One of the many subgenres of the horror/thriller ilk is the home invasion movie. Its progenitors include many mainstream films not usually lumped in with horror, though they all share the plot and theme of a family home being threatened by villains of all stripes, whose aim is to get inside.
Frank Sinatra, of all people, was a bad guy in 1954’s Suddenly, terrorizing poor James Gleason and Nancy Gates before Sterling Hayden saved the day. It was Humphrey Bogart’s turn to do a number on Frederic March and family in The Desperate Hours (’55), Mickey Rourke doing the same thing to Anthony Hopkins’ household in the 1990 remake. Blind Audrey Hepburn fended off bad guy Alan Arkin and pals in Wait Until Dark (’67), as Dustin Hoffman launched a similar assault in Sam Peckinpah’s brilliant, excruciating Straw Dogs (1971).
And the list quite literally goes on and on. It’s a scary concept and an obviously marketable one, thriving outside the mainstream as well as in the less reputable horror genre-sometimes with surprising results and unexpected quality.
The major difference between these less-conventional types and the more popular, more traditional modes is the absence of a happy ending.
The Open House, which just began its Netflix run, may not be among the best of these, riddled as it is with clichés and unnecessary minor characters, but it did stir me to revisit three earlier, superior films guaranteed to chill the unsuspecting viewer and boost home security systems sales.
First, a brief defense of The Open House-I’ve seen far worse.
Back to the better, the ’06 French film Ils (Them in its U.S. release) is set in Romania; a young elementary school French teacher (Olivia Bonamy) and her novelist husband (Michael Cohen) are besieged by assailants unknown in their creepy country home. Running a brisk one hour, 17 minutes, the film’s suspense is as palpable as the brewing violence is credible.
The mystery of the title characters’ identity is a real shocker; no, I won’t tell. A postscript about the attackers’ motives is equally disturbing, especially since the film’s supposedly based on a true incident. Ils will make you keep the night light on, weapon in hand.
Like Ils, Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers (’08) claims to be based on a real event, though not as specific. Criticized upon its release as exploitative and sadistic, the movie is sadistic and maybe a bit exploitative. Still, it’s effective filmmaking, chilling in its depiction of utterly amoral, nihilistic lead characters.
Arriving at their isolated rural home in the wee hours after a disastrous party gone wrong, a young couple (Scott Speedman, Liv Tyler) become prey of three masked intruders, who toy with them till the dawn. Far more explicit and brutal than Ils, The Strangers has a few scare/jump tactics from standard horror fare, but script, direction and acting are mostly taut and gripping.
As he later did in ’16’s The Monster, writer/director Bertino makes his faceless, anonymous Strangers a metaphor, this time for the random nature of sheer, unmitigated Evil. Near film’s end, the desperate couple ask their stalkers the eternal question: “Why?” One of the girls replies: “Because you were home.”
In a brilliant, unsettling conclusion, the departing torturers cross paths with two young Christian missionaries on bikes; they’ll soon discover the night’s handiwork. It’s a scene guaranteed to give you the shivers, effective and chilling in its simplicity and restraint.
The godfather of this narrow genre is Austrian director Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (’97) which he remade, shot for shot, 10 years later in an English version starring Naomi Watts, Tim Roth and Michael Pitt. I prefer the original German version, since the largely unknown actors look more real than their better-known English cast. Either version is brilliant, terrifying and deeply unsettling.
At their getaway lake house, a couple and their young son open the door to two seemingly harmless young strangers-with predictable results. A major international filmmaker, Haneke clearly intends to thoroughly undermine our preconceptions of traditional plot and movie violence. The killers, for example, break the fourth wall more than once, letting us know that all bets are off this time around.
None of these films is for the weak-hearted. The Strangers alone may be justly accused of exploitation-but just a bit. Either version of Funny Games is a disturbing masterpiece.