Produced on a budget of $9 million and after two postponements, the film was released theatrically in North America on May 30, 2008. It grossed $82.3 million at the box office worldwide. Marketed as "inspired by true events", writer and director Bryan Bertino stated that the film was inspired by a series of break-ins that occurred in his neighborhood as a child, as well as some incidents that occurred during the Manson killings (though website iO9 submits there is lack of legitimacy towards claiming the events are inspired as true). Critical reaction to the film was mixed. It holds a rating of 45% on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 151 reviews. Metacritic reported an average score of 47 out of 100, based on 27 reviews.
The film begins in medias res with a recorded 911 call of a boy screaming that he and his friend found two bodies lying in blood in an old vacation house.
Kristen McKay and James Hoyt arrive at a remote house owned by James's parents after attending a friend's wedding reception. James had proposed to Kristen there, but she refused, saying she wasn't ready to make this big step. James calls his friend Mike to come pick him up in the morning. Shortly after 4 a.m., a young blonde woman, whose face is obscured by low lighting, knocks on the front door asking for Tamara. When told by James and Kristen she is at the wrong house, she asks if they're sure, then leaves.
James leaves to get Kristen cigarettes. Kristen hears another knock on the door; the same woman has returned to ask for Tamara again. Kristen refuses to open up. She hears strange noises, then her cellphone goes missing. As her fear grows, Kristen hears a noise from the back door, grabs a large kitchen knife and opens the curtains to find a man wearing a sack mask staring back at her. Panicked, she hides in the bedroom until James returns. She explains what just transpired and James investigates. He finds his car has been ransacked and the blonde woman, now wearing a doll mask, watching him from afar. His phone has had its battery stolen and he realizes the house has been breached.
The couple attempt to leave in James's car, but a third stranger wearing a pin-up girl's mask drives a truck into his car, totaling it and forcing them to flee. Back in the house, Kristen and James find a shotgun. They go to the front door and set up an ambush, hoping to shoot and kill the strangers. At the same time, Mike arrives early to pick James up and realizes something is wrong after seeing the smashed car. He goes inside to investigate, but James, mistaking him for an intruder, shoots him dead. A devastated James then remembers an old radio transmitter in the backyard shed. He leaves the house where he encounters and attempts to shoot Pin-Up Girl, but the masked man intervenes and knocks him out.
Kristen hears a shot and decides to make a run for the shed. There, she finds the radio and tries to contact someone for help. Before she can, Pin-Up Girl appears and smashes the radio. Kristen rushes back to the house, where she is confronted by Dollface, who is now armed with a knife. The masked man arrives with the captured James and the gun and incapacitates Kristen.
James and Kristen are tied to chairs in the living room. The strangers reveal themselves to the couple (not to the audience) and take turns slowly stabbing them before finally leaving. Two young Mormon boys who are distributing religious tracts come to the house, finding the totaled car and the door open. The boys head into the house and discover the bodies. Kristen, who is still alive, wakes up and screams.
- Liv Tyler as Kristen McKay
- Scott Speedman as James Hoyt
- Kip Weeks as Man in the Mask
- Gemma Ward as Dollface
- Laura Margolis as Pin-Up Girl
- Glenn Howerton as Mike
- Alex Fisher and Peter Clayton-Luce as Mormon boys
Director Bryan Bertino also wrote the film's script, which was originally titled The Faces. Bertino took a particular interest in the horror genre, noting how one can connect to an audience by scaring them. He also stated that he was significantly inspired by thriller films of the 1970s while writing the film.
According to production notes, the film was inspired by true events from director Bryan Bertino's childhood: a stranger came to his home asking for someone who was not there, and Bertino later found out that empty houses in the neighborhood had been broken into that night. In interviews, Bertino stated he was "very impressed" with some of the theories circulating on the Internet about the "true events" the movie is allegedly based on, but said his main inspiration was from the true crime book Helter Skelter; some have said that the film was also inspired by the Keddie Cabin Murders of 1981 that occurred in a small vacation community in California's Sierra Nevada.
The 2006 French film entitled THEM is very similar in plot.
The film received mixed reviews from critics. It holds a rating of 45% on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 151 reviews. Metacritic reported an average score of 47 out of 100, based on 27 reviews. Among the positive reviews, Jeannette Catsoulis of The New York Times said The Strangers is "suspenseful," "highly effective," and "smartly maintain[s] its commitment to tingling creepiness over bludgeoning horror." Michael Rechtshaffen of The Hollywood Reporter called the film a "creepily atmospheric psychological thriller with a death grip on the psychological aspect." James Berardinelli of ReelViews gave the film 3 out of 4 stars, saying that, "This is one of those rare horror movies that concentrates on suspense and terror rather than on gore and a high body count." Scott Tobias of The Onion's A.V. Club said that "as an exercise in controlled mayhem, horror movies don't get much scarier."
Among the moderate to negative reviews, Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film one-and-a-half stars out of four and said, "The movie deserves more stars for its bottom-line craft, but all the craft in the world can't redeem its story." Elizabeth Weitzman of the New York Daily News said that "Bertino does an excellent job building dread" and that the film is "more frightening than the graphic torture scenes in movies like Hostel and Saw," but criticized the "undeveloped protagonists" for being "colossally stupid and frustratingly passive." Stephen Hunter of the Washington Post panned the film, calling it "a fraud from start to finish." Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle, said the film "uses cinema to ends that are objectionable and vile," but admitted that "it does it well, with more than usual skill." Additional positive feedback for the film came from Joblo.com reviewer Berge Garabedian, who praised director Bertino for "building the tension nicely, with lots of silences, creepy voices, jump scares, use of songs and a sharp eye behind the camera, as well as plenty of Steadicam give it all more of a voyeuristic feel." Empire Magazine remarked on the film's retro-style, saying, "Like much recent horror, from the homages of the Grindhouse gang through flat multiplex remakes of drive-in classics, The Strangers looks to the '70s.", and ultimately branded the film as "an effective, scary emotional work-out." Slant Magazine's Nick Schager listed The Strangers as the 9th best film of 2008. Also, the film was ranked #13 on "Bravo's 13 Scarier Movie Moments" television piece.