d be great. In five years, if I could just direct [one really good film].” So, five or ten years from today, I would love nothing more than for some fifteen-year-old kid to rent [The Strangers] from a video store or Apple TV or whatever; he won’t even remember the trailer, is my hope. But the way films are marketed now, you definitely have to deal with the fact that some scares are taken away from you. It’s an unfortunate thing, but, at the same time, if it helps people discover a movie they might’ve otherwise skipped over, then I hope the movie overall impacts people.
Q: The good thing is that the intensity of the Strangers’ attacks so overwhelmed me that I quickly forgot about any misgivings I had about the trailer or the poster.
Bertino: Yeah, but I do see your point.
Q: I’ve heard the Keddie Resort murders referenced as a possible inspiration for your story, but a reference to it was recently scrubbed from the film’s Wikipedia page. Is that a connection you’re trying to discourage?
Bertino: No, I think there are a lot of different things that [inspired] the film. When I was thirteen, I lived in a similar-style ranch house. Our street was kind of deserted. Once, me and my sister were left alone, and a group of men walked down the street and knocked on each door; anybody who wasn’t home, they broke into their house. My little sister answered the door when they knocked, and we didn’t find out until the next day – when cops were out in the neighborhood – what had happened. So I thought about the idea: what if Carrie hadn’t gone to the door? Or if we’d gotten there too late, someone could’ve kicked down in the door just randomly. Around that same time, I read Helter Skelter. My dad gave me the book when I was going out to my grandmother’s house. I was literally twelve or thirteen, and I have no idea… (Laughs) I guess it was his idea of a sick joke. He gave me that book as I was going out to stay in a town of 200 in West Texas. I read it, and I remember thinking that I wasn’t fascinated with the Mansons; I was fascinated with how the book painted the picture of the murder night through the little details. So I started thinking about the victims, and how while we learned everything about Manson… many of these victims didn’t know these people were in their house. And what did they do? I thought, “God, I’d really love to tell that story.”
You think about the obituaries you see, stories about, like, a kid killed on the side of the road. It’s easy for us, in hindsight, to look at it and go, “Oh, well [the murderer] was on drugs, and he was arrested two days later.” But a lot of times, the one person who doesn’t know is the person that the crime happened to. I wanted to tell that story. So the film is inspired by a lot of different things and pieces of information, and Universal kind of jumped off on that idea. I like it because… it’s one more step to putting you inside the room.
Q: It’s that idea, the absence of a “why?” that makes the film so unsettling.
Bertino: It was one of the things that I felt most strongly about from the day I wrote the script: I would rather not find out that the house was built over an Indian burial ground. (Laughs) Or that ten years ago, James had run over somebody’s dad. I don’t want to have an excuse so that people can feel safe or that it would never happen to them.
Q: In terms of the on-set dynamic, did you try to keep Liv and Scott separate from Kip, Gemma and Laura?
Bertino: We really didn’t socialize much. It was hard to do too much separation because Florence, South Carolina had eight restaurants. So on a Friday night, there were only so many places to go. I wish I could say, like, “Oh, it was complete, blanketed security, and nobody ever saw anyone,” but I do think for The Strangers and for Liv and Scott… I didn’t have to do too much to separate them. We shot the movie mostly in order, and as the movie progressed, a distance grew; after a while, I noticed The Strangers not hanging out and purposely moving away. Any connection they might’ve had before the masks went on… once they were walking around this giant warehouse in the dark and in those masks, nobody really wanted to stand around them.
Q: This being your first film, how important was it to take a project that placed certain limitations on you, especially in terms of space and camera placement? Did you view this as a way to build your visual vocabulary?
Bertino: As a writer, I tend to write smaller movies. I think of them as mini-epics. You take all of those emotions, and it is a huge story – just in a small space. That way, you can really examine all the little details of their life. Sometimes, in these bigger movies, and especially in the horror genre… it’s too many words. I’d rather have my language limited because I do think at times, the bigger the movie, the less personal – and the greater the chance of audiences not being able to feel like they’re in that space with the characters.
But as a director, I think I certainly benefitted from my first film being something that allowed me to feel like I knew where I was going everyday. I don’t know if I’m capable of jumping into Peter Jackson’s shoes anytime soon; I can’t imagine the idea of having thirty, fifty or 100 locations to deal with. It’s just a difficult thing to pull off.
Q: Do you see yourself staying with the horror genre?
Bertino: I tend to write about pretty dark subject matter in general. And when I start writing dramas, they’re dark dramas. I don’t know what it is; I guess it’s part of my nature. As far as wanting to make sure the characters stand out, and that I have a strong story to tell, and that there’s an inherent drama that makes me care about what’s going on… that matters more than anything. But I do love scary stories. I always have. I think a lot of people don’t love the genre, but I have a lot of respect for it – even to the point where I don’t want to watch certain horror films because I don’t feel they were made with that love. So I can see myself writing horror for a long time.
Q: Is that project that you’re developing for Scott Rudin still going?
Bertino: It’s a script that I wrote for him [called Green Eyes] that he really liked. He has it now, and, just like The Strangers a few years ago, it’s up to the powers that be. But I think it’s a really solid script. I’m proud of it.
Q: Anything particular that you’re moving on to next?
Bertino: I’ve written several scripts in the past six months to a year. There’s a lot of possibilities right now, but I’m a very picky guy. (Laughs) Regardless of how The Strangers, I think of Hollywood as an animal, and what it eats is scripts; so if I can keep writing good stuff, people will hopefully give me the opportunity to do it.
Q: So you’d prefer to direct your own stuff?
Bertino: I lean towards that more, but part of that is that I’ve only made one movie. My first reaction is that unless there’s another script that comes along that I didn’t write that I feel as passionately about, I’ll probably stick to my own stuff.
Q: What other horror films do you look to for inspiration.
I really like The Exorcist. And I love Se7en, actually. Though it’s not
a classic horror film, it’s a horror film that mixes drama really well.
In Cold Blood… especially that second-half… it really captures
something. At the same time, I think A Woman Under the Influence had
just as much to do with how I shot The Strangers as those other movies. (Laughs)
The Strangers hits theaters Friday, May 30th. Check it out.