By Alex Smith
Below is the continuation of my brief exploration into the home invasion narrative. Here, I focus on film. I mentioned in my interview with Jonathan Raab that The Strangers had a major impact on me, which I discuss in a bit more detail here.
Again, here’s to hoping that you might find something of interest on this list.
Straw Dogs (1971) – dir. Sam Pekinpah
It wasn’t until HIVE was in its nth revision that I noticed the stunning similarities with Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs. A couple move to the UK countryside to build a home for themselves. Dustin Hoffman plays a mathematician. Mild-mannered, humble, and a man of the mind, his lack of physicality and cerebral nature become a target for the jibes and bullying of the locals working on his house—one of whom is his wife’s ex-boyfriend.
Brit Eklund plays Hoffman’s wife. She is more at peace with the local way of life, this being her childhood home. Eklund has a difficult role to play. As Hoffman’s mathematician is driven over the edge by the locals, Eklund is infected by the pressured violence and masculinity of her old friends. That her rape takes on tones of seduction as it progresses and is surrounded by a controversy I won’t engage with here. It is a difficult scene to watch, and locked in to the themes of cuckoldry, toughness, and the menace and trauma of sexual assault that Peckinpah explores here.
I would argue that the home invasion in this film begins early on in the film, long before the first broken window and feverishly locked door. The invasion plays on the pressure points within this couple’s relationship, which brings the power, dread, and insanity that make this film so painful and so memorable.
The Strangers (2008) – dir. Bryan Bertino
While The Strangers seems to have lived a quiet life following its release (no sequels, no hubbub), it had a profound effect on me. It was a year after watching The Strangers that I wrote an outline to a short story called “Closed Circuit” which, years later, would become HIVE. Not since Open Water had I wanted so much for a couple to make it in a horror movie.
James and Kristen arrive at an isolated (of course) cabin following a friend’s wedding. The beginning of the film plays out as a hyper-realistic break up, divinely capturing the exhaustion one feels on the heels of a relationship-ending argument.
The love is there, but the minds haven’t met. As such, the two exist in different dimensions yet inhabit the same room. Unlike a similar lovingly written car-ride and epic argument in Yates’ Revolutionary Road, there is no hateful cynicism to this relationship. Nor is either character right or wrong, here. They just are.
This is what makes the subsequent invasion by nihilistic kids on a rampage so dreadful to watch, and leaves you hoping that these two people will battle their way to survival.
Dead Calm (1989) – dir. Philip Noyce
Easily one of the more chilling, jaw-clenching selections, Dead Calm expertly generates that lead-in-the-stomach feeling and holds it from start to finish. On my surface-level researcher in preparing to comment on Calm, I found that not only is it based on a novel of the same name by Charles Williams, and an incomplete film adaptation entitled The Deep was developed and partially shot by Orson Welles in 1969.
Nicole Kidman and Sam Neil play a couple sailing the world in mournful silence following the loss of their son. They encounter a sinking ship on the open waters and offer to help her sole inhabitant, a psychotic Billy Zane in his best performance on screen. Zane kidnaps Kidman, who must play into his delusions of romance in order to survive, while Neil battles against drowning, struggling to free himself from Zane’s sinking ship and help his wife.
The invasion occurs early and successfully here, casting off the Home Alone-style defending segment and veering into an unwanted guest narrative, but I couldn’t neglect to mention it. As I mentioned in my review of The Invitation, trauma can set a powerful precedent in a narrative and drive it into another stratum of tension. Dead Calm delivers this in spades.
The Collector (2009) – dir. Marcus Dunstan
I saw The Collector in theaters because although there was “nothing good out,” I still wanted to sit in a dark cave and escape my own thoughts. I think I’d even read a semi-positive review of the movie prior to attending, though I was beyond skeptical of its supposed quality. I was beyond pleasantly surprised, however, as director Marcus Dunstan and producer Patrick Melton gave me something same-y yet exceedingly different with the movie.
Arkin, a cat burglar and father down on his luck, breaks into the suburban home of the Chase family looking for the score that will win his daughter back. But the Collector, a suitably menacing leather-faced amateur entomologist, has also picked this home to exploit, creating a series of Saw-like booby traps to toy with his prey. What sets this film apart is Arkin. Not only are there unwitting, decently-drawn suburbanites under attack in this film. There is a thief with abilities predisposing him to hold his own against an invading menace.
For the first time in a long time, I was also curious about the titular character. I didn’t care so much about his backstory or his end goal, but his insect-like movements, his posture and gait. Juan Fernández’s Collector is one of the subtler, creepier masked slasher performances I’ve ever witnessed.
Alex Smith is the author of the urban home invasion story HIVE, published by Muzzleland Press.